Europe, Nature

Swimming with predators

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Killer whales have come to Norway’s north-western coast to feed for the last 20 winters. For the brave, it is a chance to watch a natural predator at (very) close range. 

 

The scenario may make you uneasy. In an ice-cold fjord in northern Norway, surrounded by snow-covered mountains and trees, you float just below the surface, armed only with a wet suit and snorkelling gear. The only escape route is the rubber boat you just jumped off. Below, a six-metre, five-tonne killer whale – known for feasting on seals, sea lions and even whales – glides so closely you can almost touch it.

Swimming with these so-called ‘wolves of the sea’ may not be the world’s most relaxing experience, but it is surely among the most exciting ones. Ever since hordes of herring chose Tysfjord as their new winter home in the late 1990s, killer whales have each winter invaded the north-western coast of Norway to hunt. Between 600 and 700 come each year, making it a world-leading area for watching killer whales.

Tour operators have taken advantage. Safari trips take place from late October until January, concentrating on the fjords near Tysfjord, Lofoten and Vesterålen where the killer whales reside. Options vary between a 90-passenger boat and a 10-capacity motorboat, the latter from which you can, providing conditions are good, snorkel among the black-and-white predators. But is that really safe?

“They are very smart animals,” says Edmundas Cikas, manager of Orca Tysfjord, one of the tour operators that arrange snorkeling trips. “The killer whales here come only for herring, and some for seals. But they realise that humans are too big to be eaten. Of course the younger whales are curious and could come closer and almost play a little bit, but never aggressively.”

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In 20 years of snorkelling, he has not had a single accident. “We have had scientists staying in our basecamp who confirmed these predators were safe for humans,” Cikas says. “Of course, the first time it is a little bit scary but when they come back and see them they are very excited.” How close can the killer whales go? “A couple of metres probably” he says. “They are curious and can look at you very closely, but they will never do anything.”

For more careful souls, the boat experience is still exciting. Due to the Gulf Stream, the weather is reasonably mild (for Norwegian standards anyway), making the three-to-six-hour trips survivable for more southern visitors. Guided by experts, the boats slowly follow the killer whales’ intriguing and intelligent behaviour, often accompanied by seagulls and sea eagles scouting for leftovers from the whales’ hunting.

The killer whales – which are not actually whales but the largest member of the dolphin family – are highly social. They almost always come in groups, often family ones. These can stick together for a lifetime, which for the killer whale is between 50 and 80 years. Group members develop their own dialect, meaning they can recognise each other across large distances.

Luckily, the remit of their social nature also extends to visitors. Enthusiastic killer whales can swim right up to the boat, coming close to petting distance. Humans, it appears, are actually quite welcomed. “It seems so, as long as you don’t disturb them,” says Cikas. “Even when we come in a rubber boat they can follow us. They are interested in the propels and the streams and bubbles they create.”

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Seen in such light, the killer whale appears rather two-faced. From showing curiosity and behaviour bordering to cuteness in one moment, it can be transformed into a merciless killer the next. With teeth up to 10 centimetres long, not only seals and sea lions suffer, but also fish, squid and seabirds. These are hunted through methods in which the communication and teamwork between killer whales is extraordinary.

A common technique is ‘carousel hunting’. Here, large groups shepherd steams of herring into a concentrated area close to the surface, then whack them unconscious with their tail. Eventually, they eat them one by one. When hunting seals that sit on ice flaks, they can collectively drag the flak into position, then create a wave with their tail that flushes across the ice and knocks the seal into the water.

A slight concern has appeared in recent years over the declining number of herring, and consequently the number of killer whales. But Cikas says this is due to a change in migration patterns from 2006, when the herring moved closer to the sea, thus expanding the hunting area. “We know the herring and the whales are around, “ he assures. They just take longer to find. For most who take the trip, it is worth the wait.

Photos: BMJ/Shutterstock.com, Orca Tysfjord, Sara Wennerqvist/Orca Tysfjord

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