It's 8.30am on a Saturday morning at the harbour of Tromso in Northern Norway. The local fishermen have tied up their boats and gone to sleep after a night at sea. We however are up at the crack of dawn, which in November in the Arctic is somewhere between 9 and 11am, until the sun stops rising completely for the remaining year.
The town is still asleep and there's no one around except for a few tourists on a boat named "Aurora Explorer" who capture mountain Tromstalstind, the highest mountain of Tromso, at sunrise. It is a gorgeous sight indeed - a snowcapped mountain illuminated by pink sunrays, but it's not what we're here for.
We board the boat with one goal in mind: to see the whales out at sea!
It's been a bucket list item for my boyfriend and I ever since I got to see a humpback whale in Greenland. Seeing whales together in the town where we met would be quite something, right? And orcas too - those adorable creatures that only humans can admire as every other creature at sea feares their encounter, hence the nickname "killer whales".
Onboard the "Aurora Explorer"
So we get onboard the "Aurora Explorer". A boat by the company Arctic Explorer with two decks that cruises the Barents Sea around Svalbard in summer and brings tourists to see the whales in Tromso in winter. Inside we hear excited chatter in Swedish, French, Italian, English and German. Everyone is excited but also a little tired. Good that there's coffee around - and cookies.
We slowly make our way out Tromso's harbour but before we're allowed to roam the deck and take pictures, we have to watch the safety video first. Our guide Iga promises us that it won't take long though and that she'll tell us all about the whales when we're done taking pictures on deck or start freezing, whatever comes first.
She keeps her promise and halfway between Tromso and the feeding grounds of the whales, she gathers us all in the salon and we get to see several short clips about orcas and humpbacks and listen to Iga tell us everything she knows - and that's a lot!
What we learned on our tour with Arctic Explorer
We learn that orca males have a straight fin while the females have a slightly curved one and humpbacks can be recognized by their huge size in comparison with the orcas, and their relatively small fin.
We also learn that orcas got their nickname killer whales not because they're stronger or more dangerous than for example sharks but because they're actually far more intelligent. They have developed hunting techniques that don't require much strength or sharp teeth but instead teamwork and endurance.
Orcas can catch a seal floating on a lonely ice floe by creating huge waves in a team of orcas on one side while another orca is waiting on the other side of the floe for the seal to slide off. They are even able to kill a humpback whale (which is much larger in size) by simply keeping his breathing hole shut with their own bodies, causing the humpback to dive deeper and deeper down the ocean and eventually choking and dying.
In Norway, orcas mainly feed on herring and they have developed a special technique to hunt these as well. Together in a group they keep the herring at the surface of the ocean by circling around them so that the herring school can't dive down the ocean. The herring are stuck and can't escape and so the orcas can eat them one by one.
This technique is known as carousel feeding and there's a video at the end of this post which shows what it looks like from the surface.
Luckily for the humpback whales that spend the winter in Norway, the orcas here won't do them any harm and instead even facilitate the hunt for them. While orcas have to keep moving to keep the herring in place and can only eat them one by one, humpback whales can use the carousel to its advantage by simply swimming through it and eating as many herring as they can. Cheeky, right?!
Our guide Iga promised us to see orcas on the trip but said that it's kinda tricky with humpbacks. They are around in Tromso but if they're fed, they disappear to deeper ground and don't show themselves for quite some time so Iga told us not to get our hopes up.
Who knew that less than half an hour later, we would see both, orcas and a humpback, in the fjords around Tromso?!
Crossing off a bucket list item
We got to a place between the islands Kvaløya and Ringvassøya, in a fjord where at one point, 20 boats in total were stopping to watch the whales. It was certainly a busy day at sea but there was a magical silence as no one dared speaking above a whisper and the only things you could hear were the clicking of cameras and the, louder than expected, "pffff" sound of the whales coming up for air.
We stayed outside to watch these gorgeous creatures for about an hour and a half and it remained incredibly silent onboard for the entire time. It was almost as if no one really believed that this was happening and therefore chose to be silent and enjoy it while it lasted.
That is, except for that crazy lady yelling "HUMPBACK HUMPBACK HUMPBACK HUMPBACK". Some people just can't control their excitement.
Aka me. Sorry!
It was quite special to see the whales though. Even though I had seen a humpback before, it was so fascinating to see the orcas work on keeping the herring school in place and the humpback just opening its mouth and eating as much as he could. The interaction between the humpback and orcas is something that was just incredibly interesting to watch and at one point they were even accompanied by a sea eagle!
Later on we briefly talked to Iga and agreed that this was kinda like an all-inclusive tour. You know, here in Northern Norway there are hundreds of tours to choose from for your trip but this whale safari with Arctic Explorer was not only a whale safari, but also a sea eagle safari and fjord cruise!
Whale Safaris in Tromso
Now the whales have only been coming to Tromso for the past 5 years as that's how long the herring has been here in the fjords. Whale safaris are therefore the newest tourist attraction in the area and there are lots of people trying to make money from it without having any prior knowledge about the whales.
Our guide Iga told us beforehand that we're not allowed to go closer than 50 metres to the whales and that if the whales will come to us, that's fine, but we weren't going to disturb them by driving towards them.
I had heard stories of boats driving toward whales in full speed before and there was a huge discussion in Tromso about whale safaris recently, resulting in Visit Tromso and the university working on guidelines to ensure pleasant experiences for both, the tourists and the whales.
On our tour with Arctic Explorer I felt comfortable about the crew's knowledge of the whales and their wish to not disturb them, the entire time! We kept our distance and only about 15 minutes before we headed back to Tromso, the whales decided to come to our boat. It was definitely worth the wait and I wouldn't have minded if they had continued to keep a distance either.
Unfortunately not all companies act this way and while everyone that day was calmy positioned in a huge semi-circle around the whales, one boat drove right through the circle where the whales were diving. I don't want to denounce anyone here but if you're coming to Tromso and want to go whale-watching, look out for companies who stick to the whale-watching guidelines by Visit Tromso.
Arctic Explorer is such a company and I can only recommend a whale safari with them if you'd like to not only experience but also learn more about whales!
Highlights of the tour with Arctic Explorer
Beside the fact that our guide Iga did a brilliant job in explaining the hunting techniques of the whales, and that the entire crew onboard respects the animals and sticks to the guidelines, I have to say that I really enjoyed being on a bigger boat.
Of course, you can go whale-watching on RIB boats and Arctic Explorer offers these trips as well. The advantage here is that you're much closer to the whales and if they decide to come close to you, you might end up being less than a metre away from the giants of the ocean. That certainly is an incredible experience, no doubt!
After standing outside in the wind and cold for more than an hour though, I was really glad for the possibility to go inside, drink a cup of tea and eat a waffle. I know I know, it's totally shallow but it just felt so good to get warm again, sit in a comfy seat and watch a movie about whales on our way back to the city. I guess I just am cosy like that.
A whale safari with Arctic Explorer costs 1200 NOK and you can book a tour either on their website www.arcticexplorer.no or over at Visit Tromso. Tours run daily at 9am from late October to February. Coffee, tea, cookies and warm clothing are included in the price so don't worry about getting cold!
And if you've made it this far, you might as well watch my short video of the tour below.
Have you ever seen whales before? If not, where would you like to see them one day?
Leave a comment below!
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*Snow in Tromso was a guest of Arctic Explorer on this trip, though as always, my opinions are my own.
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