• September 29, 2014

Norway’s Opportunistic Fish Thieves

Photographs by
Paul Nicklen

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.

Picture of orca pod
A pod of orcas in the northern fjords of Norway.

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.

Picture of orcas herding fish
Orcas herd and corral a school of herring in the northern fjords of Norway.

 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.

Picture of humpback whales underwater
A pod of humpback whales swim in the northern fjords of Norway.

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.

Picture of humpback whale feeding
A feeding humpback whale surfaces in the northern fjords of Norway.

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.

There are 48 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. Paul
    December 10, 2014

    I watched this spectacle from above the water near Tromso. I noted that the Orca came in towards the Humpbacks when they surfaced to feed on the Herring they missed so it maybe isn’t all that one sided.

  2. Jude Wisken
    November 14, 2014

    Beautiful photos – amazing how all beings are changing in unison – clever old humpbacks!

  3. ash
    November 14, 2014

    Brings a tear to my eyes. I love orcas in the wild. I am so jealous you guys got to see this amazing vision. A memory you will never forget for the rest of your lives

  4. Wolfcruise
    November 12, 2014

    Incredible ! I would be jumping in too !! What an experience – phenomenal photos !

  5. Anthony C Woods
    October 14, 2014

    A truly outstanding piece about a truly astonishing natural event! Well done!!

  6. abdeljalil
    October 13, 2014

    beautiful photos many thanks for …!

  7. Roy Mills
    October 12, 2014

    Fascinating in more than one way.But last night the Orca watchers in Puget Sound were excited about the birth of a new orca but still despondent about the steadily shrinking sizes of the 3 local pods. Too much human noise and traffic are deemed the cause. Hint to the Norsk orcas Do not emigrate

  8. Binh Le
    October 10, 2014

    Very nice shot ….congrat !

  9. Marjorie Schuham
    October 6, 2014

    Thanks for first be willing to enter the water with the Orca and then sharing this beautiful opportunity with all of us.

  10. Rick Cebulski
    October 6, 2014

    So happy it had a happy ending.I thought man was the fish thieve, illegally harvesting the whales. An amazing story none the less.

  11. Unity
    October 6, 2014

    I went to Norway in 2012 to see the northern lights. Unfortunately we didn’t get to see any orca or humpbacks or any other marine mammal. This article was brilliant though 🙂

  12. Peggy Sherrod
    October 6, 2014

    Thankyou for Sharing your amazing day at Sea and the discovery you happened upon in the process.

  13. Erika K
    October 6, 2014

    thank you Cristina and Paul for relating this incredible story.

    • Leendert
      October 7, 2014

      I am goign with Waterproof Expeditions coming January to see those amazing Orca’s and Humpbacks as well. Nice trip, looking forward seeing those fishing hunters as well !

  14. William E. Satala
    October 6, 2014

    What a thrill to read this amazing account of new discovery of Orca and humpback behavior. Pictures are spectacular. Excellent presentation!

  15. Jo GRACIA
    October 5, 2014

    Beautiful a real dream, I’m doing underwater photography but this is the sommum

  16. Merche
    October 5, 2014

    Fantástica información y fotos impresionantes. He sentido una experiencia impresionante al leerlo y quizás algo de frío.

  17. Robin Lawrence
    October 4, 2014

    We got to witness this exact behavior in Alaska. We counted 16 humpbacks at once with their heads coming up out of the water full of fish. Truly awesome experience.

  18. Antonio Falivene
    October 1, 2014

    Great story and photos! and great adventure should have been working and navigate in those northern waters of the ocean; even if I would have liked more details about the two mammals, for example humpback whales are bigger than orcas if so how much bigger? and so on…

  19. Silje Osland
    October 1, 2014

    (Ups, wrong button) ‘ll be kayaking next to them… If I dare!

  20. Silje Osland
    October 1, 2014

    I love this story – I felt that I was in the water with you. I just moved to Tromsø – looking forward to see them while I

  21. Coburn Dukehart
    October 1, 2014

    Dear Svc – we have corrected the spelling of “Finnish.” Thanks for the catch!

  22. Bibi
    October 1, 2014

    This article brings tears to my eyes. Thank you for this. Inspiring and touching.

  23. Marta rivera
    October 1, 2014

    Que bonita experiencia, no hay palabras para describir, esos momentos. Muy buenas fotos, gran trabajo, saludos

  24. Rich Davidson
    September 30, 2014

    We have SO SO much to learn from these ancient mammals.

  25. Sam Camp
    September 30, 2014

    Wow felt like I was right there

  26. Svc
    September 30, 2014

    Great story. However it’s spelled Finnish. My wife cringed, being a native Finn.

  27. Gail
    September 30, 2014

    I love photos about Orcas, whales and dolphins! Even though I live in Montana and have never seen one, I still like to watch & observe! Thanks for the great photos!!

  28. Myriam Kane
    September 30, 2014

    What an unbelievable life experience…

  29. Erik
    September 30, 2014

    I read this 3 times over. The story is as suspensful each time. And the pictures are breath-taking. Incredible!!

  30. Leendert
    September 30, 2014

    Yes great trip and photo’s.

  31. Ezer Ace L. Quizon
    September 30, 2014

    Very informative article, and great photos too.

  32. Ezer L. Quizon
    September 30, 2014

    Calling them fish thieves is a great insult to these marvelous and majestic creatures. I’d prefer to call them master fishers of the sea..

  33. Ignacio Payá
    September 30, 2014

    Very interesting and very beautiful photos. I would like to ear more about this whale behaviour. It remenber me the whales and toothfish interactions.

  34. Darnell
    September 30, 2014

    Great story and photos to match!

  35. massimo canneti
    September 30, 2014

    Sorry, i have not comments to do. Simply i say “thanks” for all interesting informations..

  36. ppv
    September 30, 2014

    what a thieves! by the way, why the killer whales don’t fight with them?

  37. Marlynda Elstgeest
    September 30, 2014

    Fantastic article and photos. Well done Paul and Goran !

  38. mr ,J.Wright
    September 30, 2014

    these intelligent beautiful animals should never be hunted for what ever reason.

  39. nordine Maatallah
    September 29, 2014

    The animal world in an example to follow.

  40. nordine Maatallah
    September 29, 2014

    A thrilling story indeed.

  41. Isabel Hernández Tibau
    September 29, 2014

    Muy interesante este relato y muy impresionante y arriesgado sumergirse en la oscuridad del agua …. Felicito al autor del artículo!! Suerte!!!

  42. Baron Barnett
    September 29, 2014

    Phenomenally beautiful!!!!

  43. rina
    September 29, 2014

    Great experience! And photos too!

  44. Iris
    September 29, 2014

    What a truly mesmerising sight to behold. Magnificent to read.

  45. Sharon Blomlie
    September 29, 2014

    Outstanding photos and story! I’ve placed the URL on my facebook – WONDERFUL job!

  46. James
    September 29, 2014

    Ironic that this is in a country known for its prolific whaling.

  47. Roy John
    September 29, 2014

    Very nice photos

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