"I was like a cat that got a dribble of the cream" (Rennett Stowe)
Article Words : Sarah Baxter | 01 January

Swimming with killer whales

Arctic Norway is the place to get in the water with orca - unless you're a herring

It’s no wonder the phrase isn’t ‘cunning as a herring’.

Each winter, 6.5 million tonnes of these simpleton fish flee the sea and ‘hide’ in Tysfjord, northern Norway, in a vain attempt to avoid getting eaten. “Come on chaps! Let’s all swim into this increasingly narrow dead-end!”

“Brilliant!”

The flaw? Boatloads of Norwegian fishermen and hundreds of hungry orca have cottoned on to them. The intellectually challenged herring have unwittingly created one of the richest fishing spots in the world – or for killer whales, four months’ worth of free lunch.

Behind the fishing boats snaffling up enormous catches – Norwegians love herring – come orca-eager tourist boats. From these large boats issue zippy Zodiacs, better equipped to keep up with the 55km/h whales. And from these Zodiacs tumble handfuls of snorkellers taking advantage of the planet’s best location for entering the orcas’ world.

And that’s why I found myself 200km above the Arctic Circle in late October (temperature 2°C), actually excited about the idea of going for a swim. I was setting out on an orca safari to search for – and, hopefully, snorkel with – the fjord’s gluttonous killer whales.

As we pulled out of Skutvik harbour, the cold air coaxed tears from my eyes and redness from the tip of my nose.

It was all so startlingly fresh – just like our enthusiasm. Thermally padded bodies waddled around the deck – as if this was a boat for the dangerously obese – and jostled for prime position at the prow. Everyone was scanning the glassy water for dorsal fins and telltale flocks of birds indicating underwater activity before we’d even clocked up a nautical mile.

We soon left behind the few red and yellow cabins of harbourside civilisation and emerged into increasingly open water. Glacially gouged in the last ice age – like the thousands of other fjords that serrate Norway’s west coast – Tysfjord and Vestfjord spill out to the sea in spectacular fashion. Snowy mountains flanked the way, tilting erratically up to jagged points that took on other characters: a Sydney Opera House here, an orca fin there.

Us Michelin people cooed at the unspoilt beauty of it all until forced inside by the lack of feeling in our frozen fingers. After restorative hot drinks in the boat’s saloon we swept out again, 40-odd pairs of excited and hopeful eyes scouring the horizon.

The water churned in navy-black undulations, topped with spurts of white foam where unseen forces caused swells and eddies. It seemed excruciatingly unfair that these were precisely the colours of the orca – a dark wave mimicked a curved whale back; a distant crash flashed like an orca’s white underbelly leaping from the ocean. These mirages kept stalwarts peering through binoculars and desperately shouting, “What’s that? Over there!” long after their toes and cheeks had ceased to feel.

Alas, nothing

Chantal, our unfailingly perky guide, decided to try the ‘soup trick’. “We serve the soup and then the orcas come!” she enthused with conviction. It didn’t work. As we ploughed on, passengers started to spend less time on deck; children vomited from seasickness and boredom.

Five hours after setting out, the words we’d been dreading were uttered. “We have to turn back,” said Chantal, sensitively toning down her perk as we listened gloomily. We eventually made it back to land after nine orca-less hours at sea.

I was bitterly disappointed. “This is the first weekend of the season and it seems they are… a little late,” Chantal tried to explained. The sea temperature hadn’t yet dropped low enough to kill the plankton on which the herring feed – therefore the herring were still feasting out in the open ocean. No herring, no orca.

The following day dawned clear and late, the sun not deigning to rise properly before at least 8.45am at this latitude. Despite previous frustrations, a new wave of optimism swept over me – I had crisp air in my lungs and an enormous drysuit under my arm, ready to leap into the water at the first sign of orca activity. We were informed that orca had never evaded two consecutive boat trips in Tysfjord – statistics were on our side!

As we listened to Chantal’s spiel on the bus to the harbour – a near word-for-word reiteration of the previous day’s – I even laughed at the same one-liners.

Off we set, this time not bothering to freeze ourselves on deck too early, knowing that if the orcas were out there they would still be some way off.

We napped. We chatted

Still nothing. Mild hysteria set in. Passengers took photos of the orca pictures on the walls, only half-joking that they’d be the only ones they’d get. Apprehension mounted.

At around 3.30pm, five hours after setting sail, Chantal revealed that orca had been spotted by another boat – but sadly declared that they were too far away to reach today.

What? This wasn’t supposed to happen. I’d read the brochures: Tysfjord is the most reliable place in the world to see orca – up to 700 of them overwinter here every year, the highest concentration on the planet. Had the fish finally outfoxed them? Like a herring destined for a Norwegian’s pickle jar, I was gutted.

I shuffled out on deck to watch the sun spray its rays through a globule of cloud and felt extremely cross with the area’s cetacean population. I remembered Chantal’s words from the first morning: “We hope to see whales, but this isn’t Sea World, California – it is the real world, Norway.” So true, yet no consolation at that moment.

In a ridiculously contrived but – I swear – completely true twist of fate, the next moment told a different story.

“Whales! Straight ahead!” Chantal shouted from the crow’s nest. I squinted into the distance and saw what looked suspiciously like a tall, black dorsal fin. Suddenly real world, Norway, did seem more like California, somehow finding a flair for Hollywood dramatics.

I fought against the tide of newly animated people racing on deck and hurried inside to find my snorkel gear. Six of us fumbled around, heaving on quilted overalls and attempting to get at least our bottom halves into the heavy rubber drysuits. Expert assistance was required for the top half: talcum powder was poured into the sleeves and hood so I could squeeze in my extremities. Once in, I couldn’t really move – my neck was being lightly strangled and when I dropped my glove I was unable to retrieve it.

Squish splash

She handed back my glove with a chuckle at the squashed-faced blob of black nylon I had become: “That’s not a good look,” she said.

But I didn’t care – orcas were here! As I clambered into the Zodiac I could see three of them in front of me (there was another to my left but my head wouldn’t turn that way). They rolled like dolphins, ebony skin luminous in the late afternoon glow.

They were trailing a fishing boat that must have been shedding some of its catch, and as many as 12 orca were visible at one time – suggesting 40 in total – gulping up the leftovers. A gatecrashing flock of seagulls were also on the scavenge and even they looked glorious as the honey-hued northern light hit their white feathers.

As I bent to straddle the edge of the inflatable, a fart of air gushed from inside my suit, out past my cheeks – perhaps a call to the herring? With the suit, mask and snorkel, there was no way of distinguishing between the six rubbery beings in the boat. It’s a good job the orca up here are programmed to hunt herring – I’ve seen the wildlife programmes showing orca flinging seals like Scots toss cabers. Dressed in what was effectively a black blubber suit, I’d never looked more like a seal in my life.

We zoomed away from the big boat, now on fin level with the creatures we’d come to see. A huge male with a towering dorsal exhaled only metres from the Zodiac and, further off, a calf porpoised close to its mother’s side.

There was a shout from the guide and I twisted round to see three whales in our wake. “Quick! Go! Go!” she yelled to the three blubber-blobs on the left side of the boat, who all lurched in to try to glimpse a bit of underwater orca. Because the whales weren’t displaying any particular pattern of behaviour there was no way of telling what they’d do next. The best strategy for swimming with them was to wait until they got really close, slide in and hope.

After two minutes the blobs were hauled back on board. “I think I saw an orca!” one of them exclaimed. Beneath my nylon, I simmered with envy.

"I was the cat that got a dribble of the cream"

We were off again, slicing through the surf and grinning at the whales around us. One rolled sideways and slapped its dorsal on the water as if trying to splash us; another chased a low-flying bird that was attempting to sneak off with one of its herring; my money was on the whale.

Despite all this activity, us right-hand blobs remained boat-bound. An orca would surface nearby and I’d ready myself for the off, but our guide remained silent; until three whales came straight for us. Like skydivers we got the green light and plunged into the shadowy blue.

I didn’t feel the cold – I was too well insulated and too busy scanning the water for its treasure. Tilting my head downward, I realised I was bobbing above four orca.

They moved noiselessly below, giant monochrome flashes. I could see the grey saddles on their backs and their glaring white bellies – it looked as if they’d tucked large napkins under their chins to prevent covering themselves in herring goo. One was a juvenile; the other three were big, by far the biggest, toothiest things I’ve ever swum with. I followed them with my gaze for as long as I could – perhaps nine seconds – and then they were gone.

Though my mask started to fill with icy water, I continued searching for another glimpse. But that was it.

Hauled back into the Zodiac with all the dignity of a netted herring, I felt a flush of exhilaration and a job-lot of frustration. I knew I should feel privileged to have spent any time at all with the orca – but I wanted more. I was the cat who’d got a dribble of the cream.

As we zoomed back to the big boat, leaving the whales to swim off into the lengthy sunset, I had the feeling I’d been allowed just a quick peep at the most amazing experience of my life.