I’m quite impressed I made a Norwegian boat captain feel cold.
It’s good to appreciate the moments in life before they’re swallowed by the mundane, or in this case, the horrors of 2020, so I’m casting my mind back to December 2016, one of my best birthdays ever. You can probably guess why from the title as easily as you can guess which photos I took.
I’d been whale watching before in the warmer waters off Sydney, Australia, where pods of humpback and minke whales lazily rode the tide, but I’d always dreamed of seeing wild orcas at the top of the world. I was cautiously optimistic after being badly (freezer) burned the last time I visited Norway.
Six hours on a train from Oslo to Trondheim and five days on the Norwegian and Barents seas, while beautiful, had yielded nothing but seagulls and an Alsatian, and a tiny glimmer of northern lights on the very last night after I’d stropped off to bed disappointed.
Fortunately this time it was different; Arctic Explorers seemed pretty confident we’d find an orca or two as they followed the herring, and they were known to congregate in certain bays.
Tromso, where the tour was based, is known as the Arctic capital, and in winter the sunshine and blizzards battle it out every other minute. Given I live in the U.K. where a snowflake brings everything to a standstill, I nervously asked the guides what would happen if the weather was bad. There was no language barrier, so I took their genuinely baffled expressions as a good sign.
A fjord in light snowfall has a silence that’s both cosy and eerie, and the dark water and bright sky was another bizarre contradiction as we set off that morning. The boat nodded slowly a few times, as if ruminating, and the snow-flecked mountains around us reminded me of static on an old analogue television. If that’s too old a reference for you (eek!), just imagine someone spilled pepper over a white marble counter top, only more blue.
As the bay spread out before us, the dark water suddenly seemed a much lighter grey. Why? Because of a tall, much blacker fin rising out of it.
Our first orca. But nowhere near the last.
I fully expected it to be based on experience, but as I lifted my gaze to the twinkling towns on the far shores, each one passing for a Christmas market, I saw more and more black blades rising out of the waves. Ahead of each one came a low, dark head, with the distinctive spotlight behind the eye, that then dipped back into the depths. That was apparently the orca swallowing a huge mouthful of herring.
Seeing more than one of them wasn’t the only surprise. According to our guide, Norway was where Free Willy’s Keiko had made his final home, and as it turned out, the whales had a habit of coming in from the open sea rather than the other way around. Before you point out that orcas aren’t whales (they’re dolphins), I’m talking about the humpback whales gatecrashing the party via a misty grey gap in the bay.
They were just as lethargic as the Australian crowd – no epic mouth-clapping leaps for us – but no less graceful, and kept their distance from both us and the orcas. The latter were supposed to be called “whale killers”, after all. At least a good meal trumps an undersea death match.
The captain anchored our boat in the bay so we could watch them, and I stayed on deck in the deep chill hoping they would come closer. On my previous trip I’d spent a small fortune on Arctic gear only to rush outside in a jumper and pyjamas when the northern lights finally appeared. Not this time, however.
This tour had provided a warm flotation suit, which sounds like a bright red inflatable monstrosity rather than the grey boiler suit it actually was, and a hat and mittens to weather the elements. For vanity reasons I went hat-less, but even with the suit, mittens, and a tolerance honed by queuing outside nightclubs in the middle of winter, I had to admit defeat and go inside the cabin.
Typically the moment I did, a young female orca made a bit of a splash by the bow as she examined these strange interloping humans, then vanished under again as soon as I stepped back outside.
It was at this point the captain pleaded with me to wear a hat, because my bare ears were making him feel cold. That certainly helped, as did the hot lunch.
I actually hate fish. The aftertaste reminds me of that horrible smell you get from an old damp dish cloth. Fortunately the fish soup, whipped up by one of the crew, had thick glugs of tomato mixed in to take the edge off, and after eagerly polishing that off with a spoon, we were handed some welcome hot chocolate. We stood in the thickly silent snowfall watching the black, white, and grey flashes of whale and dolphin as they slipped over and under the waves. Dream fulfilled, while drinking chocolate. What more do you need?
A crackle from the radio announced an incoming storm soon after, so our boat resumed its nodding, more vigorously this time, as we bounced over increasingly angry waves. At one point we were level pegging with a fleeing orca pod, watching them rise and fall in formation over the horse heads.
My camera phone realised it could never have done that justice and nobly took its own life before I could try. So instead, I sat at the back of the boat to stay as close to them for as long as possible. Eventually the sleet in my eyes hurt like splattered cooking oil and I had to turn away, but before I did, I saw the bay close up in a cloud of white, as if the memory were being erased. That, or, you know, a blizzard was rolling in.
I was so swept up in the trip I forgot that, yet again, I hadn’t seen any northern lights. But the sky hasn’t fallen in yet, so one day I’ll go back. I just hope the orcas and humpbacks will still be there.
Featured image credit: Photo by skeeze.