Orcas of Kaldfjorden

Friday, November 11, 2016 / Kaldfjorden, Tromsø, Norway

For the last few years the fjords around Tromsø has been the location for some of the most spectacular whale adventures imaginable. Late in the fall enormous schools of herring starts moving into the fjords, followed by large pods of orcas and multiple humpback whales.

As the fjords fill up with herring the whales get easy access to an abundance of food. Using complex collaborative hunting techniques, the whales trap the herring against the surface and start feeding.

In November, my girlfriend and I headed up to Tromsø with hope of witnessing this natural wonder, and film, photograph and swim with the whales. What we got to experience is more than we ever hoped for!

Weather at 69 degrees north in November can be unpredictable to say the least. Our biggest concerns as we boarded the plane heading north was whether the forecast would hold. We tried not to get too high expectations, as wildlife encounters never can be guaranteed. Based on the frequent Facebook updates from my friend and skilled nature photographer Svein Aasjord, who lives in Kaldfjorden, the chances of seeing whales would be high.

Friday night was spent planning, studying maps, charging cameras and the Blueye PioneerOne drone, to get everything ready for an early morning start. The days are short in the north this time of year, so we left the small harbor in Kaldfjorden at dawn.

It probably didn’t take more than 20 minutes before we spotted the first massive dorsal fin of a male orca, raising more than a meter out of the water. Shortly after we found a large pod of orcas, moving effortlessly together at a steady pace heading further out the fjord. We decided to follow. Svein, having spent much time with the whales over the last few years, said that they were not yet in hunting mode.

Male and female swimming past while the seagulls try to snag a dead herring

Male and female swimming past followed by seagulls

As the orcas trap the herring against the surface the fish become accessible for the seagulls. Photo: Hege Røkenes

After a while the whales disappeared. We contemplated whether they had traveled further out, or if they were going deeper to hunt. It didn’t take long before we got our answers. Orcas started appearing around the boat, swimming seemingly in random directions. Shortly after hundreds of herrings started jumping franticly out of the water, trying to escape the orcas chasing them from below.

The technique used by the orcas in this area of the north-east Atlantic is to separate a smaller part of the school, called a bait ball. After separating the school into a manageable bait ball, they herd the herring up from the deep to trap them against the surface leaving them nowhere to escape. From above seagulls and eagles start swooping down catching the fish. The whales take turns slapping their tailfin into the bait ball, stunning herrings before carefully picking and eating them one by one.

Svein navigated the boat upstream from the feeding action, and Hege and I got ready in our dry suites and slipped into the water.

The sight that met us under water was breathtaking. In all directions orcas where moving around the bait ball keeping it together preventing the herring from escaping.

The sight under water was breathtaking. In all directions orcas where moving around the bait ball.

Small snorkler at the surface in the back, large male orca in the front
Small snorkler at the surface in the back, large male orca in the front Photo: Hege Røkenes

Males and females, young and old, working together taking turns feeding or keeping the herring gathered. We could hear the constant clicking sound of the orcas communicating. Marine biologists studying orcas have named this well-known behavior carousel feeding.

I completely lost track of time, and it’s hard to tell how long the feeding activity lasted. I would guess more than an hour. Over the two days we got multiple encounters with both orcas and humpback whales.

Holding Blueye PioneerOne with male orca in background
Holding Blueye PioneerOne while large male orca swims by in the background Photo: Hege Røkenes

We got to test the Bluetye PioneerOne in rough conditions with swell and strong currents, and managed to use the drone to film a pod of orcas herding a large school of herring.

I’m truly excited about how Blueye will provide more people with eyes below the surface, and a chance to witness spectacular natural events like this themselves.

Orcas of Kaldfjorden

Video showing a large pod of orcas herding a school of herring in Kaldfjorden, Tromsø, Norway Music: Chris Zabriskie