Whales of Norway
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 giant and intelligent whales can be encountered in all oceans, few places feature feeding events that attract Orca with near certainty.
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 orca and humpback take advantage of every year. And even fin whales can not resist these huge feasts, as our group would find out first hand.
Insider Divers organizes expeditions to Norway every year.
We started our journey 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.
On the day of our departure we headed to the the mountain ledge, Storsteinen (421m above Tromso), to see the golden light of the sun graze the fjord and town. Needless to say at around 14.00 – days are short in the artic winter. We at Insider Divers like the early November time slots as there still is around 6-7h light and “milder” temperatures.
After embarking our exploration vessel, MS Stronstad, we had the first of our delicious home cooked meals including delicious reindeer ragout with cranberries. After dinner boat leader Asbjorn and group leader Simon get everyone hyped up with some introductory presentations.
In the dark of the night we headed north while all guests were still asleep. We started our day well before dawn for a practice swim. Many guests had worried faces while donning drysuit or freedive suits, most had never swum in cold water like this before. Rolling into the black waters brings a new meaning to that "refreshing" feeling. While the suits protect the bodies surprisingly well the face does get a shock from the 5-6 degree water. But within a few minutes the faces also got used to it, and we were ready for serious whale action.
Everyone was expecting to sit back, have coffee and wait for whales to eventually show up. But against expectations the first black fins broke the surface before the sun did. Back in our full combat gear our two zodiacs separated from MS Stronstad in slow pursuit of a big pod of orca. For most guests this was the first encounter with the largest of the dolphin family and ultimate predator of the ocean. Their slick black and white bodies cutting through the waves, their breaths easily audible with deep sighs and spouts of vapor.
And before we were even ready we were already told to roll in and find ourselves surround by hectic killer whale activity. Their thick bodies intermingled with scattered dead fish bodies and a haze of scales.
Two or three orca pods had come together to hunt. The herring stay deep in the water making it difficult to be eaten. Orca pods will work together to dive down and drive the herring up, shaping them in “bait balls” dense circular schools of fish. Once closer to the surface the orca will tail slap and stun the herring before eating them.
But there was more – an opportunistic humpback mother had noticed the tasty bait ball and suddenly erupted from the deep, wide mouthed and fast, to scoop up what seemed like a huge amount of fish. This is why we never swim above a bait ball. Hungry from her 3000km journey from the central Atlantic and drained from feeding her baby with 500l of rich milk a day, she couldn’t pass this opportunity up.
With her baby cruising next to her, observing the technique, the humpback mother hit the bait ball several times. The orca did not appreciate their hard work being gulped up and started harassing the much larger whale by nipping her in the fluke. However, this did not stop her from dispersing the bait ball until it was no more.
Back on the boat we could not believe that this just happened. Our first drop had delivered pretty much all one could hope for on an Orca expedition. The more experienced divers had gotten lots of good interactions, but the newbies had been rather surprised by it all and everyone was eager for more.
The day had just started and we got a few more jumps in with traveling orca before the pods did it again and formed another bait ball. Now everyone was ready for it and saw orca and humpback hitting the bait ball. Before the day was out, a few lucky swimmers even chanced a glimpse of a baby orca. Cuteness overload.
Everyone knew this day was hard to beat and so we tried hard the next day, braving nasty winds and choppy waters.
One swimmer eager to see more of the whales was 13 year old Lola, who had convinced her dad and Simon that she could do this. The first day had been a bit overwhelming but she had seen a few orcas and she was pumped for more!
Within an hour we had the chance to encounter a huge group of humpbacks traveling together. The visibility was poor but the huge white pectoral fins of the whale were visible regardless. We also tracked another pod of orca but they were not game. Lola had seen her first humpback whale!
Aerial video by Alex Pham
Our captain decided to offer us a special location to celebrate the good start. We took over the community BYO pub of a tiny village (population 14 people). Equipped with a CD player (!), the best CDs of the 80s and 90s, and instruments, it provided a great venue for the those who felt eager to put some glasses together.
A day to remember - Fin Whales
The next day we found ourselves in a wider bay with several fishing vessels. In large nets they also target herring which millions of seabirds find irresistible. The orcas often hang around these vessels looking for an opportunity to snack. Black fins popped up everywhere and at some stage we estimated that maybe 200 orca where in the wider area.
Our experienced guide Asbjorn noticed a pod of Orca peeling off and decided to pursue. For a relentless couple of hours he peered into the gloom following the Orca at distance. Increasing coldness and doubt crept into all of us and we could barely keep ourselves warm by doing aerobics in our suits. But it would prove well worth it.
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 truly unique and somewhat disconcerting happened. Fin whales shot through the bait balls, seemingly right next to us. Like giant white 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.
We retreated from the bait balls but the large whales accelerate so fast that they shot right through the balls and keep going. Everyone got some close glimpses, but no one as close as Jade and Chris who came face to face with a fin whale who had shot up from nowhere. The tidal wave of this super-size whale pushed them out of the way and Jade extended a hand to push herself of the leviathan.
Somehow these giants did know where we were exactly and avoided a head on collision on several occasions. 13-year old Lola was in pole position at the speed boat and saw several whale breaching close by with huge herring-filled mouths.
Shortly afterwards the orca had had enough and started ramming the whales until they left. It was a bizarre sight to see the giant whale torpedo out of there. After that we got more relaxed orca feeding behaviour until the ball finally dispersed and well fed orcas moved off the area.
The full story on YouTube
The next day we had our coldest day yet and the Orca where not in hunting mode. With persistence and great guiding from the team we still got in the water for some gentle swim-bys and even met a mother with two calves (likely one was being babysitted, because all whales only have one baby at a time). Fortunately at the end of every activity we could all defrost in the amazing hot tub we have on the boat. First we would go in with out suits and then like an onion peel of the neoprene layers until totally warm. Our heads were always warm with our Insider Divers Octopus Beanies
The final day again had tons of orca in the water, but interactions were more scarce. But the water was calmer and the rare sun even came out for a bit. For a moment there were two fin whales again, and some lucky swimmers got relatively close to them.
The final hour was a perfect sunset setting with the sun resurfacing between two mountains bathing the fjords and black fins with an intense and lovely orange! What a fitting finale for an insane trip.
This trip was a huge success, our planning and timing worked out perfectly. In 2023 and 2024 we will be heading to Norway again in the same week and hoping to repeat the awesomeness for this trip.
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.