From Air To Water: How Karim Iliya Began Dancing With Whales

Growing up in the Middle East and Asia, marine photographer, Karim Iliya, certainly had his fair share of diverse cultural exploration. But nothing could have prepared him for what lies beneath the surface after his first encounter with a humpback whale.

“Like birds underwater,” he says, “Mythical creatures like dragons, unicorns, or spirits, and yet they are real.”

I first experienced a baby humpback whale under its mother’s fin. Its face popping up looking at me and my three companions from below, curiously. We smiled and waved, and finally its curiosity was strong, and it approached us,” recounts Iliya of his 2014 memory. “This baby was approximately one-week-old, and 4.5 meters long. It was entirely white, and yet it looked old and wise. It rolled on its back and played with us happily…I’m not an emotional person, but my eyes teared up when a baby humpback first came over to see me.”

Similar to the baby whale’s curiosity, Iliya explains that curiosity is what has continuously driven his work, taking him from Greenland to Kenya to Tonga for which his work has been recognized in National Geographic.

“Curiosity is a huge factor that drives me to try and look at things from a different angle than people normally see it,” he says. “Then it’s just a matter of pushing buttons on a machine, and learning how to make the machine do what you want.”

Although he makes it all sound easy, most would argue that when they see Iliya’s photos, they are a production of raw talent and bravery, particularly now, with his work diving into some of the world’s most untouched waters to search and capture mammals bigger than school buses.

“Every encounter with a humpback whale is completely different and unexpected, but they are the most courteous animals I’ve heard of,” Karim explains. “You can jump in the mix of testosterone filled males battling for mating rights and again and again they’ll be very careful not to bump you.”

When he is not getting up close and personal with the world’s largest creatures, Iliya can be found freediving, windsurfing, flying drones, and shooting photos in the Hawaiian Islands, where he spends six months out of the year. The other half, he is typically traveling internationally on various photo and video projects.

“It’s actually very peaceful to go off the grid for periods of time,” he explains when asked what it is like to work in such extreme environments. “No internet means no emails and you find yourself living in a different world. For me, the most overwhelming place is the home office, where everything comes rushing back in a hurry and there are more emails than I know what to do with.”

In that home office, Iliya compiled his project Dance With Whales, where he takes people through an underwater photography workshop, and swimming with the gentle giants themselves, in Tonga. His ultimate goal is to tell stories, archive, and to create appreciation, as well as awareness, around one of our most important resources—the ocean.

“Nature holds a lot of secrets and inspiration for the technology and medicine we use today. Windmill blades have been inspired by the shape of a humpback whale’s fins, the basic ideas of flight comes from birds, and plants are the basis for much of our medicine,” Iliya believes. “The natural world is an encyclopedia of the world’s greatest knowledge, and when a species go extinct, it is like burning the greatest library that has ever existed.”

“It is a seemingly inaccessible world and people find themselves only briefly at the surface, floating around in the shallows. When people are connected to a place, animal, or form of life, they are far more likely to protect it,” he says.

And thus reflects Iliya’s mission with this project–to inspire small groups of travelers to connect with whales, the ocean and nature, in order to sustain these beautiful beasts into the future.

Currently, Iliya’s trips have availability for mid-August to October 2018 for any adventurer–he reiterates that participants don’t need to be a free diver expert or scuba certified to swim with the whales–an experience so magical and weightless it feels like dancing alongside their harmonies.

“During one of my first experiences swimming with humpbacks, I decided to leave my camera on the boat. Something very different happened. It’s like being with a person and you finally put your phone away and engage in the conversation.”

“Without the barrier and distraction of technology I left the surface and dived down to look at the whale and he responded. He turned and rolled, swam down and moved his long fins slowly all while looking at me, and I did the same, in a way, it felt like a dance.”

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