Swimming with Orcas in Norway
Swimming with orcas is something I had never considered, let alone knew was possible until this past November. Swimming with killer whales was never on my radar, in fact, just about anything to do with the ocean is way outside of my comfort zone. Unfortunately, I’ve always lived in landlocked cities, besides, the Rocky Mountains are my first true love. The ocean is just this overwhelming entity. I wouldn’t even know how to get into something like this.
I’m so glad that I did though.
Friends of ours asked Hailey and I if we would be interested in filming a photography workshop they were hosting in Norway. The workshop was swimming with orcas. We thought, what the heck, might as well get our feet wet sooner than later.
Skjervøy, Norway 400 kilometers north of the arctic circle.
Every year in the late fall, billions of herring migrate along the gulf stream current. Herring travel thousands of kilometers in massive schools. The herring swim until they finally reach the remote fjords of the Norwegian Sea, in the Arctic Ocean. Behind all those herring, thousands of orcas and humpbacks follow. Herring is a large source of food for both predators, so a gathering like this is well worth the travel if you’re a hungry orca or humpback whale.
The wildlife in the Norwegian Sea is thriving still. Unlike the pacific coast of Washington and British Columbia. Orcas are found in large numbers. There are young and healthy pods scattered all throughout the remote inlets and fjords of the Norwegian coast. Unfortunately, the wildlife there might not be safe in Norway for much longer. There are oil development, and oil transportation initiatives that are putting the orca’s well-being at risk.
In Norway, there is no code of conduct for approaching wildlife at sea.
The code of conduct in many parts of the world is simple. Don’t have your boat within 200m of the wildlife. Additionally, don’t swim within 200m of the wildlife. The 200m rules helps direct traffic on the waters and enforce a common sense rule. A 200m code of conduct helps to keep swimmers safe from tour boat operators. The operators have eager clients on board. The operators will sometimes stop at nothing to give their clients a “whale watching experience”. Even if that means they’re driving erratically, and dangerously close to swimmers, or right over top of the whales.
Unfortunately, the Norwegian government has no such code of conduct. The tour operators and local outfitters do what ever they want at sea. Fortunately for the orcas, small tour boats and eager swimmers with little regard for wildlife etiquette, don’t really cramp their style too much. The orcas are too busy feasting on millions of herring to pay too much attention.
It’s the oil tankers and the threat of oil spills that will really harm these animals. The code of conduct helps protect swimmers more than anything. It’s also just good practice to give the orcas some space.
Regardless, wildlife etiquette is crucial. Our approach, as explained by our wildlife guide and award winning photographer, Jonas Beyer, was to find the herring. If we found herring, we could anticipate the orcas arrival. If the orca came to us, they might be curious and swim with us and interact with us.
It didn’t take long for us to find them.
Our alarms set well before sunrise, we woke up early. Inhaled some breakfast, and left for the harbour. Our captain was going to meet us on the harbour at 8:00 am. Right around when the arctic sun would rise above the not so distant mountains. I packed up my gear and hopped on board.
We cruised away from the harbour and after only a few minutes our captain spotted a large pod of orcas. The captain then headed in for a closer look. It was an absolutely massive feeding frenzy. Orca everywhere, humpbacks breaching beside each other. Birds flew over head. The birds would try to grab the stunned herring floating at the top of the sea. There were also about half a dozen whale watching boats, and two massive fishing boats in the middle of the action. We definitely wouldn’t be swimming with orcas here.
After about twenty minutes of sailing along silky smooth waters, our captain spotted another pod of orcas and our wildlife guide, Jonas instructed us to “suit up”. The daytime temperatures hovered around 4 degrees celsius, which was about the same temperature of the water.
“The important thing to consider when approaching wildlife is always respect, it’s important that we get into the water and wait for the orca to come to us, not drive our boat over top of them and then jump in right beside the orcas.” – Jonas Breyer
It felt as though I was witnessing something from a different era. It felt as though I was seeing an extinct dinosaur with my own eyes.
The anticipation was building. It was strange to know I’d be diving into this foreign world. A world with animals I’d only ever seen in bad Hollywood movies. I crawled into my wetsuit and waited on the back of the boat for Jonas to give us the “go ahead”.
We got our signal and slowly dipped into the water from the back of our boat. The key was to get into the water quickly, but quietly. I waded the water for a few minutes, with the taste of sea salt in my mouth. I adjusted my breathing so I could use the snorkel effectively. Then I saw it. I saw a dorsal fin sticking right out of the surface water immediately in front of me.
It felt as though I was witnessing something from a different era. It felt as like I was seeing an extinct dinosaur with my own eyes.
The four orcas swam almost within arms reach.
I remember feeling calm, but there was also a tingle that went down my spine, something primal. The feeling wasn’t fear. It felt as though I was witnessing something from a different era. It felt as like I was seeing an extinct dinosaur with my own eyes. I watched the dorsal fin approach closer, then I lowered my head underwater and looked straight ahead through my snorkeling mask. The orca and I locked eyes. Time practically froze. I was completely in the moment.
I peaked my head above water to see if Hailey, saw what just happened. Smiling ear to ear, I knew she saw the orca as well. We shared the moment and exchanged high-fives. Hailey pointed out a few more dorsal fins twenty meters away to our right. She started slowly swimming over to get a closer look. Four more orcas saw us treading water towards them. They appeared to casually change direction and head straight for us. The four orcas swam almost within arms reach.
Orca are the apex predator of not just the ocean, but land too.
After spending four more days on the water, swimming with the orcas and even humpback whales whenever possible. It’s like everyone knows sea creatures like this exist. However, it’s as if most people don’t believe they exist the way they do. Watching these predators interact with each other, with us, play, and socialize, it completely reframed my understanding of wildlife in general.
Swimming with Orcas is extremely humbling. Orcas are the apex predator of not just the ocean, but land too. Killer whales hunt not only the largest mammals in the water, blue whales, but also the largest predators on land, polar bears. It’s truly an experience beyond words, one I wish I could describe, or gift to others. The only way to truly understand though, is to get in that water.
Would you go swimming with orcas?
All images taken while on assignment by Life Outside Studio and used with the permission of the owners, Hailey Playfair and Ryan Richardson