The Norwegian fjords just north of Tromsø are some of the best whale watching sites in the world. During the winter, the waters between Kvaløya and Andøya are teeming with orcas and humpbacks, as well as the occasional fin whale. They are there for the herring, which populate the fjords in their millions during the wintertime. At 3 degrees Celsius, the cold water is perfect for herring. They need temperatures below 6 degrees to successfully reproduce.
However, over the last two decades, the herring have moved further and further north, and the whales with them. It could be that global warming and rising ocean temperatures have compelled the herring to seek colder, more northerly waters, but scientists don’t know for sure. What we do know is that the herring have migrated some 300 km (190 miles) from their former wintering grounds of Vestfjorden, to their new home in the coastal areas outside Tromsø. The other big change is that the fish were once preyed upon by orca alone. Now, humpbacks are gate-crashing the party.
The humpbacks travel 5,000 miles (8,000km) across the Atlantic to replenish their fat reserves before making the long and arduous journey back to their Equatorial breeding waters. Herring are the perfect prey. They’re easy to hunt, available in large quantities and are very high in calories. The humpbacks team up, circling the herring and corralling them into a net of bubbles. Then they all swim up to the surface together, lunging at their grey and gulping huge quantities of fish and seawater alike.
The orcas, on the other hand, are like sheepdogs working a flock. They herd the herring into tight groups and stop them from diving by taking turns to swim beneath the school. They encircle the herded herring in an ‘orca carousel’, driving them upwards to the surface. The fish have nowhere left to go and leap into the air, until one of the orcas slaps the water with its tail. The shockwave stuns – and sometimes kills – the herring, and dinner is served.
Scientists say the whale activity in the fjords is quite unique. Although the humpbacks and orcas often feed in the same area without showing signs of competition, there have also been observations of humpbacks ‘hijacking’ herring that the orcas have herded. Northern Norway is the only place in the world where humpbacks have been seen apparently taking advantage of orcas’ hunting technique. In other parts of the world, orcas are known to prey on young humpbacks, making this behaviour even more surprising.
With the humpbacks joining the orcas, it is now possible to see many hundreds of whales in a relatively small geographic area. The gathering is on a scale never before seen in Norwegian history. But it all depends on the herring stocks. In the future, if the herring decide to stay further out to sea, the whales will no longer be seen close to shore. For now, the populations along Norway’s coast appear to be thriving.
Over the years, photographer Espen Bergersen has had many memorable sightings of whales.
“Like when the herring moved in to very shallow waters with sandy bottom,” he recollects. “It was a freezing cold January day. The original plan was to look for whales from my boat, but with temperatures of minus 12 degree Centigrade, I couldn’t start the boat engine. I decided to look for whales travelling along the coastline by car. At a place called Sommarøy in Northern Norway, I observed a group of orcas and humpback whales feeding on herring close to shore.”
“I parked my car very close to where the whales were feeding, and launched my drone, a DJI Phantom 3 Pro. Standing at the shoreline, I couldn’t understand how spectacular this would look from the air. From that perspective, I could clearly see the enormous school of herring as a dark patch against the green sea-floor. It was amazing to see how the herring tried to keep their distace from the orcas. Even better, the orcas were using tail slaps to stun the fish before eating them, one by one.”
“Orcas are actually quite picky when it comes to eating herring, they often take only the good parts, leaving the head behind. The leftovers are taken care of by hungry gulls. This was really an unique situation since the herring normally stay in deeper waters where they are difficult to see. In 9 seasons, I have only seen this situation once!”
“Likewise, it is also very exciting to follow a group of humpback whales as they catch herring in their bubble nets. You see the group do a synchronised dive, then you just have to wait. You never know when or where they come up again, or if there will be any action at all. But if the hunting is a success, the whales come to the surface like rockets with wide open mouths, filling up with herring and water. It’s a spectacular view!”
Whales and fishing vessels
There is an extensive but regulated fishery for herring in Norway, in the same area where the whales gather.
“One could think this would be a problem for the whales,” suggests Bergersen, “But it might also be a benefit, at least in short term. The whales know the sound of a herring vessel, and they very often seek out the boats! There will always be herring escaping the fish net – an easy meal for the whales! Both orcas and humpbacks crowd the vessels, and it can be a really intense situation with gulls joining in too!”
“The sound and sight of hundreds of hungry gulls and whales can be overwhelming. It’s rare that any whales get caught in the herring fish net, but it can happen. Usually orcas can free themselves without physical injuries. This is unfortunately not the case for humpback whales swimming into fishing nets meant for cod. Every year, some humpbacks get entangled. Often, they are freed by the coast guard, but others are not so lucky.”
All year whale watching
The best time to visit is between late October and mid-January. While Tromsø is the best place for winter whale watching, the Vesterålen coast and Andøya are better in the summer months. Here, large blooms of plankton support the species upon which whales rely. The fish stocks attract sperm, pilot, humpback, minke, fin, and killer whales, as well as dolphins and porpoises. Cetaceans can be seen at these locations year-round.
Winter safaris are operated by dozens of different companies.
View more images and footage in our gallery here.