NGTI Raw File, National Geographic Traveller India’s monthly series that celebrates travel photography in all its glory, spotlights the craft of photographers, who bring us all those wallpaper-worthy shots. Every month, an accomplished photographer will share a signature photo with us, and give us a rare peek into a special story behind that picture.
Celebrating a medley of an eye, a shutter and a surreal moment—this majestic frame is by Karim Iliya, an award-winning photographer, drone pilot and a whale swimming guide based in Iceland and Hawaii. While growing up in the Middle East and Asia, he developed a curiosity for the natural world which took him into the midst of whales, fiery volcanoes and ice worlds of the Arctic.
Marking the first anniversary of this noteworthy initiative on World Photography Day—in our 11th edition—we bring Karim’s unique perspective, uncovering pristine underwater worlds that very few have the opportunity to see.
In Focus: Karim runs and guides whale swimming trips and ocean safaris around the world. During one such trip in 2018 off the island of Vava’u, in the Kingdom of Tonga, on the last day of the season, when whale sightings are rarely experienced, Iliya and his group came across a mother humpback and her calf. The team quickly slipped into the Pacific, careful not to disturb the pair. Meanwhile, sensing no threat, the mother whale went ahead and descended to the depths while her calf got closer to the squad, to play.
“Like puppies and children, baby whales are not very good at managing their energy. This calf was full of spirit and for over an hour, she excitedly played and breached (jumping out of the water), getting as close to us as it could, sometimes landing less than a metre away,” says Karim. Finally exhausted, the calf rose to the surface for a breath. And it was during its ascent that the moment’s pause to look at Brianna, Karim’s friend, next to it in the water, allowed the photographer to capture an interaction between two very different species.
In Shot: Titled “An Unlikely Encounter”, Iliya’s shot touches upon the concept of how all living beings can be born and raised in different environments and yet, intersections at various points in life can highlight the connect between all things. It is also rare to have a subject such as a person, dolphin, or a coral reef in the still to provide a perspective on scale. One has to stay close to the animal throughout while also ensuring a safe distance, which in turn makes it unpredictable. In fact, the difference of a few nanoseconds can result in an entirely distinct image.
For Karim, this image reveals an emotional connect between humans and nature and the fact that they can co-exist in harmony. He adds, “It is a reminder to not lose sight of our curiosity about the natural world. We often write them off as animals but whales are highly intelligent mammals, capable of communication, kindness, and inquisitiveness. Like people, each whale has its own individual personality and moods.”
Ultimately, this baby humpback whale will mature into one of the biggest animals on the planet. For now, she will feed on milk until she is strong enough to journey back to Antarctica with her mother.
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Vamika Singh is a visual-narrative artist working closely towards exploring gender disparity and social dynamics in the South-Asian culture. You can also find her making music playlists, browsing sneakers and getting profusely attached to non-living things—even a laptop sticker for that matter.