Whale, whale, whale: safari time!

Text: Marcella van Alphen
Photographs: Marcella van Alphen

Focussed on the horizon, that seems to keep moving uncomfortably, I scout the choppy surface of the Norwegian Sea. Our boat has just left from the small fishing village of Stø, located on the northernmost tip of the Langøya Island of the Vesterålen Archipelago just slightly north of the popular Lofoten. A chilly breeze keeps my senses sharp on this very last day of August and the upcoming winter is already palpable in the air. Dressed warmly for today’s safari, I pick up my binoculars when I spot some activity on the horizon. I cannot yet make out what is going on precisely. Thinking back about my animal tracker course I graduated from in the South African bush, I have learnt to always be on the lookout for signs of other animals, and these fishing seagulls are definitely up to something.  I point out the commotion at sea to our captain who has already been adjusting the course of his small vessel… He takes his binoculars too and a large grin appears on his face: “Killer whales at 12 o’clock!”, he announces with clear excitement in his voice.

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As we approach the pod of killer whales, also called orcas, our passionate guide Hannaleena Väisänen, marine biologist with a specialisation in the fishing behaviour of sperm whales explains: “We are so lucky to come across this pod of orcas today! They are hunting at the moment which attracts the gulls that benefit from the confused fish and snatch a few for themselves.” She snaps a few shots with her camera on which she mounted a large tele-lens and continues: “I send in my photos to the Norwegian Orca Survey that monitors and studies the killer whales in the Norwegian waters. Their ID-catalogue consists of over 1,500 individuals so far.” The dorsal fin is unique to each orca, and the best way of identifying each individual. Meanwhile, I observe the iconic apex predator of the sea through my own lens and click away, trying to keep my balance on the moving boat. I am not quite sure what is the biggest challenge to capture these orcas: the moving boat or my seasickness that seems to surface despite the pills I took earlier.

The captain has turned off the engine to not disturb the animals and instead of the killer whales swimming away from us, they get closer and inspect us. If they look quite friendly, and have been pictured this way by Hollywood and controversial marine parks, they do get their name from somewhere and are actually scarier than the great white shark for most fishes and other sea mammals. They are known to kill and feed on whales, sometimes even larger than themselves, to be the only ones to predate on great white sharks, and to ever improve their hunting techniques within the pod, sometimes even specializing in targeting a specific type of food, such as seals or even seagulls!

For long moments, I take in their irregular puffing sound when they surface and breathe out, spraying water into the air. “The killer whale is part of the whale family, and it is the largest species in the sub-family of dolphins”, Hannaleena explains. She barely finishes her sentence: “Oh look! There is a calf!” she exclaims. Next to its roughly 8-meter-long mother, a 3-meter-long young recognizable by its obvious smaller size and yellow patches instead of the characteristic white above the eyes and below the mouth undulates at the surface of the sea. “This pod of killer whales is led by a matriarch, the oldest female orca. Family members are highly bonded and can stay together for life”, Hannaleena adds.

The orcas slowly move away, and I observe them disappearing in the distance, grateful for this magical moment. Our captain changes directions in search for some of the other six different types of whales we might come across today: beyond orcas, sperm whales, pilot whales, minke whales, humpback whales, harbour porpoises and Atlantic white-sided dolphins are also occasionally spotted in these waters.

Another sudden direction change occurs: local fishermen have reported a sperm whale sighting. The rarely-seen creature roams only the deepest oceans, and recently, they have been spotted more and more by fishermen as they have developed a technique to effortlessly steal their catches!

A northern gannet flies by while we head towards the static fishing boats that are getting closer. The fishermen are about to take up their long lines with hundreds of hooks. Given the time of the year, they are hoping to bring back some halibut, an IUCN Red List endangered species. But the sperm whales seem to care as little as the fishermen: the sound of the lines going up signals that it is dinner time! About one hundred meters from the scene, we notice a large spray display by a massive male sperm whale. “Females live in pods with their offspring, and adult males are solitary”, Hannaleena explains. “It is quite unusual to see three males gathered like this”, she continues. Sperm whales are the largest predators on Earth, roaming the deepest waters, and according to Hannaleena it is only here in Norway and in New Zealand that they can be observed not so far from shore. They can be as long as 20 meters and weigh up to 40 tonnes. These master divers can reach depths of over two kilometres. Hannaleena is in awe observing them: “Their block-shaped head contains the largest brain in the world, making them pretty smart: here they are delicately taking fish off these fishing lines one by one with their sharp 20-centimetre-long teeth, without losing too much energy.”

Suddenly, a tail goes up in the air before slowly disappearing into the ocean, announcing the start of a deep dive. Shortly after, the other two sperm whales mimic it while the fisherman on his unstable embarkation looks at the protected marine mammal about to feed on his catch.

It is getting late, and it is time to move back towards the Anda Island, one of the handful of places in Norway where the pelagic puffins come on shore to breed in a large colony. “They arrive in March and leave in August, but the weakest ones stay and there were still a few here last week”, Hannaleena tells us. In the distance, about 15 white-tailed fish eagles circle the sky. They predate on these puffins, an easy hunt for them. As we get closer to the island, we observe a few stocky small birds with their short wings and colourful beaks, wondering for how long they will survive.

If the outing has been full of majestic encounters, I am happy to see the mountains towering the small harbour of Stø getting closer, as the seasickness on this inhospitable sea is getting the best of me. I focus as hard as I can on the harbour with its traditional fishing boats. I need to anchor my sight on something more stable, and I look up at the Queen’s Trail, half hidden by the clouds. After this day at sea, hiking up the mountains tomorrow on firm land sounds like an excellent option!

Travel tips:

  • There are many whale-watching tours, especially in Lofoten, and many combine it with bird-watching. However, most of these companies use unethical practices, feeding fish eagles to attract them. For an ethical and interesting outing, refer to Arctic Whale Tours in authentic Stø.
  • There are not too many accommodation options in Stø, and after such an outing (seasickness is very common!), you may want to stay close-by. The Gunnartangen Rorbuer is a simple and good bet.
  • The season is short, only between June 1 and August 31. Make sure to pack some food with you, as there are no close-by restaurants and the cabins are self-catered.
  • Check out this interactive map for the specific details to help you plan your trip and more articles and photos (zoom out) about the area (short tutorial)!

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