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WINTER WHALES

“To see thEse magnificent mammals in their right environment is pure magic to me. This is the way, I believe, all life should be experienced; wild, free and ON their own terms.»

A JOURNAL BY BIRGITTA MUECK

Carefully I slip into the 3°C cold Arctic water. We are in the second week of January, and the sun has not been rising above the horizon for more than a month, her first shy sunbeams of spring will not be seen for yet another few more days. The lack of light gives the entire underwater environment a very dark and gloomy impression. I feel how the cold water forcefully bites both my lips and cheeks, when I, with cautiously fin strokes, slowly snorkel into the dim, blue-grey surrounding. Ready with the camera in my hands, I stop my movements when seeing a gigantic dark shadow gradually appear in front of me. It is so huge and massive. Slowly it gets even closer. I feel the adrenaline rushing through my entire body when the majestic black and white creature gracefully passes within a meter of me. Happiness overwhelms me, I am back to doing what I love so much, I am back in the water with the Norwegian Orcas!

Our adventure started at the beginning of September, when we set off from Orust, an island off the Swedish west coast, on a 1,300 nautical mile journey to the fjords of northern Norway. Our aim was to dive with, and film, marine life along the Norwegian coast. Ultimately we would reach the Arctic giants; orcas and humpback whales, which have been gathering in the fjords of Troms, in Northern Norway, every winter for several years in a row now. After close to two months on the move, including several amazing dives along the way, we finally reached the picturesque northern part of Norway at the end of October. Here, we found out that fewer herring had shown up in the fjords than in previous years. As herring are the reason so many whales have been gathering here, it was not good news. We knew this amazing wildlife phenomenon is a limited one as the whales change their migration pattern due to the availability of their food source; herring. Would less fish in the fjords be the end of the winter whale migration?

Happily, it did not take long before we encountered our first orcas for the season, a bit further out of the sheltered fjords. A few pods to start with, to some days later find ourselves surrounded by orcas everywhere! Ever since my first orca encounter in 1995, I have felt a strong bond with these amazing creatures. These intelligent animals often curious and, if not busy feeding, it is not unusual that they swim up close to our sailboat to have closer look. While some are tail slapping, others spy hop, and in some very few but lucky moments, we even witness them breaching. To see these magnificent mammals in their right environment is pure magic. This is the way, I believe, all life should be experienced; wild, free and under their own terms. Very excited about the large numbers of orcas in the area, I still wondered if we would be lucky enough to also have encounters with humpback whales. This season there had not been many humpbacks showing up in the fjords so far…

Back in the water where we first started. In the bay where the huge male orca just have had one more turn to have another curious look at the blue dressed snorkeler I am. The water is shallow and the sandy bottom is quickly stirred up by the whale’s powerful movements, giving the entire underwater scenario a very special ambiance. The orca passes me again, now within a few decimeters distance, still without hitting me with a single fin stroke. Despite his massive size, there is no doubt that the whale has total control over his body and movements. Together with his pod, he is here, in shallow water, to hunt the herring which has been gathering in the bay. Without any unnecessary moves, I silently stay where I am just beneath the surface, leaving the decision to the whales whether they want to approach me or not. There are even some small baby orcas in the group, but the mothers and young ones keep their distance, letting it to the big guys to be curious about me or not. And curious they are, especially the one who already approached me closely twice. Still, he keeps coming back to me. Through the poor visibility, I see how he stuns the herring with a single yet powerful tail-slap before starting to eat the fish one by one. When he is done, he swims up to me, inspecting me with his awake and curious eyes. In his majestic company, I stay completely calm and silent, without generating any moves. While recording everything on camera, this encounter not only creates a big cloud of sand around me but an immense cloud of happiness within me. Yet again, I would later experience something even more adrenalin pushing further out in the fjord.

In the afternoon we start to head back to the local fishing harbor when a big group of orcas rushes into the fjord. The animals energetically start to circle around in the water not far from our boat. In my excitement I forget about the intense cold I felt earlier when carefully slipping into the dark, salty surrounding. There are about 200 meters of water beneath me, and a huge school of herring a bit further ahead. While keeping a certain distance from the hunt, I observe the great cooperation between the orcas as they efficiently work the school of herring into a tight bait-ball. They do so by circulating the fish, blowing bubbles, and showing their white bellies to frighten their prey, a technique called carousel feeding. This time, however, I get surprised when seeing the orcas suddenly leave the entire bait-ball they have been working so hard to gather. Normally they would start to stun and eat the herring at this stage, but instead, all the orcas are now keeping distance, hovering in the water, just looking at the tight ball of fish they have molded.

«-What now?», I’m wondering while watching the scene from a shorter distance. Suddenly, the herring start to swim straight towards me. I try my best to keep my distance from the fast-moving school of fish but as they are so much faster than me I soon find myself surrounded by them. It all happens so fast, the herring surrounding me panic when huge amounts of bubbles start rising from the depth. I understand what is about to happen, but it is too late to escape. Holding on to my camera, trying to keep both legs and arms close to my body, I can feel, and see, the water boiling of bubbles and panicking fish, trying to escape in all directions. This is when the great giants, with immense power and speed, emerge from the depths, surfacing with their immense jaws wide open. Totally out of this world, I find myself surrounded by lunge feeding humpback whales!! These up to 15-meter long baleen whales have just been taking advantage of the orcas previous work to gather the fish! By shooting up through the surface with their enormous jaws wide open the herrings are swallowed in one go before the massive whales crash back down into the dark water. As suddenly as the giants appeared, the humpback whales disappear into the deep fjord again, leaving me alone in the turbulent water caused by their powerful movements. With no doubt, this was a humpback encounter I truly never have been daring to dream about!

To see the first sun rays rise above the mountain peaks in a place that has not seen direct sunlight for over two months is such a special feeling. The end of January and the season of the winter whales is about to reach an end. Most of the whales have recently already been leaving the fjords of Troms, which is about two weeks earlier than the previous year. A distinct change in the appearance and movement of the winter whales is observed. How many more years the orcas and humpbacks will appear in the sheltered winter fjords of Troms nobody can tell. Lead by their food source, the migration and appearance of the whales depend on the silver of the sea, the herring.

While watching the fabulous northern lights playfully dancing above in the starlit sky, I reflect over the many amazing wildlife encounters the last months hold. This makes me think about how grateful and happy I am for the countless wonderful moments experienced with the winter whales this season. Like the whales, it is now time also for us to head south towards new adventures. Who knows, maybe I will meet my beloved giants again, somewhere out in the vast, blue Ocean…

FURTHER INFORMATION

Birgitta Mueck’s bio: https://waterproof.eu/diving/ambassadors/birgitta-mueck/

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