'Living dangerously', Russia's Putin chases whales on high seas
Wielding a crossbow and undeterred by high waves, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin on Wednesday chased whales off Russia's Pacific coast and boasted of the exhilaration of "living dangerously."
The hardman antics -- barely thinkable for any other world leader -- were the latest stunt by Putin this summer as he travels across Russia's Far East on a tour that has given him ample chance to burnish his strongman image.
Dressed in heavy waterproofs, Putin fired arrows from an inflatable boat off the volcanic Kamchatka Peninsula at a grey whale to obtain a skin sample, managing to hit the animal at the fourth attempt.
"There was a real feeling of exhilaration -- I missed three times but hit on the fourth attempt," Putin told reporters after returning to the shore in soaking wet shoes from a trip of several hours that saw the boat buffeted by a rolling surf.
Television pictures showed the whale breaking the surface of the water as the Putin looked on. The skin sample was successfully returned to the shore.
His guide Vladimir Burkanov, a top expert from the Pacific Ocean Institute of Oceanography, dryly commented: "We do not normally work in these conditions. The waves were very high."
The exploits were religiously broadcast on state media and the television showed a curious exchange with a shore-bound journalist who asked the prime minister why he enjoyed such extreme activities.
"I like it. I like our nature. I respect what our scientists do -- what they do is important and useful," said Putin, adding that it was the first time he tried his hand at shooting a crossbow.
"But you understand this is dangerous," objected the journalist.
"Living in general is dangerous," Putin quipped in comments released by his office.
Putin said he was impressed to see the 30-tonne mammal jumping out of the water in front of his boat but would not recommend any other politician have such a close encounter with the nearly extinct animals.
"No need to repeat this," the premier said, dismissing however a teasing suggestion from the reporters that he was afraid of competition.
"I am not afraid of anything," Putin said. "It's just everyone has his hobbies. You need to do what you like."
This week alone, Putin has visited a research station inside the Arctic Circle in the Yakutia region and stood metres (yards) away from a bear munching a fish in Kamchatka.
Unlike some Russian officials, Putin has never shown any interest in hunting and has personally headed efforts to save Russia's most endangered species like the Amur Tiger.
Russia is heading for presidential elections in 2012 and speculation has been buzzing that Putin may be planning a return to the Kremlin after handing over presidency to his protege Dmitry Medvedev in a carefully choreographed election in 2008.
The authorities have been on the defensive over the past weeks as Russia battled its worst ever wildfires amid criticism its leaders were slow to be react.
The opposition accuse Putin of stifling political freedoms and his action-packed travels are seen by many as a gimmick to keep his profile high and remind Russians of his status as the country's most powerful politician.
Medvedev has however also shown he is not averse to a well-chosen photo opportunity, sipping tea the day earlier with Bono, the lead singer of Irish rock group U2.
© 2010 AFP