“Got any travel plans?” asked Tony, when I saw him the pub, “You know, get away from the cold British winter?”
“Yes”, I replied. “We’re going snorkeling”.
“Caribbean? Red Sea? Maldives?”
“No, we thought we’d try Norway”.
Tony inhaled some of his beer. “Oh yeah?” he spluttered, “Tell me another!”
“No really … in the Northern fjords, way up beyond Tromsø. The herring move inshore at this time of year; orcas round up the shoals of herring and the humpback whales have learnt to come storming in and grab the catch. We’re hoping to Polar Snorkel with them”.
“Well you won’t want to get sunburnt so remember to pack the sun cream!” said Tony, giving me a funny look and moving to another table.
I tried to keep my expectations low. If we were really lucky we might see an orca during the week and, if all my birthdays came at once, we might get a glimpse of a humpback.
The weather was good and the sea calm so we quickly settled into a routine.
We were woken up by the engines of our ship, MS Malmö. As we tucked into breakfast of home-made bread and fried eggs and cold meats and coffee, Malmö steamed away from our sheltered berth or anchorage into deep, dark waters ringed by snowy mountains. The sun scraped the far horizon and painted the crags a pearly pink.
The plan was to search for orcas from the ship. If we found them and, if they looked relaxed enough to watch, we would get changed.
The thermal underwear was easy, the warm Arctic ‘onesies’ were fun but the first time I fought my way into the WATERPROOF dry-suit it took me some time to realise that the feet were pointing behind me because I’d put the whole thing on back to front.
We had two zodiac inflatables for our regular morning snorkeling excursions. The crew of ours was: Birgitta Mueck, leader, film-maker, whale expert and zodiac driver and on the other zodiac was her co-leader Alex. On our boat were: a Chinese gentleman and his daughter; a Danish lady financier; a PR guru and a plastic surgeon from New York; and a Filipina diving instructress.
Sea-eagles soared above us and on occasion we would see little auks, diving to get away from the boat or skimming across the sea water like thrown stones. We kept clear of fishing boats and their herring nets but watched for gangs of gulls who might glean fish scraps from feeding whales.
We had faith. If there were whales Birgitta would find them and soothe them. If she did find them we were to slip from the inflatable to float over the inky depths with the jellyfish and see what we could see. Some of us were bedecked with underwater cameras, others kept their gloved hands free and eyes wide open.
She was an old ship, built as an ice-strengthened pilot vessel for work in northern waters, and now maintained as a working celebration of wooden decks and navy-blue and cream paintwork. Malmö‘s bridge was open to us and here we could chat to the gentle descendants of Vikings who crewed the ship and who told us their tales of Svalbard and White Bears and cliffs of seabirds.
I was on the bridge when someone said the magic word: “Orcas!” Alex and Birgitta saw them first, or maybe it was the quietly observant crew. I saw nothing other than a deep dark sea and the icy cloud-shrouded mountains so I looked with my binoculars and I looked and looked again and there they were, far in the distance: tidy jets of hot breath in the cold dawn air. The ‘blows’ rose straight and hung there for a couple of seconds like narrow, frosted, upside down Christmas trees.
The orca were travelling slowly and gradually we caught up. Soon I could make out the fins of the adult males scything through the sea surface and then, as we got nearer, the smaller curved fins of the females and young. Malmö changed course to leave the group of whales undivided and before long we were steaming quietly alongside the pod as the whales searched for feeding grounds.
After a couple of days we got pretty good at getting into the two inflatables, one driven by Alex and the other by Birgitta. The first morning however, was a bit ragged but when we got ourselves sorted out the orcas were still there in the distance and a growing flock of gulls suggested that they were feeding. We hoped they would still be there by the time we completed our quiet approach.
They did and we edged closer. I slipped into the water, pushed myself away from the inflatable and my world changed. There were orcas all around, more underwater than I had guessed from the boat, and they floated and glided and arced easily through the water. I had wondered earlier in the week whether I would be afraid, being in the sea with some of the world’s largest carnivores, but the whole scene had a magical calm and the whales were simply the prettiest things I had ever seen! Black and white like a child’s painted pony with curiously round pectoral fins and thoughtful-looking eyes almost hidden in a black mask stripe.
The orcas began to swirl and circle, I could hear their breath blowing all around me; gulls wheeled in the sky above and it was clear that we had found the whales and a shoal of herring together! This was not a feeding frenzy, it was more of a ballet. A huge ball of herring flowed and pulsed as the orcas, with calm efficiency rounded them up and forced them towards the surface. Every now and then, with a flick of its tail a whale would stun a group of the swirling fish. A constellation of fish scales drifted through the scene, sparkling and glinting in the weak sunlight and three tons of orca would pick out the stunned fish with unbelievable delicacy. They sucked-up the silvery fish with a gesture like a polite kiss.
I knew then that I was seeing something I would never forget but, before I could begin to process the event, the mood at the party changed. The herring became more frenzied, many breaking the surface, and I found myself being engulfed by the globe of flashing fish. The orcas backed away a little but something else, fast and huge, was happening and I realised that I was seeing a much bigger whale, its mouth wide open, coming in my direction. I was pushed aside by the beast’s bow wave and, as I lifted my head to get my bearings, a huge back, black, warty and ridged, broke the surface and arched away. I had experienced a close encounter of another kind altogether – a humpback whale!
We saw humpbacks and orcas both from the surface and again underwater during the next few days and, where the orcas could mop up herring that escaped fishermens’ nets, we sometimes saw large numbers of both. One morning we watched a couple of seine-netters working the herring catch. Alex, a tall Californian who has fallen in love with the Arctic raised his binoculars and exclaimed, “Phew, there’s a shitload of orcas over there’.
At this time of year daylight had left us by 2:00pm. The afternoons were dark. As Malmö steamed to our next mooring we would read, or write, dry our neoprene hats and gloves, or upload our photographic captures or, sometimes, just doze in our bunks.
At around 5:00pm we would gather in Malmö’s panelled saloon to watch Birgitta’s wonderful underwater films or Alex’s presentations on other things we might see up this side of the Arctic Circle, like the Aurora Borealis: the strange shimmering beams, curtains and arcs of the Northern Lights.
Incredibly we were then ready to eat another of Christian the chef’s delicious wholesome meals of traditional Scandinavian food and, when tied up or anchored for the night, the decks, the ports or the nearby hills were ours to explore and to keep an eye on the polar sky before returning to our cabins, our bunks and our duvets.
And then one morning we didn’t get into the boats. Instead we loaded our bags into a minibus and found ourselves, in a state of muddle and shock, reading the Departures Board at Tromsø airport as our little group prepared to scatter itself across the globe.
“Well, I’m glad to see you took my advice about sunburn”, said Tony when I next bumped into him at the pub, “but did you see any of those whales?”
“Yes”, I said, “we saw a shitload of orcas”.