A Once in a Lifetime Whale Watching Experience – 2/18

My winter vacation brought me to a few different winter playgrounds. In fact I made it to the Arctic Circle. I started my journey in Iceland and as amazing and spectacularly beautiful as Iceland is, every effort to go whale watching ended up being thwarted by winds and stormy weather. I was sad but I knew I had more chances to come once we arrived in Norway.

 

Norway did not disappoint! We flew up to the Lofoten Islands late at night trying to calm ourselves and not let the excitement overwhelm our ability to sleep. In the morning we were heading out to see Orca and get in the water with them! The morning broke beautiful but a touch windy and there was some speculation we wouldn’t get to go out, another day without the chance for whales. Sigh. We walked into the hotel lobby where we were to meet our guides, get an Orca and safety briefing and suit up, the choice was ours, we could go out and try to find whales or we could stay on land. Most of us were ready to take a chance! We suited up in a warm under suit and then a dry suit to keep us as warm and dry as possible, put a hood and some gloves on and we were ready to roll. We all piled into the companies van and made the short drive over to the marina. After boarding our zodiac we headed out into the rolling swells and warm peachy pink light in search of whales. The swells were incredible, on top of a crest you could see everything around you, the mountains and fjords, the lovely town, in the troughs of each wave you would lose visibility of all but the sky and the water around you, not even the tip of a peak of the mountains could be seen. What were the chances we would be able to find whales in conditions like these? If Orca surfaced in the troughs between the wave crests, we would never see them… but find them we did!! The joy of seeing our first glimpse of Norwegian Orca was immense. The conditions were to big and too rough to get in the water but we had found them, they were here, maybe we could join them in the water tomorrow.

Day Two dawned a glorious day, we were no longer required to join in the Orca introduction talk but came for it anyway… who doesn’t like to listen to people talk about their whales! The weather was much better, though open ocean swells persisted, and we had word of Orca near by before we left the dock! Always an added bonus! The open ocean conditions and swells definitely make keeping track of these guys more difficult but it’s great to stretch my searching and scanning muscles!

We got our first chance to get in the water!!! It was now official, I had snorkelled and swam with Orca!! What an incredible adventure, we dropped into the water as quietly as we could (took some practice) so as not to disturb the Orca, and I got my very first glimpse of two animals swimming by. I could not stop smiling! You could hear them vocalizing too! We got to drop into the water several times, sometimes missing the whales and sometimes watching them swim by. Even on the misses it was incredible to be in the water knowing they were there too, we were in their world. Again the colours of the water and the sky were breathtakingly beautiful, the stunning blue green of the water a perfect companion to the glorious buttery, rosy hued light of a sky imbued in perpetual twilight throughout the daylight hours.

Day Three was another beautiful day, same gorgeous colours, same rolling sea swell and beautiful snowy mountainous backdrop. This morning there were whales very close to the harbour. And there were lots of them! We had a mom and calf pair, some juveniles and a couple of adult males. I was slightly shocked to learn that the males of this population have dorsal fins that grow to be only a meter and a half tall (as our local population here in BC can get to be 2 meters), I felt like we were looking at sprouters and not full grown males! The animals today were fairly spread out and sometimes difficult to keep track of. We saw a lot of rooster-tailed spray off their dorsal fins as they surfed through the waves. It was truly a sight to behold. We only had one opportunity to get in the water and it came at nearly the 11th hour, just before we were about to head back to the dock. Unfortunately both myself and my friend Andy, missed the chance as we had both taken off some of our gear, and in my case had moved to my big camera to take some above the surface shots. I don’t regret the missed chance at all. I managed to get some lovely above water shots which I would have missed out on had I kept my gear on… even though the pass was a really good one for those who got in the water!

Day Four was no less beautiful or glorious than the previous days nor the last two to follow. We managed to get in the water a number of times and got to see a lot of different Orca individuals all spread out, proposing and surfing through the water. We jumped in for our last drop of the day with all these animals having grouped up together and thought as we dipped into the luxurious emerald green waters that this was going to be the most incredible sight we would get to behold… sigh, such is nature, as we slipped beneath the surface, the whole group veered away from our location and we got a wide expansive view of the side of the Arctic sea humans aren’t generally supposed to enjoy! It was the one time I genuinely wished I’d stayed at the surface to take photos from above. Of course had the pass ended up being what we all expected  and I’d stayed at the surface I would have been kicking myself too. I still loved getting in the water though!

 

Day Five turned out to be the last day we would get the chance to slip beneath the waves and enter, once again, the world of these Orca. This day was made even sweeter by the fact that we got to head out on one of the zodiacs that a number of staff from the company that we had spent the last 4 days with decided to join on their day off… that doesn’t sound like something I would do (sarcasm) … lol so much like us, when it’s a passion and a love, you don’t want to miss the cool stuff that happens on your days off. This day on one of my entries into the water, I slipped in with one of the guides and it was just him and I in the water. We got a remarkable pass by what looked to be one of the younger Orca of the group. It was definitely one of my favourite moments in the water. The guide, Lars, was much better able to swim through the rolling waves and icy waters than I was but I fought hard (I didn’t have to, I just didn’t want to be the only one of us that needed a pickup) but they still had to come and get me. I wasn’t in my element as much as he was. Totally in awe. On top of finding Orca and getting a few drops into the water with some great people who we now considered incredible friends, we also happened to find two humpback whales travelling together on our way back from a wonderful day.

Day Six was honestly one of the most incredible days of this epic adventure and we didn’t even get in the water! We headed out with no Orca reports and went in search of them and/or any other whales that may be around. The day before we had heard that there were some Sperm Whales near by. Well today they were much closer and I got to witness Sperm Whales for the very first time! I was ecstatic!

The whales themselves are stunning and weird, blowholes that angle off to the left, a wonderfully knobby dorsal ridge and skin that is wrinkly and smooth all at once.

The twilight-esk lighting made their grey skin nearly iridescent and beautiful, and though I never would nor would it have been allowed, it made you want to reach out and run your hands along the side of their body just to see if it felt the way it looked. We got to spend time with a few of them as they stayed at the surface to inhale and exhale, over and over, before finally arching up out of the water, bringing their ginko biloba leaf shaped tail high out of the water as they angled straight down on a deep dive.

It was absolutely spectacular. We found two humpbacks again on our way back from the sperm whales which was a great bonus. Though there still was no word of Orca, this day was shaping up to be a great one. We started to make our way back in to dock when we got word that someone had spotted Pilot Whales. Pilot Whales!!! Another first for me! It was getting later in the day (the latest we’d stayed out) and the light was pure golden buttery hues with a blush of pink, maybe more than a blush. When we arrived to where the pilot whales were, we were blown away by the sight of 30-50 animals travelling fairly tight together, Moms and calves too!

These animals were very surface active putting their tails in the air, spyhopping, zig zagging back and forth. I am humbled and awed to have witnessed and been able to capture not only my first sighting of Pilot Whales but an amazing moment, that felt like it lasted forever (I can still see it so clearly in my mind, even without looking at photos), where two of them in near perfect synchronization spyhopped together right in front of us.

My heart beats a little faster every time I remember that moment! Once we left these magnificent animals and headed back in to our own world, we got word that the Orca had shown up… Our day was finished and we didn’t get to see Orca on our last day out… and we didn’t care at all! It was one of the most magical days we had experienced and we didn’t for one moment think we had missed out. It was the PERFECT last day of our epic whale adventures!

-Ashley

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