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Norway Diary: Orca Ahoy

drysuit.jpgNorthern Norway is a fair bit less hospitable for swimming with massive sea creatures than the warm waters of Dominica, but it was worth a shot to go there and participate in the largest annual gathering of orcas (killer whales, for the politically incorrect) on the planet. Hundreds gather there each year in the winter months to feast on herring in order to fatten up for the rest of the year when hunting might be more difficult.

As an apex predator, orcas don’t much worry about other creatures in the water with them — even people — and there is no record of a human fatality in the open ocean at the mouth of an orca. That was reassuring to me, given that they can reach twenty-six feet in length and weigh over six tons. Their top speed is 35mph. Most impressive is the male’s dorsal fin; at as much as six feet in height, it towers over humans sitting in a boat.

To swim in 40° water with the big guys (and gals), one wears a dry suit, a rubber garment with latex gaskets around your throat, wrists and ankles — along with multiple layers of merino wool and fleece underneath. However, sitting in a small boat for hours as the crew attempts to find a feeding pod can turn a fella mighty cold.

We were not successful in swimming with Norway’s orcas due the presence of a great many humpback whales in the fjords this year. Normally pods of orcas will cooperate to corral huge numbers of herring into “bait balls,” and then stun bunches of them with tail slaps before eating them one by one. However this year, once a bait ball had been assembled, the humpbacks would move in and scarf up the whole thing with a big-mouthed gulp (the BBC describes the whole competitve process here). So the orcas changed their strategy and just mooched around in small groups, feeding on fish that they might happen upon. When we tried to get into the water with them, they would move off. A bait ball would have kept them close to one location:

Orca Ahoy.jpg

Addendum: One member of our party, Penn grad Kabir Teja, arrived with first-class camera gear and a drone. He produced a video about our trip:

He has some nice aerial shots of orcas starting at 1:28.


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