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  • Alex B
    Alex B

    Snorkeling With Orcas In Norway


    How to


    I can still remember me sitting in a hotel lobby after a Lake Baikal tour in 2014, reading a dive operator newsletter about “Snorkeling with Orcas in Norway”. I just thought, “ Are they crazy,  snorkeling with Orcas?! Definitely not, that’s too dangerous!”


    Well, the years passed and everyone returned in one piece from these tours. Over all these years the Orca action doesn't seem to be letting up, based on reliable first-hand information, and because I upgraded my camera setup, I decided to travel to Norway too. More specifically, to Northern Norway.  I flew in to Tromsö, took the fast ferry on the same day to an island called Skjervoy. The ferry ride is 2 1/2 hours, by car its a 3 ½ hours (250km) drive.


    World map with Skjervoy World map with Skjervoy


    Europe map with Skjervoy Europe map with Skjervoy



    Skjervoy detail maps Skjervoy detail maps


    What actually happens there

    During the winter months uncountable tons of herring migrate to the fjords to overwinter and apparently to rest there. Orcas, Humpback-, Finn- and Minke whales follow the herring and eat their fill. Even Sperm whales have been seen there. The fjord of Skjervoy has been a reliable place for this for 8 winters now. Before the action happened around Tromsö, in Andfjord and Senja or Tysfjord. As a result, Orca watching and snorkeling has become a big business in this area.


    Sonar screen
    This is a picture from the sonar screen. On the left side of the screen you see the seafloor topography and the depth under the boat with 164m. On the right side you can see, that the sonar measures only 139m. What’s wrong? The herring gathered so tense the sonar didn’t reach the actually seafloor and assumed the herring as the seafloor! The red color on the screen are the fish. The fish start at around 115,5m, probably all the way to the seafloor - around 50 to 60m of fish in the water column. How amazing is that!? In the blue area of the screen, right under the top white line, on the left side, you can see greenish dots - that’s a Finnwhale. Another one is at around 75m on the right side of the screen


    Liveaboard or landbased

    There are several large liveaboards that offer short trips of just a few days, up to a week. The large ships have the advantage that they start in Tromsö, can travel long distances in any weather conditions to find Orcas and avoid so the fleet of small boats, which don´t have such a big ranges. But once you've found Orcas, you're sitting on a dingi and are exposed to the cold wind. During my stay it was plus 3 degrees to minus 6 degrees Celsius.

    I booked with my long trusted tour operator for Nordic regions: Northern Explorers. He put me on a small cabin cruiser boat. In my opinion, sufficient enough for the fjord, protection from the wind, spaces to sit in a normal position, a toilet. What else do you need? Orcas, of course.


    I booked two trips in a row to have more opportunities to get footage and in case of days lost due bad weather. I have been to such northern regions many times and had, the one and the other, day lost due weather conditions. So I thought two tours are a smart decision. And it was again. 13 days on the water, 3 days without Orcas sightings (due high waves the searching area decreased and even if we have found Orcas it would have been too risky to get in and out of the water), 1 day we found Orcas, but the group was avoiding us, so we didn't get in the water.




    Freedive equipment

    Anyone who has ever tried snorkeling in a drysuit knows that's not really possible. I was advised to get a Smoothskin - Open Cell freedive wetsuit. Water temperature was around 5 to 6 degrees Celsius. I decided for a 7mm. Normally wetsuits have a layer of fabric over the neoprene to protect it. Open cell smoothskin apnea suits do not have this linen. Open Cell inside is a porous neoprene layer without any coating. And because it’s porous, the open cells/microscopic bubbles attach to the skin by creating a vacuum and therefore, the suits usually fit like a second skin and keep very warm. Unfortunately, this advantage also makes the wetsuit much more fragile than the nylon lined insider. If you want to put this suit on or off, you definitely need water and soap. Smooth Skin on the outside has also no fabric and dries immediately. In addition is used freedive fins and a weight vest. For the case I wanted to stay longer underwater, like at a bait ball, I used a 7 liter tank on a backplate. I did a test dive in a lake before, to check the approx weights and how to manage the buoyancy without a BCD.





    Looking for orcas


    Approaching a pod of orcas Approaching a pod of orcas



    Orcas and a small humpback whale in the background


    Camera gear

    I used my Red Komodo due the larger sensor size and left the Panasonic GH5 at home. Although the smaller GH5 housing would have been much easier to snorkel and free dive with. I switched between 18-55mm (with IBIS) and 28-70mm (no IBIS) lenses. Behind the WACP1 they give me 123 and 90 degree converted FOV. Filmed in 6K, 17:9, 24fps.

    For the topside shots I used a DJI Mavic 2Pro and Panasonic GH5 on a gimbal with a 12-60mm and a 100-300mm lens

    Daily routine

    At this latitude the sun in November just barely comes over the horizon and days get shorter loosing 12 minutes of daylight every day. Due the low sun the colors in the sky can be unreal and reminded me sometimes on Old Master paintings.


    Beautiful mood under the water surface. Orcas are missing in this shot Beautiful mood under the water surface. Orcas are missing in this shot



    We headed in the areas where herring fishing was going on during the night. Apps, like Marine Traffic, are very useful for that. As we headed out we have always been on the outlook for Orcas. We also oriented at the Marine Traffic locations of the liveaboards. It was a good sign, if they didn´t move the vessels. Hints from other boats were also shared.


    Once we had found an Orca pod, we followed them at their side for a while. If the Orcas seem to accept us, the guide gets the boat in a good position to drop us. Then it was all up to the Orcas. Is it just a quick swim by, a dive down or an interested interaction.



    Ready to go! Ready to go!



    Due a hint from a liveaboard guest and Marine Traffic position we headed far north. The weather and the sea forecast was okay, so the long way was doable. We encountered a very relaxed Orca group, swimming back and forth, circling around us several times. Unfortunately we had to finish this interaction too early, it was a long way back, and the night slowly fell, shortly after noon. Two uncut
    clips from this group below. Clips are not slowed down.







    This is where we found the group. The farthest point we travelled This is where we found the group. The farthest point we travelled



    The main goal is to find Orcas at bait balls. That’s where the action happen! The Orcas rotate and hit the herring with their tail fin. Dazed herrings are eaten then. Bubble feeding is also possible. At my first bait ball I suddenly found myself right in the bubbles. I knew I had to get out of here - immediately! You can't see anything and a Humpback whale can shoot up from the deep at any time.


    Herring bait ball Herring bait ball




    Trying to find a good position


    After I found a good position, I let the camera roll and tried a free dive. The free dive was interrupted at 3,6m by heavy oncoming traffic!


    I saw two white fins coming up from the dark „a Humpback! Keep the camera steady!“


    Humpback whale close encounter Humpback whale close encounter


    Humpback whale close encounter Humpback whale close encounter


    Humpback whale close encounter Humpback whale close encounter


    Humpback whale close encounter Humpback whale close encounter




    It was a lot of fun and I would do it again! I like the challenge of cold weather, wind and waves, and it were good cardio exercises too. I only wished to get more detailed feeding scenes underwater and by drone the next time. Getting good video footage of Orcas is not easy. I cannot compare it to anything I have ever filmed underwater. Often it is a matter of seconds. If it seemed to be a good boat drop, I
    visualized the shot, or what might happen under the surface, before jumping in. Planning the shots in the water first, it's way too late. I realized this after a week.

    You can watch the movie from this trip here. And like always…feel free to share, comment, like, dislike and follow! You can make an old man very happy!


    See you at the Orcas - cheers, Alex.





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