Why would a girl want to dive with a killer whale?
Why would a girl want to dive with a killer whale?
The sea is practically boiling as I wait for the "ready" signal in my free diving gear aboard our 26-foot boat. A hundred seagulls and five or six sea eagles are circling above us, looking for a snack. A school of herring is being scared to the surface, causing the sea to boil with moving and jumping fish. Suddenly big, black fins appear all around us, and a characteristic breathing tells us that there is more going on than meets the eye. On a signal from Tony, our guide and captain, I let myself sink into the cold water.
At first I see nothing. Everything is dark and blurry. It is an enormous school of herring that confuses my vision. The first few seconds I experienced a severe case of "not seeing the wood for the trees"... Several meters away I can dimly see large shadows manoeuvring their way among the herring. The distance combined with the green-coloured sea makes it all seem a bit unreal. Even so, it feels safer to keep a distance. The torpedo-shaped shadows and their black and white colours suddenly bring reality back: we are on a killer whale safari in Lofoten, Norway.
A sophisticated hunter
The eating frenzy we are witnessing may seem a dramatic and chaotic meal to the untrained eye. However, research has shown that the drama is reserved for the herring, as it is actually one of the most sophisticated and well-planned registered feasts known in nature. The hunt is based on large-scale co-operation, often with several pods of killer whales working together. Some whales are circling around the herringschool, close to the surface, to keep the school under control and prevent the herring escaping. As soon as the school is compressed into a small area, other killer whales move in and with a powerful swing of their tail, they strike the herring unconscious. Some of the herring actually die from the forceful blow. Now you might imagine the killer whale swimming in with its mouth wide open mouth, catching as many herring as possible but no: the orcas catches the herring one by one, biting the heads off and rejecting it with contempt, and only then enjoying the rest. This is truly a feast. The only items missing seem to be a knife and fork.
A meal such as this can last for several hours depending on the size of the school of herring and how hungry the killer whales are feeling. When it is all over the fjord is left dark and quiet. The sea is calmed by the abundance of herring oil on the surface, and nothing but a few dead herring and the occasional bitten-off head are witness of the drama that has just taken place. But, we are lucky. Instead of a quiet after-dinner nap, the killer whales want to play!
Once again I let myself glide into the water. I try to stay close to the boat, as it is the boat that the killer whales find interesting not us divers. I have not been in the water long before the first orcas appear behind me. Four of them are coming, and as if it were carefully planned they split up and regroup in a formation below me. They turn their white bellies up toward me and close in - two to my left and two at my right. The whites of their bodies is in perfect contrast to the dark water, and I am deeply moved by this nature's theatre that is taking place around me. To show their bellies, the most vulnerable point of their body, is the orcas' way of showing trust. I am surrounded by an atmosphere of peace and tranquillity, and not for a moment do I think about the orca as a predator.
Love at first sight
Underwater the situation was worse. Without a flash that could scare the pods away from the boat Per had to trust the know-how of the captain so that the timing of our drop-off into the sea was timed to perfection. Luckily Tony and Margareta have worked at Strømsholmen Sea Sport Center for two years, and their knowledge proved invaluable for both divers and photographers.
Orcinus orca rulers of the sea
Latin name Orcinus Orca, best known as "Killer Whale"
The first person to do research on orcas was a Frenchman (or a Dane the experts can't seem to agree on this) who observed that the orca attacked other species of whales and seals. When he described this animal in his local language (French or Danish) the researcher said something like "the whale that kills other whales". When this was translated into English it became "Killer Whale", instead of the more correct term "Whale Killer".
The orca is not dangerous to humans - to date, no attacks by orcas on humans are known.
Orcas live in closely knit family groups or pods all their life, the orca pods are lead by a strict matriarch.
The pods normally counts 5 to 50 individuals, but both single whales as well as "super" pods of 150 animals are observed. On our safari week we observed many pods totalling several hundred animals.
Even though orcas are friendly, they are not always playful. Several times we experienced having manoeuvred the boat close to the orcas only to find them disappear before we could get into the water, reappearing in a totally different location the next time they broke the surface for air.