White whales of Nilma

By Alexandra

1Not far from Kandalaksha (in the local understanding of “not far”, 110km of asphalt and 28 of dirt road), in the village of Nilma, there is a well-known place called Arctic Circle Dive Center (Arktichesky Krug).

Because it is truly well-known if not to say famous, you don’t need to read the stuff below. Go to their site instead, or see many articles in the Internet. Or check out their VK and Facebook groups.

But if you are too lazy to search for info yourself, or are interested in my way of looking at things, then please read the stuff below.

Below is mostly text for reading. Photos will be few and of mediocre quality for several reasons. There are scores of excellent Nilma photos floating around the Net. The most striking ones are perhaps these:

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More photos of the same series >>

These are real photos, untouched by Photoshop. The woman there in sub-zero waters of the Nilma bay in a world free-diving champion Natalia Avseyenko. 

But these photos won’t tell you anything about Nilma and white whales. We, however, wanted to personally inspect everything. In the summer getting out wasn’t easy and, besides, the place is swarmed with tourists. We wanted things to be quiet and tourist-free. And pieces have fallen in place now. The tourist season is over, the kid has school holidays, and two months of polar night are not here yet. So we made a dash to Nilma..

1. To see white whales or to swim with them you need to call or write first. The time depends on when the whales are fed and on the number of tourists. Call or write well ahead of time. Perhaps it works differently in the midst of the tourist season but when I started calling, both numbers indicated on the site responded with cheerful answering machine voices. Only my e-mail got a response (within one day) with real telephone numbers. The moral of the story is not to drop by without making prior arrangements first. During the tourist season you may be out of luck because of crowds, and off-season you may miss feeding times that are also tour times.

2. The road. It is described on the Dive Center’s site in fair detail. Turn east, towards the sea, from the St. Petersburg to Murmansk road at the sign “Polarny Krug 7” (7km to the Arctiic Circle station). All distances indicated assume you are coming from South. Here are the distances looking from the North:

Attention! These are the distances just to the turn off the main road. Then you have to drive 28km down an unpaved forest road. More on it below.
At the same turn there is a seemingly ordinary roadside cafe that I recommend and even suggest you add extra 30 min. to your plans for a stop there. Half an hour, no less, because food is prepared there on order, not just warmed up. I haven’t taken a photo because of poor weather/lighting conditions but there is a photos of it in the internet. From those who stopped there and wrote a response: “Real home cooking with large servings with lots of meat. They also have house pancakes, the best along Russian roads”. Honest to God!
3. From the main road to Nilma. So they said “broken dirt road”. Not a big deal, we’ve seen our share of dirt roads. At the beginning it even appeared much better than described.2
An attempt to photograph this “almost highway” during motion and under rain.
Rain was the first thing we failed to take into account. The road was covered with wet snow when we were leaving Kandalaksha, and future looked bright. It started raining about half way to the turn to “Polarny Krug” and it was really pouring by the time we pulled up to the cafe. That was part of the reason why we ended up in the cafe. We’ve spent 30-40 min. enjoying the cafe, thus spending extra time that careful Pasha always adds to the schedule.So by the time we were done at the cafe we had one hour to get to Nilma and 28km of road of which we’ve been warned that it allows speed of 20-30km/hour, no more.Pasha has magically transformed himself into a race driver and reached the speed of up to 40km/hr. It was pouring. The road got narrower and was winding. Half of it was puddles that, in turn, were half ice. All that was mixed with numerous boulders. Also there were bridges on the road, of which we’ve been warned. We noticed the narrowest of them in the last second and slowed down..3
The 40 min. race left me impressed. The main impression was my body flying around inside the car, and waves of water over the windshield. I also managed to notice that we are going through beautiful country, and signs pointing to Nilma nailed to trees with care at regular intervals along the road. Almost no chance to get lost. But to get into road-related trouble – a lot. Do not repeat our mistake and take the last 28km to Nilma seriously. Allocate extra time. Especially if you are driving a passenger car. We were on a tough old LandRover leaning towards a collective farm tractor and we still just made it..

Among its many services “Arctic Circle” offers transfers from various places.

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Before complaining of prices drive along this road yourself. Your dissatisfaction will quickly decrease. Consider that any little thing gets to Nilma down this road. Then prices for housing and food may not appear so extravagant either.

4. At the place.

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We’ve made it. We were there 20 min. before feeding time. After my doze of adrenaline along the road I was ready to declare that I’ve had my fill of impressions for the day and we can head back. But that would be entirely too foolish. Especially considering that it was no longer pouring, just gently raining.

While waiting to meet the whales I’ve looked around. Even through rain and in the evening twilight it was obvious that the place was very well kept. Perhaps “Polarny Krug” is best set up to receive tourists of all places I’ve seen around here. Given how distant it is from civilization ability to crease such comfort induces respect if not awe.

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Care about the aesthetics of garbage disposal is the best indicator of how well a household is kept.

5. The main attraction

Whale are housed ~500meters from the site with living quarters and service buildings, in the neighbouring bay. The trail is laid with wooden walkways the width and quality of which will generate an envy attack in anyone who’s been to the nature reserve.

The next envy attack was caused by floating walkways (the blue ones on the photo below) for which the aboriginals profusely apologized as for a temporary solution. Wish our temporary solutions were of such quality..

That’s it. An enclosure in water, with a walkway around it. An opening in the handrail on the far side is where white whales are seen, fed, trained, and petted.

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The photos below are of no interest to anyone but me. (Especially in view of the fact that older colleagues recently reprimanded me for making, they say, people look at low-quality photos. I’m not making them!) Even for me they are for the record only.

For good photos, with meaningful descriptions of Beluga whales and all the rest, go elsewhere:

“Polarny Krug” in February >>
“Polarny Krug” in August >>
Snorkeling with whales >>

In our case it was wet and dusk, and from the first photos with a flash whales descended into the depth of waters. We were told not to be concerned about it because while whale’s life in Nilma involves a good amount of tolerance. It would have been a valid argument for me if it wasn’t complete with a bit of info that their iris will not narrow down from the flash and that’s what makes flashes so unpleasant for them. I could not force myself to use the flash. Only the first three shots are with flash; the rest are without.

Now there are two she-whales in Nilma. One is called Varya and the other… I’ve forgotten. Each eats 12 kg of fish daily and weighs 600kg. It is because they are small. Once they grow up they’ll be 2 tons each.

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For now they are just learning tricks. They already know how to retrieve things and “dance”.

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And to make fountains of course ))

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I had to use flash to capture this historic moment. Pasha, with his habit of sticking his hands all over the place, got his hands into the Beluga’s mouth.

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That’s the end of my photos. In addition to weather and flashes I’d need to step back to take good photos, which was not possible under the circumstances.

The girls had their fish and allowed us to pet them.

What was surprising is that they felt like wet cold rubber, and water was ice cold but I wasn’t able to remove myself from the process. These animals are from the other world but close touch is still possible. No words, no facial expressions. Don’t know what it is what made the contact possible. It does not swim away but sticks its face out to be petted, and we can’t remove ourselves from them. This is about the pleasures of Nilma and its additional benefits during the off season. There aren’t many places and times in this world where one can pet white whales all they like.

6. Finally

Finally, we’d like to show how life in the center is organized. Again, this is on their site but here is my description for these too lazy to follow the link.

If you stay in Nilma, they will feed you well and even pour you drinks subject to regulations and prohibitions:

Foreign guests are common in Nilma.

A common room doubles as a lecture hall. There are many educational programs held at Polarny Krug.

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Residential room. These come in different classes. The VIP variety has its own shower and toilet.

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Souvenir shop, info desk, hotel manager’s desk.

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One more small but telling detail..

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We’ve found it cute. Having promised to be back we headed home.

The rain stopped but at 5pm it was total darkness. Ponds of water haven’t disappeared, plus thick fog appeared. My biggest fear in the 28km back to the main road was that we won’t notice that narrow bridge in the dark. But the fact that I’m here to write this shows that Pasha is not only wild as a driver but also attentive.

Those too lazy to read about out questionable adventures and impressions can watch a very short film about Nilma here >>
or a somewhat longer but more informative one about Nilm and Masha, who works with white whales and who introduced us to them >>

For all of the above we wanted to give her our huge thanks but didn’t because Masha was quick to disappear into the darkness. THANK YOU, MASHA!

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