Swimming with Orcas
A plunge into forbidding waters off Norway leads to an extraordinary encounter
The water is cold inside Norway’s northernmost fjords. When I slipped in headfirst, wearing a thick wetsuit, the four-degree-Celsius surface temperature made the water feel dense and biting on my exposed face. Diving down, I crossed a threshold into another world—dark, frigid, seemingly bottomless and home to giant carnivores that eat fish, seals and porpoises.
If you want to see wild orcas, they can be found in every ocean, from the Arctic to Antarctic. The coast of Canada’s British Columbia, Argentina’s Valdes Peninsula, and Australia’s Bremer Bay are all popular orca-watching spots.
Despite their ‘killer whale’ nickname, orcas don’t prey on humans. But they are the largest dolphins on the planet, with seven main ecotypes that vary in pigmentation pattern, diet and sonar dialect. Members of these groups don’t usually mate with one another, though scientists are divided on whether to consider them different species.
Author and photographer Pete McBride prepares to go diving with orcas.
Most countries set limits on how close you can get to orcas. That’s not the case in Norway, which has no laws against swimming with dolphins and whales. (The country’s whaling laws are also notoriously lax.)
This makes Norway an alluring destination for orca lovers, but it can also lead to danger for both humans and animals. At one point during my visit, I saw three young tourists from Spain block a pod of orcas with their sailboat, jump into the water and try to approach by paddleboard. Their tactics scared the orcas into hiding far below the surface. What’s more, the Spanish tourists could have ended up stranded out there beyond the fjords, five kilometers from the nearest shoreline, left to the mercy of the fierce Arctic weather and currents.
My tour operator, Jacques de Vos, went to great lengths to avoid such situations. De Vos is a South African-born diver who has been studying orcas in this region for the last seven winters and has a reputation for being sensitive to the animals and their habitat. He knows how to locate orcas without disturbing the pods or breaking up families.
A pod of orcas swims near the village of Skjervoy in the far north of Norway.
The orcas in this area feed on herring, which they corral into clusters called bait balls. It takes a lot of energy for cold-water mammals to orchestrate these feeding sessions, and de Vos makes sure his divers don’t get in the way. He uses his radio to keep in touch with nearby researchers so he can stay attuned to the animals’ behaviours and help locate individual members of the pods.
I went to Norway partly because the COVID-19 pandemic presented a unique opportunity to photograph orcas in their element. There were far fewer commercial tours operating, so the animals would be less harassed. More important, as shipping and fishing slowed worldwide, researchers were able to identify more whale and dolphin vocalizations.
Before de Vos would let me swim with the orcas, I spent a day on his boat learning about their behaviour. He tested my swimming ability, watching me carefully as I dove and climbed back on board, weighed down with diving gear. I listened to his instructions: Don’t swim aggressively towards the orcas. Move calmly and let them come to you. Don’t splash your flippers loudly on the surface or make jerky motions. Before we slid into the sea, de Vos played me a recording full of clicks, whistles and zipperlike sounds. Amazingly, each orca pod uses its own distinct language of notes and tones.
Behind the conversations, I heard the moans of humpback whales. De Vos pays attention to humpbacks, too. They tend to follow orcas and steal their bait balls. Humpbacks can be as large as 15 metres long and weigh more than 40 tonnes. They don’t attack humans, but once in a while, they inadvertently scoop up divers who get too close to their food. (This reportedly happened to a lobster diver on the east coast of the United States in 2020. The whale spat him out and he survived.)
On the recording de Vos played for me, the humpbacks called to each other in low baritones, ascending the musical scale. He explained that low and high notes travel different distances. A whale will call out to a podmate, and the pitch of the reply may indicate how far away it is. De Vos compares the giant creatures to truck drivers speaking to each other on different radio channels.
I never knew how powerful an orca’s sonar pulse could be until I got into the water and felt one reverberate deep in my chest, like the notes from a bass guitar at a rock concert. The sensation was so weirdly moving I hooted through my snorkel. When a six-tonne orca swims directly at you and pings you with his echolocation device—trying to identify who and what is swimming in his Arctic hunting waters—you realize you are in a completely alien world.
In the early dawn light, a pod of orcas feeds on herring in the waters near Skjervoy.
I swam alongside this eight-meter-long male for a few moments. We looked each other in the eye before he surfaced for a breath. His two-metre dorsal fin broke the water just metres in front of me, then he accelerated back down into the darkness with one swoosh of his fluke. Through my wetsuit hoodie, I faintly heard a click and a high-pitched whistle.
Two female orcas appeared about six metres below me, corralling herring into a bait ball. The pair seemed unbothered as I dove down to get a closer look. They started pushing the herring towards me as if I had arrived to help.
Suddenly, the male re-emerged from the depths. As he glided next to me, his pectoral fin, nearly the size of my entire body, slid under my stomach. We eyed each other again before he rolled left and swept his dorsal fin, the size of a small plane’s tail, just over my head.
The strafe felt more playful than territorial, like an orca high-five—a moment of connection with an enormous intelligent being in a place where sound is sight and the noisy natural glory of nature still reigns.
Smithsonian Magazine (October 2021), Copyright © 2021 by Pete McBride