In August last year, I read an article online which had me desperate to go to the Arctic Circle to go swimming with orcas. What followed was a period of intense research looking into how, when, and where to go. Something which actually proved quite difficult. Having been and done it I can say it was totally worth it – and one of the most memorable experiences of my life. You can see a video of the trip here. Now I’m writing this post so you can learn how to do it too!
When I told my friends we were going on holiday to Norway in the middle of winter to swim with orcas they looked at me with disbelief and trepidation. Their image of orcas (living up to their more sinister name of killer whales), was from the BBC Earth video of them working together to create waves to hunt seals.
But orcas aren’t cold-blooded killers. They are, in fact, really very intelligent. We’ve seen them teaching their young how to intentionally beach themselves to catch sea lions in Patagonia. And have read how they are one of the only other animal species to experience the menopause. With one theory being this is so older females can help their grandchildren to survive (just like grandparents babysitting human babies so their parents can go out for dinner!).
In Norway, the orcas are strict herring eaters. And so I reassured our friends that it was totally safe to get in the water with them. In fact, our guide told us they’re so picky they only eat the livers of the herring. Dissecting them with their tongues and discarding the rest. Where else in the animal kingdom do you find that kind of fussiness? Except at Michelin star restaurants or maybe with your kids at the dinner table with their crusts!
They come to the fjords, following the herring, each year. It’s during this time (November-January) that you can get in the water and swim with them.
Northern lights jacuzzis
My research told me that the orcas used to be in Tromso, and maybe before that Andenes, but had recently moved even further up the fjords to Skjervoy following the herring. So before you go, do check with the tour companies to see if the herring have moved.
We booked a flight to Tromso, and then got the Hurtigruten ferry one stop, in the late evening, to Skjervoy. The ferry was an experience in itself. We were lucky enough to get one (on the way there, at least) where we could get in a jacuzzi, under the stars, peering up at the Northern lights. It was, of course, very difficult to get out afterwards into the cold night air!
The next day, after staying in a lovely Airbnb, we got up to catch the few hours of light (not daylight, but civil twilight) and boarded a rubber RIB boat in our drysuits. We booked a tour with Sea Safari Andenes because they were the only company that were then offering tours that allowed the possibility of swimming with the orcas.
What can I say about the experience itself, except that it was one of the most magical experiences of my life…
Swimming with orcas
Within minutes of setting off, we observed a few male orcas quite still, hovering around fishing boats catching the confused herring that had escaped from the fisherman’s nets. We then went further out into the fjords, and within 5 minutes had spotted another small pod, chasing herring. There were whispers amongst the guides of something special, and it turned out they weren’t just hyping the tour.
We were lucky enough to encounter a bait ball of herring. And where herring are, with their tiny gourmet livers, the orca follow. Afterwards, we were treated to an incredible encounter with about 30 of these intelligent creatures. Taking it in turns to slice through the bait ball only a few metres away from our boat. We were awed and filled with respect for their hunting techniques, for their beauty, their size, and for their community. We even got in the icy water, face down floating in a dry suit, and saw their majesty and grace. They, in turn, looked at our flailing limbs with their intelligent eyes and swam off into the deep dark, sea. Oh, and did I mention there were a few humpback whales also attracted by the herring too?
Just go, you have to see this place to believe it. And when you’ve been, please do submit a report here!