The large triangular fins of orca whales slice the surface of the water and the inky blackness of dawn stubbornly clings to everything as we travel by zodiac through the northern fjords of Norway. It is late winter and it will be days before we see the first shy rays of sunshine. I strain to make out the shapes as they surface—I can barely distinguish their bullet-like bodies when they break the water but I can clearly hear the whisper of their breath, a crisp sound that is expelled in a white mist every time the whales surface to breathe. I experience a primeval fear as the zodiac buckles on the choppy sea. I am trying to stop myself from thinking, “There is no way I am going in,” but before I can gather my wits about me, photographer Paul Nicklen, slips overboard, followed by Goran, his Swedish guide. I have no choice, I have to follow. I grab a camera and slide into the cold water.
Once in the water, I am not cold. It is dark and gloomy but I am not afraid. Before me is an orca ballet, a feeding behavior that few people have witnessed. We are among the lucky few, thanks to Finnish orca expert, Dr. Tiu Simila. She has been studying the orcas in these fjords for over two decades but she has never witnessed the collaborative efforts of the pod to round up the large schools of herring while they travel and then taking turns to feed on the “rear end” of the school.
As I adjust to the darkness underwater I can confirm everything Tiu suspected. The orcas are working together, performing a highly coordinated exercise in the herding of fish–huge schools of herring, larger than any other I have ever seen, compacted together into a tight ball. The immense ball of fish: a mere 5 feet under the ocean’s surface, buckles and sways, trying to escape, but the orcas swim around the ball making it tighter and tighter. In this sophisticated team effort every orca plays a role and every member of the pod gets their turn to feed. Young calves flank their mother’s side and mimic every move as they hone their herring-herding skills. We can hear the constant high-pitch sound of their echolocation calls all around us.
Suddenly I realize that my dry suit zipper is not fully closed. I feel the first burst of icy water on my belly and I desperately try to close it. Nothing works, it’s stuck. Cold water is now seeping into my right leg but I don’t want to get out of the water. I know I won’t last long but I am mesmerized by the whales. We are surrounded. There must be 50 orcas working this bait ball and I can hear Paul’s camera clicking away. Suddenly I sense a change in the water. What now? By the sheer volume of water they displace, we are able to “feel” humpbacks long before they arrive. I spot Paul and Goran. They are several feet away and they have now seen the larger whales and are desperately trying to get out of the way. The humpbacks are approaching the surface fast from beneath the herring ball. With no echolocation they are unable to see us. Unless we start swimming fast, the large whales might crush us. We all kick back and are missed by mere feet as the whales burst out of the ocean, their mouths full of fish. After I catch my breath I look underwater again but the herring ball has dispersed and the orcas, deprived of a meal, are also swimming away.
Tiu Simila is thrilled when she gets a first glimpse of the images on Paul’s camera screen. She tells us that until these images were made, no one understood the relationship between the orcas and the humpbacks in these waters. Now we know that the orcas are doing all the work, while the humpbacks, who until recently never entered these fjords, are being opportunistic fish thieves.
The long zodiac ride back to shore is a frosty one but as I fight to keep my body from shivering in my soaking clothes, I close my eyes and in my mind’s eye all I see are large orca fins all around us.
Cristina Mittermeier and her partner Paul Nicklen recently traveled to Norway for an upcoming story in National Geographic magazine. Nicklen’s Instagram photos from British Columbia were recently featured here on Proof. You can also hear about his passion for photography in this video interview.