What's better than whale watching? Jumping in among them while they guzzle a shoal of herring, says Mark Carwardine
It’s such a relief to be able to type again, now that my fingers have thawed out. I’ve just returned from snorkelling with killer whales high above the Arctic Circle in Norway and it was cold – with capital letters and an exclamation mark.
Tysfjord is Norway at its deepest, narrowest and moodiest. Providing a spectacular snow-covered mountain backdrop, it is home to some 1,500 killer whales during late autumn and winter every year. Local researcher Tiu Similä and her colleagues have braved the cold for the past 19 years and, so far, have photo-identified no fewer than 575 of them.
Tysfjord is also home to one of the largest concentrations of fish in the world – seven million tonnes of herring, no less – which, of course, is precisely why the killer whales make it their temporary gathering ground, too.
The herring are actually hiding in Tysfjord. There is no plankton here at this time of year, so their main aim is merely to stay alive. It may be safer than the open ocean, but clearly no one has told them that the killer whales, as well as cod, seals, sea eagles and a huge human fishing fleet, are all in on their secret.
My aim was to photograph the killer whales carousel-feeding underwater. They herd the herring into tight balls, stun the fish with their tails and then pick them off one by one. My snorkelling buddy, Marc Riley of Radio 1’s ‘Mark and Lard’ fame, described it as “like jumping into the middle of a dinner plate”. But these are fish-eating killer whales and they wouldn’t dream of eating a dry-suited human.
The real challenge was the short supply of daylight. During my visit, the sun rose at 9.20am and set again at 2pm – and for most of that time it barely peeped above the mountains. So, it was too dark to take pictures for 20 hours a day and it was so cold that I had to chip ice off my mask and tip snow out of my snorkel. Once, I was surrounded by carousel-feeding whales, the water around me glittering with fish scales from the slaughter, and my camera finger was too numb to get the shot.
But slipping over the side of a rigid-hulled inflatable, in the middle of a Norwegian fjord in mid-winter, surrounded by feeding killer whales – not just once but more than a dozen times during the week – was about as exhilarating a wildlife encounter as you can possibly get. Watching killer whales from a boat is pretty exciting. Watching them face-to-face underwater is mind-numbingly fantastic. In fact, I think I’ll go again next year.
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Zoologist Mark Carwardine is an author, TV presenter and spends much of his time travelling the world in search of wildlife and wild places (www.markcarwardine.com)