Northern Norway in winter. The sun moves slowly over the horizon and the days are graced with only a few hours of light. But here, every year during this twilight season, an incredible natural spectacle takes place – the Norwegian Arctic becomes the backdrop for tremendous hunting scenes.
The Sjøblomsten, or “Seaflower”, ploughs its way through the ice-cold water. Again and again the bow dives into the foaming sea, spraying salty water over the deck. “Actually, this is quite good weather,” explains the skipper, Per-Gunnar Mikkelsen, in broken English. Nevertheless, most of the passengers have moved into a corner of the ship or are seeking protection below deck. The Sjøblomsten is a former fishing boat and offers plenty of space for passengers to warm up. But the sea is rough and the waves are giving the vessel a battering.
“It’s winter and we are quite a distance above the Arctic Circle. You simply have to expect conditions like this,” says Sven Gust, the leader of the expedition and owner of Northern Explorers A/S. Throughout the year, he organises tours in the Arctic: Greenland, Svalbard, Iceland and this one – a whale safari in the fjords of the Vesterålen, north of the Lofoten Islands in Norway, where orcas, humpbacks and fin whales are gathering to hunt for herring. And we are going to witness this spectacular behaviour.
History of the Hunt
This kind of hunting is not new to Norway: For more than 20 years orcas have been hunting herring in the Tysfjord, south of the Lofoten, and, over the years, a large whalewatching industry grew up around them. But, suddenly, fewer orcas are now coming to the Tysfjord. Why?
The key to everything is the herring: After spawning in spring, in the summer, the population migrates out into the northern Atlantic Ocean, where they lay down their fat reserves for winter. Usually, they would spend the winter in the open Atlantic, but since the herring population was mercilessly overfished in the 1960s, the animals’ winter waters have shifted to the fjords of the Norwegian coast, which probably ensured their survival. In addition, the fishery was eventually regulated, so that the herring is sustainably protected and stocks have now recovered.
But there was another problem at Tysfjord: Huge numbers of fish can reduce the water’s oxygen content, causing the fish to suffocate in the small fjords, and posing a risk to local salmon farms. In January 2013 a huge shoal of herring led to a dramatic drop in the oxygen content and caused 250,000 salmon to perish within a few hours.
So, once again, the herring changed their wintering grounds, moving further north around the city of Andenes, between the islands of Senja and Andoya, where the fjord is wider and the small fjords nearby provide better shelter. But here the orcas are not the only predators: humpback and fin whales are joining in. “We don’t yet know why the larger whales are coming here as well. They clearly avoided the Tysfjord a few years ago,” says French-born Eve Jourdain, who has taken up residence in Andenes to study the whales. “The orcas specifically control reefs in the area in order to hunt there,” explains Jourdain, “and we try to document them every year in order to understand the animals better.”
Up Close and Personal
Using photo IDs, Eve tries to match the animals with those she has seen in previous years. Individuals can be identified through the greyish patch just below their dorsal fin, which is as unique as a human fingerprint.
But it is not only the whales’ migrations that are being explored, but also behaviours that are still not fully understood, like slapping the surface with their tails. Observations suggest that, among other things, the whales use this as a warning to approaching boats when they get too close.
Knowing when to approach the animals and when not to is a major factor in Northern Explorers’ well-run tours: Sven Gust wants to get his guests as close to the animals as possible, which can mean a long wait. This is why he offers maximum comfort on board the Sjøblomsten. “We serve warm tea, in a heated cabin, while it’s very cold on the rubber boats of other providers,” says Gust. Everything has its advantages and disadvantages: The manoeuvrable rafts can cover long distances in a matter of minutes, reaching the action very quickly. The fishing boat is slower, but can offer its guests protection from the elements, and patience increases the chance of having exciting encounters.
Traits, Tactics, Techniques and Treats
But, however it happens, once the whales are found, all the effort is quickly forgotten. Then the challenge is getting a good look at them – not so easy when the orcas are chasing the herring, often at a depth of around 80 metres in the middle of the fjord. Yet, if they herd the fish towards the surface, the action becomes clearly visible, with fish jumping out of the water in fear. But there is no escape; the orcas, skilfully coordinating their attacks, stun the herring with their tail flukes, leaving the prey motionless in the water.
Unlike the orcas, the humpback and fin whales adopt a different strategy. They look for a denser shoal and then swim through the swarm with their mouths wide open. They can devour several hundred kilos of fish with one attack, for which the orcas would have to put in significantly more effort.
These hunts only last for about 15 to 30 minutes and everything has to happen very quickly if you want to observe the animals underwater. The best opportunities are when the hunters push their prey towards the coastline. There, they can control the school in a restricted area, where the fish cannot disappear into the depths and the hunts can take place over several hours. Now, guests can get into their drysuits and approach the animals slowly in the dinghy in order not to disturb them.
Seeing an eight-metre-long adult male orca is something very special. “Madness! As the male slowly swam next to me, I could see exactly how he looked at me!” says Michael excitedly after snorkelling. Orcas can’t actually see very well underwater, processing the environment visually using broad variations in brightness.
One theory suggests that this is why they have big black and white patches along their sides, so that the animals can identify each other.
Seen from above or below, the orca is very well camouflaged. Orcas don’t have any natural enem
ies. They only seem to avoid pilot whales, as they occur in larger groups and probably scare away the orcas with their extremely high noise levels. Orcas adapt their communication depending on the species they hunt: If they are after seals, they need to be as silent as possible as other mammals are disturbed by their clicking noises, but when they are hunting fish, they are very noisy. “It’s an indescribable feeling, listening to the orcas hunt,” says Torsten. “To be so close to the action is something special.”
But Nature rarely delivers according to our plans, and the exact time and place of a hunt is difficult to predict. The Arctic weather can also throw a spanner in the works, with especially windy days forcing a break ashore. This is not always the worst option, as, despite the short days, the Norwegian winter landscape is beautiful, and, under cloudless skies, with sufficient solar wind, the famous Northern Lights can be observed in all their ethereal magnificence.
“The tour here is sometimes rough,” warns Gust, “but for this we are rewarded with spectacular encounters only comparable with those in British Columbia in Canada. But here you can get into the water with the animals.”
It is worth grabbing the opportunity to witness this fantastic natural phenomenon, now, because who knows when the herring will once again change their winter habitat, and the search will begin again?
Tobias Friedrich is a professional underwater photographer living in Germany. His images have been published in over 30 different magazines and online news sites, and honoured in a number of underwater photography competitions. He has also written a book titled Underwater Photography that is available through Amazon in both English and German. Tobias leads expeditions and workshops around the world that are open to anyone. www.BELOW-SURFACE.com
This article featured in SD OCEAN PLANET “Edgy & Extreme” and was both written and photographed by Tobias Friedrich