Travelling to the Arctic circle in winter, to many, would appear as madness. But yet, just the idea of swimming with the King of the Sea, was enough for me to leave behind the warm comforts of summer and embark on a brand new adventure full of unknowns and uncertainties. There’s always ideas and expectations running through my mind leading into trips to new places like this, however, I don’t think there’s anything that could of prepared me for what lay ahead in the rugged, and wild fiords of Norway. I’ve lived with “Raynauds Syndrome” my whole life, a condition where the circulation in my extremities is very poor, leading to cold or numb hands and feet in cooler weather. So you could say, travelling to the arctic in winter wasn’t the smartest of decisions.. or the safest. But it had been my dream to meet the King of the Sea since my childhood and early fascinations with the ocean, which made this opportunity too dear to pass up. So, I took the risk, along with some precautionary tactics, and booked my flight to Norway.
The scenery that engulfed us, was otherworldly, rugged mountains towered out of the ocean all around us and the dark, cold sea was rich with life of so many different kinds.
It’s truly a magnificent environment to be immersed in.
The elements here can be challenging to endure, let alone work with. We fought the wind, snow, and sub zero temperatures day after day in hope of an opportunity to encounter Orca in the narrowing window of day light, which in November, is narrowing significantly by the day.. but despite our efforts, we discovered that they were elusive creatures, and getting a moment with them, was going to be their decision, not ours. It’s crazy to come such a long way and realise that the encounter you’d hoped for, is in the end, entirely out of your control. That is just the nature, of nature.. unpredictable and uncontrollably wild.
After a few days attempts, through rain, hail and snow, the conditions that we experienced served as a reminder that true beauty, does not give itself away so easily.
On one of the days on the water, we noticed some familiar blows coming from across the fiord. Our skipper, Ali, who had traveled all the way from Tonga to guide us, took us a little closer in to investigate. As we gently approached, the blows grew in number. A large gathering of North Atlantic humpbacks was beginning to happen right before our eyes and within minutes it became the largest pod of whales any of us had ever seen! I quickly flew my drone up, trying to keep it steady with my cold hands, swapping it out for quick heat pack rejuvenation moments in an attempt to maintain functionally in my hands, keeping a safe distance with my subtle little device, we were able to count over 25 humpback whales in the pod. A rare and grand sight to see! We didn’t see any orcas this day, but despite the cold, and despite the absence of sunlight, the Norwegian fiords had gifted us yet another grand spectacle of nature. An encounter I will look back upon, for years, to come.
Being a photographer, it’s easy to fall into the mindset of needing a shot list of sorts when you spend this kind of money and take your body to such extremes. However, I realised that you can’t just come here and take a moment from them, they decide whether they will give you a moment, and you have to be patient about it, and you have to be ok with the experience not meeting your fantasy expectations. In this case, the trip exceeded mine, which doesn’t happen for everyone. I actually found it almost poetic, that we had to venture so far out of our comfort zones for just a brief and often fleeting moment with this mysterious animal. I don’t think it could of happened any other way though, it’s as if the long journey here, the travel, the finance, the organising, the courage to face the cold, is all part of a preparation process before we can somewhat ‘earn’ a moment in the presence of an Orca. Well, it felt like that for me anyway.
The challenging environment just seemed to accentuate the mysterious wonder of this apex predator.
We had mostly overcast conditions during our stay, as the snow season had just hit when I arrived, which created beautifully fresh, white snow covered mountains, but also hid the little illumination of golden light that attempted to shine through for a few hours around midday.. After a couple of days, I wasn’t sure if I was even going to see Orcas under the water let alone with good light.. Finally, toward the end of our trip, the persisting clouds pealed away to reveal a sky full of colour and promise. As we motored through the fiords on our RIB..
I really had this feeling that this day was going to be the day, where I finally got to meet, with the King of the Sea.
When I first saw the iconic and powerful dorsal slowly rise from the surface, lined with golden light, I was completely captivated, we had come across a feeding frenzy around a huge all of herring. A fishing ship was close by, with a net in the water, which reminded me of the harsh reality of human supply and demand and the damage that humanity is having of the fragile ecosystems of our planet. I was told that they were operating to a sustainable quota, but that was just so hard to believe with the sheer mass they were taking and how hard it was to find the fish in the first place. But that’s another conversation itself. We sat on the outskirts and had Orcas dancing around our boat by the dozen, huge male Dorsals broke the surface, while female Orcas were swimming around with their calves. There must of been close to a hundred of them, along with a dozen or more humpback whales all sharing this opportunity to feed. When we were given the ok to slip beneath the surface, it was like, entering another world, their world.
Coming face to face with an Orca, was a moment that I will treasure for the rest of my days.
The sheer size of them was breathtaking and the sleek and beautiful design of their powerful bodies was every bit of the legend I had envisioned. Despite their sheer power and dominance, they were kind, and inquisitive beings, treating us with a sense of mutual respect. I was just there to observe and admire, and they seemed to be aware of my motives, giving me a few cheeky passing smiles. They cut through the water so effortlessly and elegantly, mindful of us but happily continuing about their business. They were feeding on a school of herring, politely taking one at a time, while generously sharing it with several hungry humpbacks. It was nature in full motion, yet I felt absolutely no threat at all from these apex predators as I watched on in amazement. It was an exhilarating, and emotionally moving experience.
It turned out, the cold fingers and toes, the layers of thermal wear and preparation to withstand these kind of conditions, became just a small price to pay for the truly magnificent feeling being in their presence.
The chilling burn of the arctic faded away quickly, but the memories and moments I gained, will last forever.
It took me a long time to wind down from that experience, I was emotionally riveted. I had beat my mind, my condition and come away with memories worth more than any earthly treasures. Yet, Norway still had more gifts to give and God was busy stirring the heavens, waiting to show me the greatest sight of all.
Upon returning to Tromsø, we had a few days to rest, however I had been keeping my eye on the weather forecast as the weekend approached. It was predicting the first clear night of my stay so far which was coinciding with a 5kp solar flare expected to hit the atmosphere. Which means.. a potentially brilliant Aurora.. I barely slept the following few days, eagerly checking the night sky like I was waiting for a loved one to arrive on a magical sled or something. Finally as the predictions came into fruition, I noticed a faint swirl of green form out of the horizon, I quickly grabbed my Manfrotto bag and tripods and ran around to the rocky outcrop that looked down the fiords, roughly a 5 minute walk from where I was staying with the Whales Underwater team.
As I ran, the swirling green ribbons, began to explode in colour, illuminating the night sky with such vivid and brilliant colours that my mind was simply unable to comprehend the reality that I was witnessing.. I barely had time to set up my gear which I ended up just neglecting as I surrendered to the awe of what was happening above me. The swirling mixture of magic illuminated with fluorescent greens and teals as they danced across the galaxy.
At one point it was moving so fast and strong it felt as if God was cracking a whip within my soul.
I welled up and broke out in a joyous laughter of delight and amazement. It was by far the most unexplainable and brilliant miracle that I had ever seen. I was a believer well before this moment from being a recipient of Gods grace and favour, yet to witness such a wonder, surely strengthened my faith in ways I could not possibly articulate.
Somehow, I managed to press record a few times with my trembling and numb fingers and have put together a short documentary of what the Norway experience was like for me. I know the internet is full of great videos and content these days, to the point that I actually find it increasingly difficult to put out new work, especially when I’m working mostly alone, and with little to no budget. Regardless of circumstances though, and with the help of Darren Jew, Jasmine Carey, Ali Takau and the Whales Underwater team in Norway, we managed to create a visual experience for those that may not necessarily be able to go there physically, and a little inspirational invite for those that can..
Shot on Location in Skervoy, Norway with Whales Underwater. For information on this experience and booking for your own, visit www.whalesunderwater.com
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