Having a Whale of a Time in Norway

Gemma Bradley

13 Dec 2017

NWS Gemma travels to Norway's far north in search of whales

Heading beyond the Arctic Circle to Norway’s frigid northern coast, NWS Gemma is on the trail of orcas and humpback whales, which are known to frequent these shores when hunting massive shoals of herring. Footage from recent episodes of Blue Planet II showed massive feeding frenzies sparked by these fish. During the course of her trip, Gemma will be taking to the water and speaking to two of the series’ videographers to gain a better understanding of what it’s like to share the seas with these magnificent mammals.

The photos in this blogpost were taken on our previous safaris to Norway.

Day 1

After arriving in Tromsø I was met by Maztec (Maz) and introduced to the other members of our group, Una and Arash. Soon after Felix came bounding towards us and I knew this was going to be a fab group! We were then told that the whales had moved to Skjervøy, which is three hours further north of Tromsø. No luxury at Tromvik Lodge for us and no sauna or hot tubs for this intrepid team! Instead we stopped at a tiny shop to get some snacks and breakfast stuff for the days ahead. £4 for a loaf of bread - yikes! On the way we were lucky enough to spot those unmistakeable green shimmers in the sky, the Northern Lights. It was very handy having a professional photographer with us when we saw those gorgeous illuminations dancing in the sky! Eventually they got brighter and brighter and we stopped at a construction site to get out and have a closer look. We eventually arrived in Skjervøy and got to our fishing hut to move into our humble home for the next seven nights!

Day 2

Waking up at 7:30am in the fishing hut, Una and I got into our dry suits up to our waists, strapped our headlamps on and trekked over to our boat, where we found Ode the captain fast asleep! The boys were late getting to the ship, but it was still pitch-black when they arrived. As it got lighter we set sail for a local fjord, with snow falling the whole time. Fishing boats had their nets out while larger ships were coming in to suck up all the herring, with orcas catching the fish which fell from the nets. My dry suit was too big at the wrists and I had to be duct-taped inside! The ship is great, but dry suits aren’t designed for toilet breaks…

Soon around 100 orca were all around us, and our guide Maz was shouting at everyone to jump in the sea and be prepared. I had two amazing dips in the water – an orca and its calf swam right by me! We also saw a huge humpback whale from the deck of the boat as ships continued to plumb the waters in search of herring. We began to sail back at around 2pm; around an hour later, it was pitch-black.

Back at the hut, Una and I drank hot water as we’d yet to procure any tea or coffee, but we did manage to pop round the boys’ hut for tea and biscuits later. We also managed to fit in a spot of shopping in Skjervøy, despite there only being two stores here. It’s a very quaint town, with stars and fairy lights everywhere. It was curried fish and chips for dinner, then a trip to the boys’ hut to meet Mark Sharman and watch footage from the Blue Planet II episode he helped to shoot. Then it was back to our hut to dry out all of our equipment for the next day!

Day 3

Today I got up once again at 7:30am and boarded our boat. The temperature had dropped and the sea was very choppy. We all felt a little green around the gills and huddled inside the warm cabin to try and get over the seasickness. After about two hours of sailing around and seeing not a sausage we decided to head back, as the daylight was against us....

Luckily, on the way home we came across a fishing boat drawing in herring, and we were suddenly surrounded by orca and also a huge humpback! The boys in the group decided it was time to jump in the icy cold water, but us girls decided to see what was happening topside. We were not disappointed! There are pods of orca swimming round the ship, gliding in and out of the waves. Our humpback shows us his flute and then slashes down impressively into the icy, grey water. We stay for as long as the light lets us before heading back into the bay to our beautiful winter wonderland!

Stripping out of our dry suits we get ready to meet the fishermen that tipped us off with the nets on Day 1. We travel to the Hotel Miriam where we meet them with the rest of the group. They are kind and chatty with the little English they speak. We thank them for giving us the tip for the best day of the season and proceed to eat a traditional Norwegian-style dinner of fish soup. Patrick Dykstra, one of our specialist safari guides and another Blue Planet videographer, puts on footage from the shooting of Blue Planet which shows him and Mark diving under a huge fishing boat to catch the underwater orca behaviour. This was incredible and the lighting was fantastic due to the big fishing rig!

Day 4

We left at 9am today as the boat was so rough and rocky yesterday. We were all looking out for birds as these would lead us to the herring, and then the orca. There was also an opening in the sky, showing a beautiful sunrise. We quickly found some fishing boats and pods of orca feeding from them, and before long two humpbacks arrived as well! The waves were crashing against the boat and the snow and sleet was really hammering down!

Tonight we had an informal chat with a Norwegian orca survey team, who study the whales’ behaviour. They study their eating patterns, travel routes and the particular tail-slaps which they use to stun herring. By documenting the orcas’ fins and saddle patches, they can even tell individuals apart. We were also told a story about an orca getting stuck in a fishermen’s net during a hunt, after which the rest of the pod stopped chasing the herring and tried to free the trapped orca from the net; unfortunately, their efforts weren’t enough, and the orca died. The team went on to talk about their tagging of orcas, and their contributions to the footage used in Blue Planet II. They also study how old orcas live for, with the best current estimate being around 75 for females and 65 for males.

We also watched some of Pat’s drone footage, and you can the big male orcas doing a non-enthusiastic “pre-slap” when hunting the herring ball... This behaviour has not been scientifically explained, so we discuss possible theories: are they teaching young calves how to tail-slap themselves, or maybe tricking the herring into thinking they’ve been spared so they don’t expect a second, much more forceful slap? Whatever the case, it’s been really fascinating to talk about the orcas with people who know so much about them, and be lucky enough to witness some as yet undescribed behaviour!

Day 5

Today we wake up at 7:30am to meet the team at 8:30am, as we are heading out to find a herring trawler whose crew were going to bring their nets in, meaning we may get a fantastic day of orca sightings! As we ascend our daily rock climb up the cliff to get to the ship we can see that the boys are late again.... however we do have Patrick onboard with us today as he has finished shooting with Mark for National Geographic’s upcoming Hostile Planet series, as well as their own show that they are hoping to get commissioned: In the Wake of Giants. We set sail with our trusty skipper Odgar and it’s good to have Pat with us. It’s a really clear day today and light already, which makes such a big difference! We sail north and have a beautiful golden light illuminating the mountains guarding the fjord. Everywhere you look is absolutely breathtaking with this new colour washing over us.

After an hour of scouting for birds we see our trawler with its red light on, which means it is in operation and fishing for herring. On the screen in Od’s boat we can see there is a large amount of herring here at a depth of 50 metres, nice and shallow for the fishermen. The orcas are so intelligent they know that where these fishermen are raising their net of delicious herring that many will fall out and they have an easy, help-yourself buffet to enjoy! No work involved! The debate here is that they are not working to herd the herring into shallow water and create the herring ball, where they usually use tail slaps to stun the herring and hen eat them – so, will the young orcas grow to eventually lose this skill? We watch in awe from topside of the boat, over 100 orca swimming up to the boat and past us as they enjoy the free and easy offerings of the herring falling out of the net, lifeless and very easy prey! We prepare to get into the water and see two huge humpback whales right by the net, who are also enjoying some of this easy buffet dining option. A huge male orca spy-hops the net to take a really good look inside - he is almost taunting the fishermen and you see just how intelligent and human-like these mammals really are...

The water is cold, but you don’t feel it in your dry suit as we swim towards the whales. The key is to bob and float, making as few splashes as possible, and they will swim to you. The water visibility is good but you can’t see anything more than 10 feet away, so an orca may unexpectedly swim by you making the whole experience more exciting and memorable! As the fishing trawler brings the net and sails off with its enormous catch so do the orcas.... it’s time to return to Skjervøy on the calm sea and get warmed up!

Day 6

After a well-deserved lie-in we are driving back to Tromvik today, as the weather looks really rough in Skjervøy and Patrick needs to bring back the fishing boat he borrowed along with Odga’s boat from Tromvik. We meet at 10am and are lucky enough to see the most spectacular sunrise over the Skjervøy fjord. The reds and pinks are breathtaking and inject some colour into the monochrome mountains. After some essential shopping at Skjervøy’s finest gift shops, some Russian fur hat modelling and picking up essential supplies, we all jump into a van straight out of The A-Team and head south on the long journey around the fjord system to Tromvik Lodge for some much-anticipated luxury!

We stop off at Nordkjosbotn for some reindeer pasta and a break. Jumping back into the van, the snow and sleet is hammering down and we continue along the long and icy road to Tromvik. The scenery is quite spectacular as we drive around fjords with huge alps jutting out over the sea, and huge boulders lining the road – just how did they get there? After eight hours of sporadic driving we finally make it to Tromvik Lodge! We can see the huge floor-to-ceiling windows and the warm fire roaring in the furnace! The next mission is to get all of our luggage up the very steep and incredibly icy drive on foot as the van keeps slipping down and is at danger of losing control and ploughing into the sea...

We grab as much as we can manage and with the sideways snow and sleet smashing into us we ascend the ice rink in the pitch black! With every forward step you end up slipping backwards until you can find a fresh bit of snow or gravel or grass to gain some grip and progress forward. With a large amount of determination we make it to the top and flop down in our newfound lap of luxury!

Day 7

This morning we have a decision to make. We can go out on the boat and look for passing orca as there aren’t any herring in Tromvik so they won’t be hunting, or we can do some husky dogsledding in Kvaløysletta. As we have had such a successful trip with so many fantastic sightings we opt for the huskies! We jump in the A-Team van and head towards Tromso to get ready for our next adventure! Dogsledding is such an exhilarating experience and the rush of gliding along the fresh snow with my team of six huskies is an experience I’ll never forget!

After getting back to the lodge and jumping in the sauna to warm up we head over to Odga’s house, which is just next door. He has a grill house and we all sit around the glorious open fire. His wife Altra has prepared some traditional Nordic fare of chicken and potato salad, frankfurter-style sausage and green salad with cheese. We also have cold cans of Nordic beer as well as gin and grapefruit. We all talk and chatter excitedly about our incredible experiences, the best killer whale encounter we’ve had and the intrepid adventure we were all so lucky to be a party of… Leaving the smoking hut, smelling like a bonfire and sad to leave the warm hospitality of Odgar and Alta we head back to our little jewel of luxury stuck between the harsh Scandinavian landscape and pack up our belongings.

Day 8

I wake at 6am and my taxi is outside half an hour later to take me to the airport. It is pitch-black again and I wonder how long it takes you to get used to this predominantly dark existence for three months of every year… There hasn’t been one other car for the entire journey until we take the turn to drive into the airport. The population of a few hundred people of Tromvik is such a stark difference to Brighton’s population of 250,000 that I am usually used to! I check in at the airport and my trip of a lifetime has finally come to an end. I have the most incredible memories and wonder if I will ever get a chance to swim with these enchanted mammals once again – let’s hope so!

The A-Team consists of…

Arash: The American-Persian adrenaline junkie surfer from California (always late)
Una: The sharp-witted corporate pocket rocket and long-standing lover of orcas
Maz: The eccentric scientist who has a passion for underwater pursuits and whose favourite lines consists of ‘Get ready to get in the water, go go go!’ and ‘This is a stable situation…’
Felix: Hyperactive Swedish photographer who is ‘always ready’
Gem: Orca-obsessed NWS employee and Nordic enthusiast who loves a good shop!
Patrick: The ultimate whale man!

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Comments

Casey Ayling

2/10/2018 11:12 AM

I love killer whales omega lol XD

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