Why you should care
Because this is an opportunity to swim with something that can kill you.
If you’ve only glimpsed an orca through a Plexiglas window or watched a trainer whistle-command one into false submission inside a concrete stadium, then you haven’t really seen an orca. Not until you’ve stretched your body starfish-style and motionless on the surface of a mountain-fringed fjord and watched one’s arching enormity slice through the bottle-green water below, have you seen an orca.
And Andfjord, near the Arctic town of Andenes in Norway’s Vesterålen archipelago, is the place to do it. The area has long drawn whale watchers in the summer months to see sperm whales. But in 2012, thanks to the movement of the orcas’ lunch — spring-spawning herring — it has now become the top place on the planet to don a mask and snorkel to swim with orcas, December into February.
Recently fed orcas can often be quite curious and allow boats to come close.
Among those you’ll be shivering alongside when you head out on a rigid inflatable boat (RIB): world-class underwater photographers and adventurers on weekend getaways from Paris, Amsterdam and Berlin. Lofoten Opplevelser is one of a handful of operators in Andenes that puts humans in the water with the giants. A three-hour RIB boat snorkeling tour costs about $244 per person. When the whales are located, “we need to see what kind of behavior they have,” explains owner and skipper Rolf Malnes. Orcas that have recently eaten can often be quite curious and allow boats to come close, he adds. Otherwise, they tend to keep their distance.
Snorkelers clad in watertight dry suits, hoods and snorkel masks (fins aren’t permitted) sit in the open-air boat, waiting for the “Go!” command to enter the chilly water, which is usually around 36 degrees Fahrenheit, only slightly balmier than the air temperature. The luckiest sighting: orcas herding a bait ball of herring, which they push toward shore and then bat with their tails to stun the fish before eating them, one by one.
“The best thing, when you get in the water, is often just to lay still,” says Malnes. In addition to orcas, snorkelers often spot humpbacks and fin whales — the world’s second largest whale, at about 78 feet long — which also feed on the herring. And it’s precisely this convergence of different species that makes what’s happening in Andenes so spectacular, says Sven Gust of Northern Explorers, a tour operator that runs seven-night trips ($3,225 per person) that take guests aboard a former whaling ship, the MS Siøblomsten.
Not everyone thinks snorkeling with the animals is a good thing. “It’s quite new … but I wouldn’t do it,” says Henrik Hansen, a local from the neighboring village of Bleik, who has guided nature safaris to see puffins during the summer months. “I don’t know if [the orcas] see us as a human, seal or a water bird.”
If you’re keen to figure that out yourself, plan a visit to Andenes, stat. “Do it in the next two to three years,” Gust advises. The herring are a movable feast, changing their feeding habits every 7 to 10 years. And when the fish split, of course, so will the whales.
Photography by Andreas B. Heide, Barba.no