National Geographic Winner Karim Iliya Shows Us How He Dances With Whales

Nature constantly shows off its viciousness, its power, and its beauty to us with no days off. Deep in the majestic oceans of our planet live some of the most enigmatic creatures and evidence of life. Lebanese-American photographer Karim Iliya dares to venture into the deep abyss, where most have never been. Driven with patience, devotion, and brimmed with passion for nature, he graciously captures what we only dream of. Spending four years in Abu Dhabi, UAE, and four years in Bahrain, Karim is a globetrotter that has shown us how our efforts must be indispensable to cherish and safeguard our little blue planet.

Karim Iliya has proven to be an impressive time-stopper, leaving us his pictures to speak for themselves. He has repeatedly outdone himself over and over. Armed only with a lens and a wetsuit, his photographs have appeared numerous times on prestigious platforms globally, and earned himself the following awards and features:

2015-2016: HIPA (Hamdan Bin Mohamed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum International Photography Awards)2nd place, General category

2016: National Geographic2 page publication in the magazine

2017: National Geographic Nature photographer of the year1st place landscape

2018: Hasselblad Masters – Wildlife category winner

2021: Underwater Photographer of the year – marine conservation photographer of the year, and behavior category winner

Karim shared with us his journey in dancing with whales, and of the magnetic bond that nature forms with us if we let it.

How did you start out as a whale photographer?

I started by photographing other animals underwater in Hawaii such as turtles and dolphins. The more time I spend in the water, the more my interest grew in photographing larger species like humpbacks, blue whales, orcas, and sperm whales. I finally made my way to Tonga to get in the water and photograph humpbacks. These days I run trips to take people swimming with humpback whales. Now, much of my efforts go into photographing the lives of whales.

What’s the feeling you get as you’re swimming alongside these magnificent creatures?

You feel very small and humble. Imagine a lizard next to you. This is about the size difference between a human and a blue whale. They are living giants, and yet they are often curious enough to come look at you. Humpback whale calves will sometimes come within arms reach, looking into your eyes while they roll around and play. Despite their size, they are gentle with humans. I have been in the water while whales were fighting, and yet they took care to avoid hurting me. Underwater, without the tug of gravity, you can move in all directions, like an astronaut, and interact with animals that seem to fly. We are so lucky to live on a planet with so many wonderful animals, and must do everything we can to keep it this way.

Besides underwater life, what kinds of photos do you enjoy capturing the most?

Anything where I am photographing the beauty of nature. I am fascinated by volcanoes, one of the most powerful forces on earth. There is nothing like standing in front of an exploding volcano, as molten lava covers a landscape. It feels like you have entered through the gates of hell. But while it is destructive, it is also a creative force. The islands of Hawaii were made from volcanoes, and over time the lava turns into fertile soil and life flourishes.

I also love to photograph animals in the wild. Large apex predators like tigers, lions, bears, and wolves. These are often misunderstood and feared animals that are responsible for keeping our planet healthy and keep the rest of the ecosystem in balance. Next on my list are polar bears, snow leopards, and black panthers in India.

Karim Iliya currently resides in Hawaii, and continues to organize underwater trips where he guides others on whale diving. His exploration of the vast and exhilarating blue world we share with these elegant and harmonious creatures reminds us how much vitality nature has yet to share with us. In a seemingly chaotic world, delving into the blue with Karim is the transition we need to enter a mode of tranquility.

Via Karim Photography

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