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  • Writer's pictureSimon Lorenz

Norway - Fin Whales copying Humpback Whales

 

The Northern Fjords of Norway are the most promising region in the world to offer the chance to swim with Orcas, the true apex predators of the oceans. While these intelligent whales can be encountered in all oceans, no other place hosts predictable feeding events that attract Orca with near certainty. And this natural event just got a whole lot bigger. Humpbacks regularly target the herring bait balls created by the Orcas, but in 2022 and 2023 Insider Divers guest were able to witness Fin Whales doing the same. And Fin Whales are the second largest whale in the world!


In this video Insider Divers group leader Alex Pham is sharing the 2023 encounter



With below article we try to explain a little bit what is happening.


Herring 

Billions of herring chose to winter in the relative protection of the fjords at the top end of Norway. A fact that herring eaters such as killer whales have learned to take advantage of. In recent years more and more humpback whales have learned to take part in this bonanza by opportunistically tracking orca bait ball techniques. And now the second largest animal in the world – the fin whale - have come to join the party. Or rather, bust the party.

 

Norway’s Arctic

The journey starts in most northern city of the world – Tromso. A good 350 km north of the arctic circle, Tromso is a highlight in itself. The island lies in the middle of a fjord and its historic colorful wooden merchant and harbor houses make a lovely setting. Insider Divers expeditions start from here and generally aim North.


The annual herring feast has always centered around Tromso as a starting point although it has migrated several times in the last 10 years. The location for the herring aggregations seems to moving North, a result of global warming as some people suspect.

 

Seasons

The season for the event starts end of October and the herring shoals last until February. Often the whale action peaks right in the beginning when hungry orca and humpback arrive from their offshore adventures.


The killer whales that can be encountered here are transient Orcas. These are orcas that are neither resident nor fully offshore, their vast territories follow the movement of the fish they prey on. Different to other sub-populations of Orcas they do not predate on whales, sea lions and sharks but primarily on fish. This diet leads makes these killer whales to have the best and most intact teeth amongst all orcas as they don’t have to chew through hides and bones and only eat savory fish fillets.

 

In the dark of the night the orca searching ships leave the protection of the nightly anchorage. Days are short and cold, so by lightfall the search needs to be in full swing. While the season lasts from end October to February, there is very little to no daylight to work with in December and January. The best time to look for action is in October and November when predators are hungry and the days are longer and somewhat warmer.


 

In some areas the water is brimming with orcas. Especially around large fishing boats orcas can be found in the hundreds. Their slick black dorsal fins cutting through the waves, their breaths easily audible with deep sighs and spouts of vapor.


That does not yet mean that swimming with them is easy. The best way to swim with orca is when they are either travelling in a straight line or when they have managed to create a bait ball. Boats try and track orca pods that are on the move to give the best possible chance for success.


When the speed boat captain gives the command “go, go, go” drysuit-clad humans roll into the black waters and experience a new level of "refreshing". While the bodies are well protected from the cold the face experience the needling shocks of 4-5 degrees of water. Looking into the dark black water is disorienting and uncomfortable. That is until the black and white forms of the multi-ton super dolphin appears - seeing an orca is a life changing moment and cold is easily forgotten. With artic freedive suits swimmers can even duck down and get some more of the action close up.




The Bait Ball

 The ultimate prize however is the finding of a bait ball. The naturalist’s skill, ocean and animal knowledge, keen observation and a good portion of luck are necessary to successfully see a baitball. Similar to the world-infamous South African sardine run many ambitious divers leave the area again without ever witnessing a bait balls.


Often bait balls are created by two or three orca pods that have come together to hunt. Led by the leading matriarchs the pods will dive down together and drive the herring towards the surface, shaping them into “bait balls” - dense circular schools of fish. The fish swim closer and closer to each in other in a panic and try to stave the attacks by coordinated bubble releases from their swim bladders.


 

This is where the true elegance of the hunt becomes apparent. The orcas will glide through the shoal and wack the fish with the tail fluke. Immediately spinning around in a back flip they gently pick off the stunned herring and fillet them in their mouths. The water is full of bubbles, scales and herring corpses.

 

Humpbacks

This commotion is not lost on humpback whales that seem to always be lurking in the distance, waiting for the orcas to do their bidding. Similar to the sharks in South Africa waiting on the dolphins to create bait balls it seems that humpbacks have developed the same freeloader approach. Hungry from their 3000km journey from the Azores and the Caribbean and often accompanied by their massive babies they are in urgent need of protein, as a humpback whale baby might consumer 500l of rich milk a day.


 

A perfectly round ball of fish will suddenly explode into all directions as the baleen feeder lunges at it from the depth. Sometimes in teams but mostly solo the whales manage to snap up huge gulps of herrings destroying the hard work of the orca.


The orcas will do their best to disperse the giant  thieves. The whales are being chased and head butted at every opportunity. Even tail nipping occurs where brave orcas attack the three times larger humpbacks. This encourages the humpbacks to attack the bait balls as fast as possible and leave the area immediately.

 

The New Big Kid on the Block

 On a special day in November of 2022 our we found ourselves tracking a big pod of Orcas. Finally, the water started boiling with orca hunting and immense bait ball. We rolled in on the action and where presented with several bait balls and probably 50 or more orca in the water. But then something absolutely unique and somewhat disconcerting happened. Out of nowhere fin whales shot through the bait balls, seemingly right next to the swimmers. Like giant bullet trains they pounded the bait balls.


The second largest of all whales which can grow up to 27m and weigh 80 tons is also the fastest of all baleen whales, reaching speeds of up to 50km an hour. Being more of a krill feeder they are not known to go for herring.


Fin Whales are a dedicated krill eater, similar to their closely related cousins the blue whales. The orcas did not make any distinction to their treatment of freeloaders. Despite these whales reaching lengths of over 20m the orcas aggressively pursued, chasing the fin whales in hot pursuit. Regardless the fin whales kept gunning from the depth until the bait ball was once again scattered.


This was the first time ever that Fin Whales had been photographed underwater feeding (beating Berty Gregory by just a few months)! Simon's photographs received some rewards on international phtography competitions. In this video Simon and the guests recount the experience





In 2023 one of our groups was again lucky to see and even larger group of Fin Whales predate and orca-created bait ball. This time it was seven large fin whales that barged through the bait ball at full speed.


So what is happening here? No one has a good explanation. Never before have fin whales been recorded feeding on herring. It might just have been an opportunistic encounter, fin whales are known to travel through the fjords. Different to the orcas they have the ability to dive to 200m depth and hold their breath for longer times, so maybe they usually hunt herring at depth. Another possibility is that the whales have observed the opportunistic behavior of the humpbacks, which would allow hope that this behavior can be witnessed again in the future.


For all swimmers of the arctic north it is certainly reason to hope that this is a new element on the the already exciting experience of swimming with whales in the arctic North.

JOIN US ON AN EXPEDITION OF A LIFETIME


Insider Divers run yearly trips to Norway to swim with whales. More information here www.insiderdivers.com/norway


 

About the author


Underwater photographer Simon Lorenz is the founder of Insider Divers and one of our main trip leaders. He is a regular author for dive magazines and speaker at events. Simon speaks 6 languages and has dived on all continents. A PADI instructor and photo coach his aim is to further the dive, marine and photography skills of our guests. Simon has worked with CNN, BBC, NatGeo and supports various marine NGOs such as WWF and The Nature Conservancy. Simon fights for the protection of sharks in his role on the advisory board of the Hong Kong Shark Foundation.




 



 

 



 

 

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