Watching Orcas in Norway
‘Orcas’ or the inaptly named killer whales are powerful dynamic and charismatic sea mammals superbly adapted to their marine environment where they are undoubtedly the undisputed top predator. They are the largest and probably the most ‘intelligent’ members of the dolphin family (Delphinidae). I have discovered a lot about Orcas in the last month and I’m totally fascinated by their way of life. I do not have the arrogance to regard them as a lesser species than ourselves but as equals in our natural world. They have a long lifespan males can live between 50 and 60 years of age and females as much as 80! But the average lifespan is about 30 and 40 years respectively. Males (or bulls) have a body length of between 7 & 9.8 metres and weigh between 3.8 & 5-5 tons females (or cows) are smaller at 4.5- 8.5 metres. Orcas are social animals and live in family ‘pods’ throughout their lives. The pod can consist of four generations of related members. Females, the ‘Matriarchs’, assume the dominant role and they form social units called ‘matrilines’ which have their own ‘dialects’ and share a common repertoire of calls. On the face of it they have a complex and seemingly ordered animal ‘society’
In early December 2007 I travelled to Norway 250 kilometres beyond the Arctic circle in search of the famous Orcas of Tysfjord situated in the north west of the country. I am glad to report that I did get a glimpse of them eventually! It was quite a trek to get there involving a flight from the UK to Oslo followed by an internal flight to Bodo then a four & half hour bus journey to Bognes where I was based for the week at the comfortable Tysfjord Turistsenter hotel which is referred to as ‘Base Camp’ this is located on the shore of a creek off the main fjord. In the recent past masses of shoaling herring used to spend the autumn & winter in the inner Vestfjord, Tysfjord and Ofotfjord and they were followed by hundreds of Orcas. It seems now that the Orcas have become more pelagic again in response to the movements of the herrings. So the golden years of watching Orcas in the Tysfjord area may well have come to an end for the present time. It was apparent however during my visit in early December that herring shoals do occasionally come into the fjord followed by the Orcas so they are becoming more transient in their habits and making hunting forays into the fjords on a fairly regular basis. I spent five full days in the area voyaging daily out into Tysfjord on either a RIB boat operated by the company ‘Lofoten Opplevelser’ or on board the large ship called the ‘Leonora’ operated by the very able Captain Per Ole Lund of ‘Arctic Whaletours’. There were a couple of days in the week that there were no sightings at all of Orcas but they were seen on other days by people on either the RIB’s or the ‘Big Boat’ as they call it unfortunately I was often on the wrong boat on the days that they were seen! I did eventually see Orcas, a group of about 8 which included a big male, females and at least one calf this was literally on the last hour of the last day in failing light! (daylight is short in Norway at this time of the year) however it was well worth the wait. The crews of all the whale watching boats are very experienced in finding Orcas and they are in contact with the fishing boats and ferry operators in the fjord and the system obviously works well as they reported the sightings of the Orcas during the week. I met many people from all over Europe during my time there who were staying at the Turistsenter hotel or in the self catering chalets or nearby seasonal motel (basically like an youth hostel) which are all owned and managed by the hotel. A great many of those who stayed for just a day or two were not able to see the Orcas so they were greatly disappointed. It may well be that there will be some changes to the way the whole operation will be run in future years but I have spoken to the operators who say that they will continue to run trips to see the Orcas in some format. So my advice to those of you who are contemplating a visit to this area of Norway to see Orcas is to plan to stay a few days there, at least five days, allowing a day or more either side to reach this location by whichever means of transport you decide upon. Inclement weather can also mean that the boats will not venture out into the fjord on some days and then the Orca Tysfjord tourist centre can organise land based wildlife watching and sightseeing trips in the locality. As for which vessels to utilise while you are there well both are worth going on and to give an unbiased opinion the RIB’s, which are extremely fast & seaworthy 9.8 metre Zodiacs, can get to the Orcas quicker even if the ride can be bumpy it is very exhilarating if you are looking for an adrenaline rush!
But for the ultimate ‘Orca’ experience and if you are brave enough you can even don a dry suit and snorkel with the Orcas! Some people may find this unethical but the people who I spoke to who had dived in with them were obviously moved by the experience. A Dutch woman told me of the unforgettable memory of a mother and calf swimming below her. Of course it begs the question on whether or not the Orcas are dangerous. There is no ‘authenticated’ case of Orcas killing anyone but there was a case in California in 1972 of a wet-suited surf boarder being attacked by an Orca he responded by hitting the animal with his fist and it withdrew and the surfer was able to get to the beach safely but a wound he sustained during the attack required many stitches. The explanation given by experts is that the orca mistook the surfer for a seal which form a substantial part of the orca’s diet in Californian waters. So I leave you to make your own judgement as to the wisdom of leaping into an alien environment with our planets top predator! You need to ensure that you book the RIB’s in advance to get a place on board as space is limited. You will be issued with a wind & waterproof body suit to fit over your own clothes. The wind chill can be quite severe at this time of year so its essential to be in possession of the appropriate clothing. I wisely invested in good outdoor gear which had basically a down filling and ensure too that you wear thermal baselayers, good footwear (Gore-Tex or similar) and thermal and ‘waterproof’ gloves especially when using the RIB’s where you are more exposed to the elements.
So would I go again to see the Orcas in Tysfjord? The answer is an empathic‘Yes’ apart from seeing the sometimes elusive Orcas I had good views of the fascinating northern lights (Aurora Borealis) on two star studded clear nights. We saw white tailed-eagles each day and even a golden eagle, I also saw a moose and calf, a red fox and the most stunning dramatic scenery imaginable with snow covered mountains, frozen lakes and rivers, picturesque Norwegian houses lit up with Christmas lights and the company of an international clientele of enthusiastic like minded people.
If you were to stay in Bodo then I would recommend the ‘Thon Nordlys Hotel’ ask for a room overlooking the marina. The hotel’s ‘Egon’ restaurant is a good venue to eat in. If you get a chance you must visit the ‘Top 12 Rooftop Bar’ at the Radisson SAS hotel for a coffee and a light snack where you can enjoy a panoramic view of the area. There are some good outdoor clothing shops in Bodo in case you have forgotten some item. The main bus station where you can catch a bus to Bognes (Narvik) is a short walk from all the main hotels and in the same building you will find the tourist information centre.
If you are a birder take a walk along the quayside from here I saw white tailed-eagles soaring with an air of expectancy around the area of the fish processing plant on the far side of the harbour. In the harbour I saw a number of eider ducks and a few delightful long tailed-ducks.
Suggested reading material on Orcas:-
‘Orcas - The Whale Called Killer’ by Erich Hoyt.
‘Norwegian Killer Whales’ by Dr. Tiu Simila & John Stenersen.
‘Listening To The Whales: What the Orcas Taught Us’ by Alexandra Morton.
Other tips:- For more information on where to watch Orcas in Norway and details of ‘Orca Safari’ boat operators visit the following websites:-
To view video clips of Orcas I suggest you take a look at ‘You Tube’ on the web and in the search facility enter ‘Orcas of Tysfjord’.
If you are not able to organise ‘do it yourself’ holidays then there are two well known and experienced UK based wildlife tour operators who organise trips each year to see the Norwegian Orcas and these are:-
‘Naturetrek’ www.naturetrek.co.uk Tel- + 44 (0) 1962 733051
‘Wildwings’ www.wildwings.co.uk Tel- + 44 (0) 117 9658 333
This article has been written by Elfyn Pugh who runs a bird tour venture in mid-Wales called ‘Red Kite Safaris’. Visit www.redkitesafaris.co.uk.