Swimming with orcas

In the Norwegian winter, north of the Arctic Circle, daylight fading, a group of orca enthusiasts and I snorkelled with orcas and humpback whales. We also happened to see the Northern Lights.

I had previously been in the water with a sperm whale in Sri Lanka in 2018 and swum with a dolphin in the wild in Hong Kong in 2020. One of the few ways to “level up” from these adventures was to swim with orcas. I knew an operator, Orca Norway, who had been arranging trips to do just that for thirty years in Norway. Once I had moved to Europe and the pandemic situation had improved, I was able to take the opportunity.

Orcas are intelligent creatures that have a varied diet, eating fish, whales, seals, birds and even dolphins. It is unclear why wild orcas have never attacked humans in recorded history (an orca in captivity has notoriously killed people). Even when they have attacked and damaged boats, the orcas did not harm the humans on those boats who got into the water. As there is no history of attacks, there is no experience of human retaliation from which the orcas may learn to not harm humans. It is unclear whether orcas could have greater empathy for humans when their closest relatives, other dolphins, as well as whales, are fair game for them.

The orcas would be near the coast of Norway in winter due to the presence of herring. The herring would be fatty during their spawning season. The orcas would bite off and eat their fatty parts, abandoning the bits with low nutritional content. 

Swimming with the orcas in Norway in November would require dealing with the winter cold. Tromsø, with the nearest major airport is at 69° North and Skjervøy, the base for the trip, is at 70°N. Winter comes early this far north of the Arctic Circle and the air temperatures tend to be below freezing. Water temperatures would be slightly above freezing. I had tried to prepare by taking cold showers in the mornings and with the occasional dip in a cold lake or stream. Daylight was also a concern. In the six days when I spent time on the boat in or near Skjervøy, the daily daylight hours decreased from 2 ½ to 0. There would be no sunrise from my last day in Skjervøy for another 51 days. Most of our water activities would be conducted in twilight. In any case, the sun, which remains low in the sky, would be hidden by the mountains. I believe I spotted it exactly once, between two mountains, on the penultimate day of the trip.

The skies never got really bright, but had fantastic colours when we were out
Photo: Me

Orca Norway staff picked the guests up in Tromsø and took us by bus on a four-hour bus ride to Skjervøy, where the boats were docked. We were grouped into three boats. I, along with eight other guests, was on the distinctively light grey coloured M/S Mårøy [pronounced “maw-ray”]. The boat was built in 1959 and is now protected as an object of cultural value. She is run by a crew of volunteers, distinct from the Orca Norway staff. Everyone who ran her while I was on board was a retiree. She is rented out for various activities including tours like the one I joined. Posters on the wall show photographs of the boat on her various activities over the years – cargo transport, passenger transport, fishing, business trips, adventure trips such as my trip, etc. 

M/S Mårøy
Photo: Olaf Andreassen

We figured out our gear on the first night. We would wear woollen underclothing plus socks covering most of our bodies. Over this would go an additional onesie. We would put on dry suits over these. The dry suits were waterproof and would trap a pocket of air next to our bodies to insulate them. The holes for our palms and heads would have tight elastic bands to keep them sealed next to our skin. We would top these off with gloves and hoods to cover our palms and heads. The zippers on my suit were challenging to deal with. I needed someone else to help me get in and out of my suit every time. Usually this was Marine Quentin, the host on the boat; I could unironically imagine dealing with the suit being one of the most challenging parts of her day.

In my dry suit
Photo: Olaf Andreassen

On the first morning, the Mårøy and the two other vessels, Sula and Bergsund, set off from Skjervøy. Boat crew, Orca Norway crew and guests stood on the deck or on the bridge, scanning the fjord for activity. The seascape and the skies were the most colourful that I had ever seen. From the horizon, the sky lit up in a rainbow with shades of pink, orange, yellow, green, blue and purple. The mountains that rose around us were never lit in more than a gentle glow.

The skies as we went out
Photo: Olaf Andreassen

Someone spotted the first knife-like black dorsal fin of an orca, rising above the water, with a spray of water ahead of it as the animal exhaled. It quickly disappeared, but more orcas became visible. Far in the distance, we also spotted the taller sprays of humpback whales and occasionally the tops of their bodies also rose out of the water. We were given thirty minutes to kit up.

An orca surfaces
Photo: Olaf Andreassen

The Mårøy travellers kitted up and boarded the dinghy Gyda. We would sit on her facing each other inward. On our trip, arctic outdoor expert Kristian Hovelsås skippered her. We also had freediver Ivan Breslauer as our safety diver and guide. A retired police officer and semi-professional photographer, Olaf Andreassen, was on the boat with us to take pictures as part of the effort to document current uses of the Mårøy. 

On Gyda
Photo: Olaf Andreassen

Kristian took us to the edge of a pod of orcas at a speed well below the top speed of the boat. We were approaching slowly in order to non-threateningly encounter the orcas and give them the opportunity to move away if that was their choice. Kristian ordered us to get ready. We threw our legs, with fins attached, over the side of the Gyda. Masks covered our eyes. GoPros and other underwater recording devices were at the ready. “Swim to the front of the boat. Go!” On “go!”, we leapt off the sides and started snorkelling. A few seconds later there were a lot of yells of excitement as most of the group had seen their first orca while in the water with it. I had seen nothing. 

We climbed back into the Gyda using a ladder lowered to the water. I climbed up on my knees and crawled uncouthly to my seat as the fins made it difficult to walk normally. Ivan moved the few people who had not seen an orca to one side of the boat to give us a better opportunity. On my third drop, I finally saw it: a pod of orcas swam toward me. One of them came particularly close and seemed to make eye contact. I also heard the clicks and cries of the orcas as they communicated. It was just the first day and things were already exciting. 

My first close pass by an orca
Video: Me

The temperature of the water had been quite bearable in the dry suit; there was no shock or pain upon hitting the water. We began to feel the cold of the Arctic after getting back on the boat. Our fingers, covered in gloves that got soaked, were the first to be affected. Exposed to the cold air and wind on the boat, they would gradually get painful and sting. We would stick our palms in between our legs or rub them together to warm them. Every drop into the water was a respite from the cold as the water was warmer than the air. Cold fingers were not a serious health risk; a cold body core was. If someone started shivering badly and could not be warmed, or when someone had enough of the cold, we would return to the Mårøy and offboard them. Those willing and able to endure the cold stayed longer and got more opportunities with the orcas. The others got the crew to help them out of their dry suits, showered and made themselves warm and comfortable.

An orca in motion
Photo: Ivan Breslauer (@underwaterstates) and Kristian Hovelsås (@kristianhovel)

Our trip included lectures from orca expert Pierre Robert de Latour, who was also the safety diver for the Sula. Professor Alessandro de Madellena, shark expert and biologist, also provided lectures on orcas.

We had dinner after the lectures and then had time to explore the surroundings of wherever we had docked for the night. On most nights, we sought out the Aurora Borealis / the Northern Lights. They could occasionally be seen from the boats, but were better seen once we had travelled some distance away from the nearest light. We would travel up hills or along beaches until we found it dark enough. 

The Northern Lights at Skjervøy with me in the foreground.
Photo: Kristian Hovelsås (@kristianhovel)

The Aurora are visible with the naked eye. They move rapidly, shimmering and changing their shapes. They go from one end of the horizon to the other. One could easily imagine them forming the shapes of dragons, giant snakes, wisps of smoke or whatever fantastical image that man can conjure up. The dragon shape came to me suddenly; its head was facing downward and was at the end of the horizon closest to me. Its tail extended to the other side of the horizon, curving and curling.

Fascinating shapes of The Northern Lights
Photo: Me

Taking good images of the lights requires that the camera be held steady. It generally involves standing in sub-zero temperatures with one’s palms freezing. As with the orcas, we mostly did this until we no longer had the motivation to deal with the cold and craved the warm comfort of the Mårøy.

With part of the group
Photo: Andrew Smith (@grovesmitty)

To get an image in darkness, one generally increases the period for which the camera’s sensors are exposed to the light. This means that any motion during that period is captured as a blur. When one sees bright green images of Aurora, chances are that the photographer saw a far dimmer version, with light in only part of the sky at any one time (upto a sixteenth of a second). No recording of The Lights accurately represents them the way the human eye sees them. Go and see them yourself.

On day 2, while still on the Mårøy, we saw plenty of orcas in every direction; there were also a bunch of humpback whales which we easily recognised first by the duration of their nasal sprays, and then by their big, long backs and tail fins which slowly disappeared below the surface.

The sprays made when humpback whales exhale
Photo: Olaf Andreassen

On the very first drop, I had a great moment when a big male approached me, circled, surfaced nearby and took a bite out of a nearby fish. 

Big male orca swimming close to me
Video: Me

On the second drop, I saw orcas slowly hanging around and not rushing away. A school of herring had been trapped into a tight “bait ball”, which the orcas now hunted, picking them off one by one. We were in the water longer this time than on any other stretch before. Everywhere I turned, I spotted orcas. There were so many that I had difficulty deciding which one to focus on. 

Orcas with the bait ball of herring
Photo: Ivan Breslauer (@underwaterstates) and Kristian Hovelsås (@kristianhovel)

Then, below me, I saw a few strange shapes that reminded me of manta rays. I made out long white patches along what looked like two wings. Two huge humpback whales were swimming beneath me. There was plenty of chaos due to the interactions of the humpbacks, the orcas and the herring bait ball. The two humpbacks surfaced just metres away, their mouths wide, and took a big gulp from the bait ball. The orcas would not have been happy with their meal being taken over.

Breaching humpback whales after gulping on the bait ball. I am the head in the water at the bottom-right.
Photo: Olaf Andreassen

I also got to see at least one more orca with her yellow-hued calf. I struggled to climb back on and then move on the boat and realised why: my suit legs were filled with water and I was carrying a heavy load. I told the crew that I was cold and I was returned to Mårøy. Marine took care to ensure that I was warm, comfortable and in full possession of my senses. Later we figured that one of the underclothes was likely preventing the waterproof seals from fully closing around my wrists.

On the third day, we came across a chaotic scene. Close to an island, the orcas and humpbacks were feeding in choppy waters, likely no more than ten metres deep. We saw the bait ball and had several close encounters with the humpbacks. Adult humpback whales are 14-15 m long on average, and generally they come up vertically with their mouths open to swallow the herring, so it was unusual to see them in such shallow waters.

Humpback whales in shallow water
Video: Ivan Breslauer (@underwaterstates) and Kristian Hovelsås (@kristianhovel)

I struggled to see the orcas underwater and was starting to get seasick. It was slightly better on the boat, with really good sightings of the humpbacks passing by very close, blowing and feeding. The humpbacks communicated in loud grunts audible both below and above the surface.

A humpback whale feeding
Video: Tiffaine Auriol (@tiffaine_a)

The first three (of six) days had been exceptionally good. We were fine to relax in choppy weather on day 4. We went out again on days 5 & 6 with more sightings. It was an exceptional adventure. Pierre said that it had been a “top 5 week” in 24 years of swimming with orcas.

The orcas emerged just as I happened to be on deck
Video: Me

Some of the others are already considering a return trip the following year. The big question for me is how I could possibly top this trip; that will be a massive challenge. Perhaps a visit to Svalbard (further north) to see belugas and polar bears; perhaps diving with some sharks I have not yet encountered; perhaps something different entirely…

Photo & Video credits

Olaf Andreassen
Ivan Breslauer (Instagram: @underwaterstates)
Kristian Hovelsås (Instagram: @kristianhovel)
Myself – Vijay Luiz (Instagram: @pitilesstraveller)
Andrew Smith (Instagram: @grovesmitty)
Tiffaine Auriol (Instagram: @tiffaine_a)

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