A new safari offers whale-lovers a truly incredible experience: The chance to swim with one of the largest gatherings of orcas anywhere on the planet.
It had just turned one o’clock on a frigid day in January, and already the light was beginning to fade. By 2 p.m., it would be completely dark. From the deck of a trawler out in the Norwegian fjords, the ocean looked deeply forbidding: choppy, black, and bone-numbingly cold.
For the divers lined up on the prow, however, the conditions were perfect. Under the surface, a pod of orcas had gathered, drawn by a shoal of herring that had migrated to this stretch of the Norwegian Sea that morning. The divers were about to swim with the orcas in their natural habitat, something few amateurs have experienced. One of them was Felix Odell, the Swedish photographer who shot the images on these pages.
In an interview after his return from Norway, Odell admitted he’d had some misgivings before setting off. “My daughter, who’s eight, was really frightened,” he recounted. “ ‘Maybe they’re going to eat you up,’ she said.” Standing on the deck in his dry suit, snorkel, and mask, the temperature somewhere in the teens, he had hesitated. But once he was in the water, his apprehensions evaporated. “It felt great, completely natural,” Odell said. “And because of the Gulf Stream, the water was actually warmer than the air.”
Odell’s group was led by Patrick Dykstra, a naturalist who for almost a decade has filmed and studied the orca population that comes to this part of the Norwegian coast each winter. A lifelong whale enthusiast, Dykstra gave up his day job as a corporate lawyer in 2013 to try his hand at underwater video. He has since contributed footage to the BBC’s award-winning Blue Planet II. Guests on his orca safari, which is run by British tour operator Natural World Safaris, must be strong swimmers with a passion for marine life. And they should not expect five-star service. As Dykstra put it, “I’m out there filming the orcas because it’s what I love doing. Sometimes I take guests along.”
Part of the dolphin family, orcas hunt for herring alongside their calves, working in family groups. A typical day aboard Dykstra’s vessel begins by figuring out where these orca pods are headed next, which can be an adventure in itself. The morning of Odell’s dive, Dykstra began by consulting several online resources, then hitting the phones. “Patrick has connections with fishermen in the area. He calls them to find out where the pods are each day,” Odell explained. Once Dykstra receives a tip, the race is on to reach the orcas’ reported location before they finish hunting and move on. “You have to be quick, because they can travel very fast. We got lucky that first day and located a group swimming around a fishing boat,” Odell said.
But with daylight fading, visibility under the water was low. Only at a distance of around 15 feet could the divers make out the orcas, which can range from 23 to 32 feet long — roughly the equivalent of a London bus. When one did appear through the murky, sediment-filled water, the experience was transformative. “Seeing these enormous creatures up close was truly fantastic,” Odell said. “When you’re underwater, you can hear them communicating, talking to each other. Their presence is extremely gentle. At the same time they’re very powerful, of course.”
Attacks on humans by orcas in captivity are well documented; in the wild, however, there is little evidence of their harming people. Still, the trip leaders take safety seriously, giving guests lengthy briefings on how to interact with the creatures underwater. “I’ve been scared before,” Dykstra admitted. “Ultimately these are wild animals, so of course you need to be careful.”
Of greater concern for him is the crisis facing the world’s orca populations. Orcas belong to a class of animals known as apex predators: they sit at the top of the food chain, so they take in massive concentrations of pollutants absorbed by smaller creatures. According to new research published in the U.K. journal Science, the world’s orca population could be reduced by half in the next 30 to 50 years. “There’s a real danger that these creatures will die out if nothing is done to save them,” Dykstra said. To that end, he works with researchers to collect DNA samples from Norway’s orcas, which are added to a database and matched with samples taken elsewhere to create population studies, monitor diet, and more. “It’s a huge help in understanding what’s going on with orcas right now,” he said.
Above all, Dykstra is motivated by his fascination with the species. “Orcas are so incredibly intelligent,” he explained. “They have something called bio sonar, which gives an MRI-type reading of their surroundings. They know right away that you’re not their typical prey. After a while, they begin to recognize you. And of course I recognize individual orcas, having come back year after year.”
The thrill of seeing other orca enthusiasts interact with these sensitive yet extraordinarily powerful creatures for the first time is addictive, Dykstra admitted. “I love seeing people who don’t get to spend their lives out in nature, like I do, get so excited by seeing the orcas close up. I see guests cry all the time.”
How to Plan an Orca Safari in Northern Norway
This eight-day trip with Natural World Safaris is not for the fainthearted, but those willing to brave frigid temperatures and choppy seas can be rewarded by remarkable wildlife interactions.
Begin by flying to Tromsø, in northern Norway, on SAS or Norwegian (you’ll transfer in Oslo or Copenhagen). Your base is the Kinfish, a former research vessel with comfortable en suite cabins and 360-degree views from all levels. The ship follows orcas as they hunt for shoals of herring along the Norwegian coast.
Herring migrate to the fjords in late October and usually stay until mid-January. There are about seven weeks during that period when the daylight is too weak to see underwater. Last year Natural World Safaris ran orca-viewing trips in November and January, but for 2019, all trips will take place in November.
Guests must be strong swimmers, though PADI certification is not required. Groups contain a maximum of 12 guests. All equipment, apart from dry suits, is provided by the outfitter. naturalworldsafaris.com; from $7,800 per person.