My name is Alex, I'm a marine biologist, a diver and a photographer. For the past few years, I've been the Head of the Divers' Team at the White Sea Biological Station in Russia's Far North. I dive in icy waters, love exploring the weird creatures that live there and show them to the world for everyone's enjoyment. My work has been featured (among many other places) in Time Magazine and Wired. You can read more about me here. To be honest, I wish I didn't have to leave the water at all, I love it there! You can have a look at my photos on Flickr

My latest project is called Aquatilis Expedition. An amazing team of superheroes has joined me for it. Together, we'll explore the world's oceans for three years, discovering the weirdest creatures that live in the deep and sharing our discoveries with the world.

I'll be happy to answer any questions about my past, present or future projects. Or anything else really!

Here's my proof pic.

EDIT [18:30 EST]: Thanks for the great response everyone, please keep your questions coming! It's 02:30 AM in Moscow at the moment, so let's pick this up tomorrow! Have a look at Aquatilis Expedition's crowdfunding page if you haven't yet.

Comments: 118 • Responses: 38  • Date: 

alef_tina11 karma

Do you pee on jellyfish stinges?

alex_semenov13 karma

Only when the sting is on someone else!

alef_tina4 karma

And what you do when you are stinged?

alex_semenov20 karma

Suffer in silence.

arvernien8 karma

Now you have a dream - the expedition. Do you have another dream to make come true when this one will be done?

alex_semenov15 karma

I’m sure that once this dream comes true, I’ll start a new chapter of my life. I’m pretty sure my values will change quite a lot. So it’s difficult to say what I’ll dream of in five years – a family home, with a nice workshop and a bunch of kids, an awesome submarine that could reach the bottom of the Marianna Trench, a new expedition to Antarctica, or maybe being finally rescued from the Somalian pirates who captured me and getting a new bionic leg to replace the one I lost during my travels. Fuck knows, really. Let’s pick this up in five years?

amalgamka8 karma

How do you maintain such an awesome beard?

alex_semenov11 karma

Just love!

evildoctorspuds8 karma

What was the most difficult thing for you to photograph the way that you wanted?

alex_semenov26 karma

A Sea Angel hunting. The problem is that nobody knows what you feel at other side of the camera when make a photo, so for me the most amazing photograph is a hunting Sea Angel (Clione limacina). It’s a unique creature, planktonic pteropod mollusk, who lost its shell in the evolution process and become a swimmer. When the Sea Angel hunts, his head divides on two parts and those hooks pull out. All this process lasts for seconds, and the Angel swims with a crazy speed, but I shot it. So, technically, I think it’s my most amazing photo.

GreenCardMe2 karma

whoa. is that bio luminescent?

awesome

alex_semenov2 karma

Nope, not this one. This effect of inner glow is due to scattering of light inside the translucent body.

rssm7 karma

What's the most interesting/frightening animal you've ever seen underwater?

alex_semenov32 karma

When a Giant Octopus attacked me in the Sea of Japan it was pretty scary. It was an Enteroctopus dofleni which can grow up to 6 meters. I was taking pictures of beautiful sea stars and I felt that I couldn’t move my leg. I looked down and saw a huge red octopus climbing up on my leg. Maybe I hit him or something, but he looked pretty angry. I was pretty scared, so the only decision I could make was to hit him with my free leg. After a few kicks he fell down. When my buddy saw him, he pointed to me that he want to communicate with this monster. When he got close, the octopus jumped on him like "facehugger" from "Alien" movie. But he was an experienced Japan sea diver, so he took this guy's tentacles and turned him to show me. I was lucky to make a photo. It was pretty emotional!

SwiftPrecision6 karma

I'm assuming since you're a marine biologist you're pretty well up to date on the time of marine animals that are out in the ocean, have you ever seen something and just been completely bewildered to what it was?

alex_semenov18 karma

I worked on the Great Barrier Reef this summer and saw a really strange and unfamiliar thing. When we were going up to the surface and I was almost out of air in my tank, I noticed something bright blue. It was almost blinding, but tiny at the same time. Anyway, I headed back into the deep to find out what it is. These tiny bright stars got away with unbelievable speed! Every time I chased one, it got away. And every time I headed up, gutted and risking decompression sickness. It remained a mystery to me. Then I found an article about this mysterious animal. Somebody even made a video! It’s much brighter in real life, of course. It has a beautiful name too – Sapphirina. It’s fucking awesome!

intermerda16 karma

How do you deal with hostile species? What happens if a shark suddenly decides to attack you?

alex_semenov21 karma

Sharks are really just swimming dinosaurs! Their brains are tiny and function mostly on reflexes and perfected pre-programmed behaviour. If you know what a shark usually does before it attacks, you can prepare for it. You take off your BCD, for example and turn the tank towards the shark. That’ll prevent it from biting you. Really though, if sharks are aggressive, you should be just carefully ending you dive. If you’re diving in dangerous locations, you should use a shark shield – a special stick that you can poke in the shark’s nose. They don’t attack often though and they’re really predictable. Mammals, like leopards, for example, are much more dangerous and clever.

seismicor6 karma

Have you ever thought about eating the creature you have just taken a photo of?

alex_semenov9 karma

Giant squids are pretty cool. Once, I ate one.

arvernien6 karma

Where did you get this awesome octopus hoodie???? This black&white one. Which site?))

alex_semenov6 karma

I got it here

Tigromol5 karma

Alex, glad to see you doing AMA. What is the most dumbest underwater creature you know?

alex_semenov20 karma

This one

Tigromol5 karma

What will you do if you find a giant underwater creatures previously unknown to science?

alex_semenov17 karma

I’ll probably jizz in my dry suit to begin with. Then I’ll photograph it from every angle and try to get a piece of it to put in a test tube (if I have one with me). Then I’ll probably jizz some more. Nah, actually, that’d be really cool. Encountering something you haven’t seen before is awesome in itself.

Yevig5 karma

Do you ever plan to have a "tour" (ie series of lectures) of sorts educating folk all over the world about the wonders of the Sea? It is a rather selfish question, since Im your old groupmate from Moscow State now residing in the US (guess which one), hoping that you'd stop by here some day :)

alex_semenov8 karma

Привет, Женька!

Yes, we're planning a series of lectures during our expedition. You can read more about it here.

asstatine5 karma

How do you suggest society advances to living in the ocean while not damaging their ecosystem?

alex_semenov8 karma

At the moment, there’s 7 billion of us and we’re not really able to completely destroy the 29% of the planet’s surface that we inhabit. Actually, we live on an even smaller part of the world, but that’s beside the point. I think screwing up 71% of the world’s surface would be a challenge for us all!

Only a few of us will survive in the Ocean though: the Smokers’ tanker ship and Kevin Costner peeing on a tiny tomato plant come to mind…

texasguy9115 karma

1) How many cameras/equipment have you flooded?

2) How difficult/expensive it is to get/buy equipment in Russia, say, vs USA?

3) How do you find funds for expensive equipment? Do you do more with less, perhaps?

Privet zemlikam!

alex_semenov2 karma

Привет!

1) How many cameras/equipment have you flooded?

By some miracle, I haven’t flooded a single camera. The water did get into the box about 7 times in total throughout my career though. Once, it was so bad that my macro lens was submerged in about a glassful of water. It still works though! Also, one time the camera went to the bottom of the sea without me in tow – it slipped when someone handed it to me from the boat. Finding it wasn’t easy!

2) How difficult/expensive it is to get/buy equipment in Russia, say, vs USA?

It’s pretty much the same all over, really. In general, the equipment I use is pretty expensive, so a difference of, say, $300 doesn’t really matter. Japanese and European boxes are more expensive in the States, American boxes are more expensive in Russia, but the difference is minor.

3) How do you find funds for expensive equipment? Do you do more with less, perhaps?

Scientific grants. I work at the Moscow State University Biological Station and we spend a couple of grants we received on photo equipment. We bought our diving equipment in the same way. But there are ways to make great things with simpler equipment. One of the first good photos I took was made with a Canon 400D and some crappy lens. And it’s still one of my bestsellers: http://clione.ru/wp-content/uploads/2013/07/Clione-limacina.jpg

SwiftPrecision5 karma

Have you ever thought, "that's it, I'm dead" because of a situation you were in while in the water?

alex_semenov12 karma

Several times, actually. Here’s a story that comes to mind… I had to collect some scientific specimens that could be found only in a tiny space on the sea floor. We didn’t quite reach that tiny space, to I got to the surface and asked the team to tug me 150 meters to my destination. They tied me up by the tank and started slowly tugging me. I could only hear the motor, so I didn’t hear that the water pushed the demand valve on my tank. Anyway, I ran out of air, but the tubes had about two breaths’ worth remaining. So I took those two breaths and went to the sea floor. When I reached the bottom, I breathed out… and couldn’t breathe in again. I was a bit surprised, so I checked the pressure gauge. It read “0”. I check the computer, which said I was 15 meters down. I looked up sadly and started swimming. I really thought “that’s it!” Swimming up 15 meters in fins is pretty tough! But I managed somehow.

morya4_ok4 karma

What do you like to do after your dive in cold water?

alex_semenov8 karma

Banya, followed by a huge mug of tea and cognac (50/50). And then doing nothing much for two-three hours, talking about this and that with friends. You can’t really do anything else after a frozen water dive, your brain is frozen.

typhical4 karma

How and why did you become a polar underwater photographer? (PUWPH)

alex_semenov13 karma

I was born in the family of biologists, so from my childhood I was surrounded by hundreds of books about nature, oceans and animals. But my real interest came when I went underwater for the first time. It was in my 3rd year of uni, so I was 19 years old. It was at the White sea, at the biological station where I work as the head of divers’ team now. I got my first camera in 2007 and started photographing sea life two months later, but only in the laboratory. In 2008 I got my first underwater camera. When I first began to experiment with sea life photography I tried shooting small invertebrates just for fun with an old dslr camera and without any professional lights or lenses. I collected the invertebrates under water and then I’ve shot them in the lab. After two or three months of failure after failure I ended up with a few good pictures, which I showed to the crew. I was inspired to buy a semi-professional camera complete with underwater housing and strobes. Thus I spent the next field season trying to shoot the same creatures, but this time in their environment. It was much more difficult, and I spent another two months without any significant results. But when you’re working at something every day, you inevitably get a lot of experience. Eventually I began to get interesting photos — one or two from each dive. Now after 6 years of practice I get a few good shots almost every time I dive but I still have a lot of things that need to be mastered in underwater photography!

ICouldSlapMyself2 karma

Doesn't the cold give you a splitting headache?

alex_semenov1 karma

Sometimes. From time to time. It depends on overall health or hangover.

april_new4 karma

are your girlfriend jealous you of gelata?

alex_semenov8 karma

I'm not sure, but sometimes I come home from work and she's like "are those jellyfish stings on your back?! AGAIN?"

fergeek3 karma

What is your favorite camera?

alex_semenov7 karma

The Nikon D800e. But actually, my underwater kit consists of a Canon 5dm2 + Zeiss 21mm wide-angle. But I was in absolute awe of the Nikon. A photo I made using it actually made it into Nature magazine’s Photos of the Year collection. Here it is.

Ornate_Giant3 karma

Hello Alexander.

I hope this does not arrive too late, I was regrettably unaware of this AMA so am a bit late, but hopefully you'll revisit this tomorrow.

Completely separate but simultaneous to yourself I ended up creating a small series focused on abstractions of starfish (Asteroidea), much like your images of Mithrodia clavigera through to Asterias rubens (page 2-page 3 on your flickr), which I didn't become aware of until after I had finished my series. It's fantastic to be able to get in touch with someone who's images you admire!
I can't even begin to fathom how exciting the Aquatilis Expedition promises to be.

If I may, I have a few questions. What do you consider yourself primarily, marine biologist, diver or photographer? Is there a core part of yourself that the other two assist in feeding or would you consider yourself all three equally?

How important would you say the crowdfunding effort is to realise the Aquatilus Expedition?

What was your big break into the underwater photographic world, and would there be any way you could recommend someone following in your footsteps to achieve the same?

Could you share a bit about your lab setup for photographing specimens?

Is the focus on invertebrates and small animals your personal choice or simply driven by the lack of any abundance of large animals in the waters your most often dive?

I've got a million more questions but I'll leave it here for now. If(/when) you happen to reach New Zealand and need an assistant/bed/beer, I heartily volunteer to show you around.

alex_semenov4 karma

Heya! Great to hear from you!

What do you consider yourself primarily, marine biologist, diver or photographer? Is there a core part of yourself that the other two assist in feeding or would you consider yourself all three equally?

The simple answer is that all three things are equally important. They just come together very well. Photography allows me to be a "modern naturalist" and does not just tell stories, but also to illustrate aquatic life with colourful pictures and minute details. Modern digital photo equipment allows you to reach incredible image quality, we couldn’t even dream of it 10 years ago! And the ability to capture not only the general appearance and artistic shots for competitions and galleries, but also entire lifecycles of species - their growth, hunting and feeding, reproduction and behaviour - it's just a gift from the progress to the scientific world. We don't need a pencil anymore! My goal is also to mix art and scientific illustration. I'm sure that we can nurture an interest for from beautifully illustrated books, films and interesting stories. That's why popular science is so important. I can hardly imagine a kid who is interested in reading articles about molecular phylogeny with black&white graphics and formulas. So I'm trying to make beautiful pictures that will fit in any scientific article or educational book as well as in art gallery. Sometimes I succeed in it, but it's not easy.

Diving just makes all of this easier, since you get an incredible variety of scientific subjects you can study. If also helps that my education focused on the subject of my photos. So, really, as I said – it all comes together.

How important would you say the crowdfunding effort is to realise the Aquatilus Expedition?

We’d love to collect a lot of funding and become the world’s first independent scientific expedition, one that people really want to see and follow. We’re sure that’s possible, provided we reach a sufficient amount of people. But really, the most important part of our crowdfunding effort is to see how many people take an interest in our project. We’re not doing it just for ourselves, but for all the curious and clever people out there, for all the children and young adults who want to achieve something wonderful in their lives. It’d be great if Aquatilis sparked the interest not of 100 or 1000 people, but of thousands and maybe even tens of thousands of people. That’d be a very significant achievement. If it affects the monetary component of the crowdfunding campaign, it would be absolutely fantastic, of course.

What was your big break into the underwater photographic world, and would there be any way you could recommend someone following in your footsteps to achieve the same?

I talked about my path into underwater photography somewhere else in this thread. It was a series of events that just came together very well. I can give some advice though – the most important thing is to keep learning and keep moving. You can’t let yourself think “that’s it, I’m a professional, I know how to do everything”. For three years, I took photos with practically no results, I didn’t make any money from it. I can more or less do it now, after 7 years of practice, but I know I have to keep making progress. I want more photos and I want them to be better and more interesting!

Could you share a bit about your lab setup for photographing specimens?

It’s nothing complex, really. It’s just a mollusc or a worm in a petri dish. I put two strobes right onto the table next to it and put the petri dish itself on a piece of matte black paper or plastic. The camera is radiosynched to the strobes. That’s it really. You just point the camera perpendicularly to the water level and shoot away. I usually don’t use a tripod or anything. I shoot in manual mode with 1/200s exposure, aperture f13, ISO 100. The light on the strobes is manual as well.

Is the focus on invertebrates and small animals your personal choice or simply driven by the lack of any abundance of large animals in the waters your most often dive?

Actually, I take photos of everything. It’s just that invertebrates, especially transparent plankton are THE real challenge for a photographer. It’s just so complicated to do that I find myself really taken and interested in making the best possible photo I can. Also, after shooting things like that, it becomes really easy to take great pictures of anything else. It’s great practice and gives you some good experience.

I’ll remember what you said about New Zealand and especially about the beer!

Monolithx863 karma

Hi Alex! Your photography is absolutely amazing! I just followed you on Flickr...

Anyways, my question: How would you suggest an amateur photographer such as myself get into some of the amazing fields (or oceans :P) you work in?

alex_semenov3 karma

It’s all about dreaming and doing really. There’s a really simple way to achieve anything: you take a dream and turn it into a goal, then you take the goal and split it into stages, then you split the stages into steps and the steps into actionable things. And then you act a certain amount of times per specific time frame. That’s it! Good luck!

Lina_083 karma

Hi! Thank you for doing this, I find your work really inspiring! I've got four questions if that's OK : * Do you wish every person knew something in particular in relation to the ocean? If so, what would that be and why? * Do you have any tips to maintain a good diving attitude? That is, although immersed in the amazing and peaceful marine environment, not forgetting about savety & being ready for anything. * Anything you wish you had known at the end of your undergrad studies? * Is there a specific field in biology you would like to see expanding?

alex_semenov3 karma

1) That it’s a parallel universe that we know virtually nothing about! You don’t need to go to outer space to find something truly awesome.

2) It’s enough to save one person from drowing to be alert all the time. I’ve saved two.

3) That I’d be going out with a different girl!

4) I would like to see naturalism re-emerging as a field of study. I think biology, like all other academic subjects, is getting highly specialized. Scientists today have a brilliant understanding of very narrow, specific fields. I’d love to see a more holistic approach. I don’t mean going back to the 19th century and having people walk around with notebooks, drawing plants. But rather using the most contemporary technology to observe the world that we inhabit. In short – observational biology.

cwazydragon3 karma

Have you had many experiences with deep ocean creatures?

alex_semenov1 karma

No, I can go down for 45-50m, but not deeper. It's a job for ROV.

april_new3 karma

hi! what do you think about your science perspectives in russia? don't you think to move work and live somewhere else?

alex_semenov7 karma

I see scientific prospects without political borders. I don’t work as a scientist in a research institute. My position is called “lead engineer”, I’m the Head of the Divers’ Team and just a contemporary naturalist, really. At the same time, I collaborate with scientists all over the world. And the photos of underwater life I take get featured in both Russian and international publications. I see potential for collaboration with leading research institutes and experts all over the world. The data I collect doesn’t have a geotag attached to Russia or any other country.

mopeygoff3 karma

How is diving different in cold water vs warm water? I've been a certified SCUBA diver for 20+ years and the coldest I've ever dove was around 40degs off Puget Sound in Washington State.

edit ..I mean in terms of preparation, things to look out for, etc -- not in terms of acquatic life.

alex_semenov9 karma

First of all, it’s the weight of the equipment. It’s bloody heavy, I tell you. Just the weight belt is 18 kg of lead. In total, the equipment weighs about 60 kg. We’re far off from technical divers, but if you dive with 60 kilos on you for 4 months every day, it gets pretty exhausting. After you do that for a while and then go dive in warm waters it really feels like you have nothing on!

The second thing is controlling the equipment. When you have three-fingered gloves on, which are made out of 9mm neoprene, it’s difficult to manage all the dials and knobs on the cameras. All the scientific probes, little shovels and collecting samples… all these things are the polar diver’s nightmare! When you get used to it, you could really fix clocks in mittens!

And then there’s the temperature. First you feel it in your hands. After 25-40 minutes you can’t feel your fingers. Then you head and your brain freezes. You can’t really think straight anymore. You need about 2-3 hours after a winter dive to be able to do anything else!

caughtaspider3 karma

Have you ever had sexual thoughts about jellyfish?

alex_semenov2 karma

All the time! Tried once, you will never forget. No other creature can't give you such sensations.

Tigromol3 karma

How will you deal with Somali pirates?

alex_semenov3 karma

Probably by taking an armed caravan along. There’s this wonderful service, it’s like a procession of war ships. Yachts get into a gang of sorts and pass through dangerous waters together. A security ship accompanies them. It costs some money, of course, but it’s pretty safe. We’ll sail a long way off the coast of Somalia, actually, because we have a very interesting diving spot planned in the middle of the Indian Ocean. It’s called Saya de Malha.

seismicor3 karma

Seriously asked: Have you ever seen USO?

alex_semenov4 karma

Yup. The USO was a plastic bag though. But I did get excited and got my camera out!

reedsposer222 karma

What was your scariest underwater experience?

Have you ever had the bends, if so how does it feel? Thanks

alex_semenov8 karma

I haven't had the bends, but I've had cutaneous decompression sickness before. It was pretty itchy.

[deleted]2 karma

[deleted]

alex_semenov9 karma

I had to dive in the Sea of Japan at night once. I was diving right near the shore, at the depth of two meters, so I was completely alone, without support either underwater with me, or on the shore. At one point, my torch lit up a small jelly that was a mere 5 cm from my face – the only part of my body which wasn’t covered. It was a clinging jellyfish (Gonionemus vertens). It’s a type of jelly you can only touch twice in your life, super-poisonous. When a person touches it the first time, he gets a temperature of 40 degrees and terrible nausea. The second time you touch it, you get an anaphylactic shock. Well, to be honest, at that point I learned how to swim backwards and ended my dive at that! No photo, sorry!

seatitan2 karma

holy crap! youre exactly everything i want my career to be. how did you become so successful? also, do you have any tips for a beginner photographer?

alex_semenov2 karma

I just really love doing what I do. It’s not work for me, it’s my life. I just blew off everything else and re-focused on taking photos underwater and going places to do that. For three years I didn’t make any money at all from it and had to take on various side projects, from wedding photography to digging as a manual labourer. After three years, I got a pretty decent amount of photos that I could show people without embarrassment. So I started submitting them to photo banks, magazines and serious online galleries. It took another three years to really get going after that. So get ready for no feedback for 2-3 years. And if you don’t really love doing what you do, that lack of positive feedback will really take away any desire to continue doing it. Because your motivation has to come from within. Also – give what you love everything you’ve got. Set the bar high and always think how you can do better. There is no upper limit, so there are no ends to how far you can go!

iamnotmerkel1 karma

What do you like more? Summer or winter?

alex_semenov1 karma

Summer at the Arctic Circle is short, but less snowy. I love summer.

kutovy1 karma

Why IndieGoGo instead of Kickstarter? I mean your campaign at http://igg.me/at/aquatilis/x/7277396

alex_semenov1 karma

Because of taxes. We will loose almost half of funds raised with Kickstarter.

Komskies1 karma

What was it like playing with Alex Ovechkin? Are you dissappointed now that you are in Carolina? You guys have a pretty young team so I wouldn't be surprised if you had a better season than Washington next year.

alex_semenov3 karma

Carolina?

NotThisTimeDave0 karma

[deleted]

alex_semenov2 karma