Searching for orcas in Norway

400 kilometres north of the Arctic Circle lies the municipality of Skjervøy. Between November and January every year, migrating herring filter into the protected fjords to wait out the often-brutal winter storms. But they are not alone. Equipped in Shackleton apparel, writer and adventurer Hugh Francis Anderson joins marine biologist Andreas B. Heide on his annual search for orcas. Photography by Alex Fleming.

Cold greets me with mirthless indifference as I alight the ferry in Skjervøy. Through the haze of snow, I see Norwegian sailor, adventurer and marine biologist Andreas B. Heide waving at me, his arms high in the air and a smile stretched across his face. “Thanks for bringing the good weather,” he laughs as we embrace. It has been many months since our last journey together. Ahead, the familiar shape of his expedition yacht Barba gently rises and falls with the waves. It’s good to see her again. As I climb aboard, the familiar smell of fish soup rises from the cockpit, and minutes later we’re eating with glee, reminiscing on old times and soaking in the merriment of adventure. “Are you ready to find some orcas?” asks Andreas. With a cheer, we drink to the journey to come.

We sail out of the harbour early the next morning. The snowstorm has abated, and the sun lies low on the horizon. The pink sky is potted with streaks of cloud and the land around blanketed with a fresh layer of snow. “We’re heading further north,” says Andreas, raising his binoculars and scanning the water. “I think we’ll find the orcas there.” With light winds, we motor in a north-easterly direction. We have about six hours of usable light before darkness descends, and the sail to Andreas’ proposed mooring site – the minuscule Island of Loppa – will take us that amount of time. I take my position at the bow and settle into orca watch. The fierce freeze whips up off the ocean and thrashes against my face. I pull my hood tight around my face and scan the horizon. Nothing.

Sailing at 400 kilometres north of the Arctic Circle comes with both pros and cons. This far north, the limited daylight means that our mornings start early and are frantic. By 3pm darkness has descended, and we sit and wait for the next morning with the hope that we’ll find what we’re looking for. Yet the adage that it is the journey not the destination that truly matters, certainly rings true here. These are moments of camaraderie, of long discussions, games, reading, reflection and often when minor tasks take place. It is in these moments that bonds are formed and we become a team.

And so, our days follow in much the same way. Rising early, following Andreas’ knowledge of the area and the orca’s movements, and ending without finding them. Such is the search for wild animals. But then, on our penultimate day, we awake to a glass-like ocean. “Today we’ll find them,” mutters Andreas confidently. We raise the anchor and set sail. Travelling in a northerly direction once more, we round Loppa and, someway in the distance, I spot a dark blade momentarily cut through the surface and disappear. “Was that an orca?” I think. Moments later the onyx blade rises out of the water again, followed by another and another. “Orcas,” I hear Andreas cry. “12 o’clock, 500 meters”. He increases the speed as Barba cuts through the water towards the pod. “Hugh, get your dry suit on – you’re going in.” Overwhelmed, my hands shake with anticipation as I hurriedly pull the dry suit over my thermals. I don fins, pull the neoprene hood over my head and set my goggles in place. I look over the stern and see the dark mass of a bull orca rise from the depths. There are herring here and the pod is feeding. “Ready?” says Andreas. “Ready,” I reply.

I slip into the water. The skin on my face contorts with shock, and the adrenaline rips through my body as I swim towards the apex predator of the ocean. I glance down and in the deep see the white underside of a wild orca. Its size is overwhelming, and it moves with grace as it surges after the herring way down in the depths. The ocean has never appeared more miraculous than at this very moment. It is a memory that will last a lifetime; a memory that reminds me that adventure is omnipresent, we need only search for it.

Hugh wears: Nimrod Cashmere Sweater
Andreas wears: Hero Roll Neck