The sun did its best, casting a ricochet of light from somewhere far over the horizon to dimly illuminate the surrounding north Nordic fjords. We walked in this pale ‘civil twilight’ through the small industrial town of Skjervoy, having arrived by ferry from Tromso the day before. The one or two shops we passed were stocked with improbable amounts of knitting products, presumably fulfilling two of the basic needs of winter this far north: warm clothes and lengthy indoor activities. Today, however, we were to be emphatically outdoors: snorkelling with orcas out in the unwelcoming Arctic Ocean.
Our guides for the excursion were moonlighting whale researchers who, to support their cataloguing and study of the orca, had adopted a thin facade of tourism. Much like the oversized drysuits we comically zipped ourselves into, this facade was a bit loose here and there but, ultimately, would more than adequately do its job in service of an unforgettable experience with the whales.
Dry suits and cold faces
Three layers of thermals under the air-tight suit were enough to keep us warm on the RIB as we throttled into the bay, although the buffeting wind on our exposed faces was a reminder that we were, indeed, about to voluntarily jump into the icy brine below. As we approached an anchored herring trawler, slowly inching its netted catch onto deck, we saw them. Two male orcas, their dorsal fins proud and straight some three feet or more above the waves, were waiting patiently for the herring feast to come.
We slowed to a halt to join them, cutting the engine, the only sounds being the low hum of the trawler and the occasional spouting of the magnificent black beasts coming up for air. Already we were satisfied, privileged enough to have got this close to one of the world’s most iconic predators in the wild, yet our guide informed us that the pair were potentially scouts for a larger approaching pod.
Still yet dry, we gunned the RIB further out into the fjord before confirming his suspicions: three more orcas, rhythmically rising and falling below the waters as they gracefully made an unmistakable bee-line for the trawler. We kept pace and vector, excitement building. A watchful eye could, at intervals, spot still more whales approaching as we again neared the concentrated herring ‘bait-ball’ rendezvous.
snorkelling with orcas
Numbers rising, our guide suddenly cuts the engine a safe distance from the catch and, with no time to lose, we bail out into the icy sea. Hearts pounding, putting faith in suit and snorkel, we behold face-down the dark green abyss below in the hopes of glimpsing a passing orca in its true, submarine domain. Silent submerged seconds pass that seem longer, piped breaths stabilising as cheeks start numbing; feelings of vertigo rising and falling as the great vast volume of the sea, so easily dismissed above the surface, now becomes an unavoidable and fearsome reality. And then –– there! Below, full-bodied, an aged bull orca, veiled in green but with unmistakable white markings, gliding effortlessly downwards before being swallowed completely by the murk.
It might seem cliche to describe the experience as transformative, but in terms of feelings towards these wild beasts, the effect was palpable and instant. Floating in a clumsily buoyant dry-suit, dexterity was helplessly low. All we could do is float on the currents and behold this master predator, effortlessly existing. To suggest we were ‘tolerated’ would be a disservice to the serenity of the orca, but there was a genuine feeling of encroaching, of being a guest. A stark humbling manifested in virtue of being beneath the waves.
back in the boat
Hauled back onto the boat, now much colder for our swim, the Orca numbers around us kept growing. We were also soon joined by two great gnarled humpback whales, mother and calf, also enjoying the herring feast in an apparent truce. Eventually, we were moving along with a pod of ten surfacing whales, which we were reliably told implied at least twenty more still under the waves. To much delight, in the pod was a playful calf learning the ropes. Our guide told us that he’d rather not have us dive again, as what we were spectating was a rare sociable event for the orcas and their young. His tone was slightly apologetic, but the sentiment resonated with the feelings of respect that had arisen with the first dive.
The excursion dramatically reached a climax with another surreal experience. The orcas came together ahead of us before doubling back on themselves in formation, rising and falling in unison ten abreast directly towards us, a sea standoff from a spaghetti western. There was a slightly tense silence on board, punctuated by nervous laughter — were we being swum out of town?
Fortunately, our dark companions playfully dipped below us at the last second. As the twilight began to fade, we were, quite remarkably, being acknowledged by the whales. Guests in their watery domain.
It’s unclear to me, on reflection, how long this enterprise of snorkelling with orcas can continue, should it get more popular. It seems to rely on the smaller numbers of whale enthusiasts that this part of the world receives, both in terms of the scale of operation and of how intimate an experience it aims to provide. For that reason and more, we were very lucky and privileged to have our experience with the orcas, and I’d encourage anyone to plan their own trip to Skjervoy while they can –– and at least before the herring moves on.
Tom joined the WildSide team on a trip to snorkel with orcas as part of our #europeswildside expedition to find the wildest places in Europe!