Swimming with orcas in Norway

Even ensconced in a 7mm-thick dry suit you shiver with cold as the boat pushes out to sea under milky shades of twilight. These near-Arctic temperatures of northern Norway drop as low as -2°C by November.

But the shivers might also be down to anticipation, because in a few moments you’ll slip over the side of the boat into the water (which, while cool, will be warmer than the air) and swim just metres away from a pod of orcas, the apex predator of the marine world. They’ll have little interest in you, focused on hunting for the herring flurrying around the fjords, but it’s still an unnerving prospect to be this close.

“You can’t swim alongside them, as they’re too fast and agile,” says Katie Todd, polar vacation specialist at our partner Natural World Safaris. “And to be honest, they can be a bit scary. I’m a really experienced open water swimmer but I would be very conscious of keeping a respectful distance, as we should for any type of wildlife watching. And a sense of respect and wariness is especially healthy with orcas.”
As far as whether swimming with orcas is ethical, it’s the same as with any kind of wildlife encounter: ‘Yes, but...’
So is it ethical to swim with orcas? Yes, but it must be done responsibly, in the wild, with the animals’ welfare prioritised.

In Norway, there have been incidents of local people heading out to see orcas and unintentionally scaring them off by approaching them in the wrong way. There is government guidance for watching and snorkelling with whales – orcas are actually a species of dolphin, but there are also whales in these waters – but it is not always adhered to.

Swimming with these intelligent and beautiful animals, known as the ‘wolves of the sea’ for their ferocity and teamwork when hunting, is a deeply emotional experience for those lucky enough to get the opportunity. But it is also a valuable tool for conservation. It can inspire passion for the protection of the orcas and marine ecosystems, encouraging people to become advocates when they get back home.

Most killer whale swimming vacations in Norway are accompanied by scientific researchers and other experts, so you gain an understanding of the orcas, while your sightings and photographs form part of vital data collections.

Norway doesn’t hunt orca – just, sadly, minke whales – however, they do face other threats. Large fishing trawlers scour the sea, leaving fewer herring for the orcas and depriving local fishermen of an income. Oil exploration licenses are still being granted in Arctic waters, with surveys creating disorienting underwater noises that affect the orcas’ sonar. Plus, vast ships transporting oil off the Norwegian coast risk spillages that can kill swathes of marine wildlife.

The economic benefits of orca tourism might be dwarfed by those of the oil industry, but the voices of environmental defenders can be amplified through nature positive vacations such as swimming with orcas.

What does swimming with orcas in Norway involve?

Likely due to global warming, the herring – and the orcas that hunt them – are moving north to colder waters in fjords such as Kvænangen and Reisafjorden. This means that day trips from Tromsø are not as practical as they once were.

These days, the best option is a week-long liveaboard boat tour. Using a chartered private boat, you can be with the orcas quickly each day and stay with them for as long as you (or the orcas) want. Katie reports a 100 percent viewing success rate since they began running these trips in 2018.

Boat facilities

Ships are often polar expedition vessels built with function in mind, but still perfectly comfortable, although not luxurious. Some, however, include creature comforts such as a washing machine and even a hot tub on the top deck – ideal for warming up after a half-hour in the water.

Small group trips

These are small group trips with around 12-14 passengers, plus crew, a tour leader and often a specialist guide such as a scientific researcher or wildlife photography expert. You’ll sleep in shared cabins and be catered for by an onboard chef, with fresh produce purchased from markets and local fishermen before leaving port, providing an income for remote communities outside the summer tourism season.

Swimming and snorkelling with orcas

In November, which is when almost all orca-swimming vacations take place, daylight hours are limited, so you’ll make the most of the time, spending three hours or so bobbing around on smaller boats. Weather permitting, you’ll get in the water and spend 20-30 minutes at a time swimming and snorkelling with the orcas. Ever conscious of the orcas’ wellbeing, responsible skippers won’t approach the pod from the front or rear, and only one boat is allowed within 50m of them at a time. Then it’s a matter of waiting for them to come towards you before you join them.

The group will probably be split, with half remaining on the main boat until it’s their turn. That way, there aren’t too many people in the water at a time – both for safety reasons and to avoid worrying the orcas.

The water is very clear, so even though regulations stipulate swimmers can’t get closer than 30m, you should still enjoy excellent views. The boat will stay close by with the engine off to minimise disturbing the orcas and conserve fuel, so you can swim back to it at any time.

Evening activities

By the time you return to the boat, with the light failing, you’ll be pretty cold and ready for food and a hot shower. Afterwards, you’ll have lectures on subjects such as ecosystem conservation, fjord marine life and orca behaviours. Compared with whales, orcas are not especially well-studied and researchers’ body of knowledge increases every year. During your trip, they will collect data on sightings of individual orcas, behaviours and the physical appearance of the animals, all of which contribute to understanding and protecting them.
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Orcas are the most intelligent beings. I’m in awe of their communities and family structure. Pods have a matriarchal society; grandma is in charge. You can feel the wisdom.

What behaviours will we see?

Killer whales in Norway are effectively in competition with the fishing boats. They’ve come down from their Arctic home to hunt, with vast shoals of herring on the menu. Their cunning technique is to herd the terrified herring into a giant ball, then slap it with their tail flukes to shake a few loose which can then be picked off while they’re still stunned. Known as carousel feeding, to watch it close-up is an incredible experience – the entire pod is involved and you’ll get a sense of how they communicate as they coordinate their underwater feast.

Pods can be up to 30 strong. It’s known that they have very complex social structures, usually dominated by a matriarchal figure who can live as old as 90 – twice the age of the average male.

“Orcas are the most intelligent beings,” says Annah Evington, tour leader at our partner WhaleSwim Adventures,. “I’m in awe of their communities and family structure. Pods have a matriarchal society; grandma is in charge. You can feel the wisdom.”

You might see humpback whales, which display ‘learned behaviours’. Just as cunning as orcas, they will sometimes swim up beneath the swirling herring balls to poach a mouthful of fish for themselves. They’ll also follow the fishing boats in the hope of scooping up any herring that have wriggled out of the net.

Humpbacks also have their own unique tactic for fishing, creating ‘bubble nets’ by blowing rings of bubbles from their blowholes. These enclose the herring, and the whales then simply swim through the bubble to swallow their prey. “The humpbacks are a very different animal,” continues Annah, who has also led many whale swimming tours in Tonga and Tahiti and whose career has me practically green with envy. “They’re in the fjords birthing and mating, saving energy to get back to the Antarctic. I’ve also seen fin whales from a distance, and quite often there are sea eagles too.”

Is swimming with orcas in Norway dangerous?

There have been several well-publicised tragedies involving captive orcas, at entertainment complexes where these intelligent and sociable creatures are trained to perform tricks for the amusement of tourists. It’s a practise we’ve campaigned against for years, and we’re pleased that it seems to gradually be coming to an end.

In the wild, however, there are very few recorded instances of orcas attacking humans. But while they’re much more interested in scoffing down the herring than looking at you, you won’t be getting very close to them. Full-grown orcas can weigh up to six tonnes and reach 6-8m in length. They’re immensely powerful, so it’s perfectly natural to have a few nerves.

Boat captains keep a close eye on the group to ensure you stay together and help you climb back in after a swim. You will need to be physically fit enough to haul yourself over the side, as well as to climb up ladders and swim in the open water for up to half an hour at a time.

And you need to be prepared for the cold. This is the Arctic and you can be in the boat, exposed to the elements, for up to three hours at a time. The wind chill factor is not to be underestimated.

Will we see the Northern Lights?

Now, you may be thinking at this point: we’re in the far north of Norway, within the Arctic Circle, it’s winter, it’s dark – what are my chances of seeing the Northern Lights? And the answer is: excellent. In this remote region, the aurora borealis is frequently seen sweeping through the night skies, illuminating the remote fjord landscapes. It’s “one of the most cosmic experiences we can have on earth” as Annah Evington puts it.

If you’re getting an early night, you can request that a crewmember knocks on your door if the lights are spotted. Or, if you’ve opted for a boat with a hot tub, you might enjoy the show with bubbles and beer.

Other evenings might be spent listening for the hauntingly beautiful strains of whale song using state-of-the-art equipment, or just sitting around sharing stories with the rest of your group. Given that you’ll be voyaging alongside each other 18 hours a day for a week or so, friendships form very quickly and easily.

When is the best time to swim with orcas in Norway?

The orcas are in the fjords off Tromsø from November to January. It’s the polar night from December to mid-January, when there’s no daylight, so most trips run up to mid-November only. Happily, this is also just the right time to catch the Northern Lights.
Written by Rob Perkins
Photo credits: [Page banner: Alezack] [Intro: Natural World Safaris] [Swimming and snorkelling: Natural World Safaris] [What behaviours will we see?: Natural World Safaris] [Will we see the Northern Lights?: DDStudio]