Snorkel with Orcas in Norway
“The orcas are here because their food comes here.”
So says tour guide Anthony Mayer during our briefing — we’ve come to Andenes, Norway in the middle of January to snorkel with orcas, the apex predators of the sea. The orcas visit the fjords here each year from roughly the end of October through February, and visitors can snorkel with them from late December to February 1st. The animals come in search of food, as Mayer says, following the migration of millions of tons of herring down the west coast of Norway. And as the herring move, so too do the orcas.
Once the orcas locate a school of herring, they work as a team to drive the fish from around 985 feet (300 m) deep up toward the surface, tightly corralling them into a bait ball. Once the herring are sufficiently bunched up, the orcas take turns slapping each individual fish with their tail to stun it, and then turn around to eat it. Since they effectively eat the herring one at a time, a bait ball can take quite a long time to disperse — great news for snorkelers who want to see the underwater action. “The harder we try to get close, the more they’ll stay away, so we must be patient,” says Mayer, but “when they stop to feed, they don’t care about the people.”
There are usually three to four pods in the fjord each day, he tells us, and the guides use spotters on land — one in the island’s lighthouse, one in the next village, and one 15 miles (25 km) away — to find them. But we might get lucky, he says. “One of their favorite places to feed is just outside the harbor where it’s very shallow, so they push the herring up against the land to bring them up.”
While the orcas may be here on purpose, the snorkelers who have followed in their wake arrived quite by accident, according to Rolf Malnes, the owner of our touring company Lofoten Opplevelser. He’s offered Midnight Sun excursions, whale watching and nature tours in the area since 1994, but in the late 90s, guests began asking if they could bring their own snorkel equipment along to try to spot orcas underwater.
Malnes allowed it, and as snorkeling became more popular, he realized people were bringing equipment that didn’t stand up well to the tough conditions. Recognizing an opportunity, he bought gear, including drysuits, masks, and snorkels. By 2002, Lofoten Opplevelser was offering dedicated snorkel tours, much to the delight of photographers and underwater adventurers. Although you can snorkel with orcas on liveaboards based out of Tromso to the northeast of Andenes, this is the only place in the world where you can snorkel with the animals via a land-based excursion.
Even without the orcas, the location itself is stunning. Tiny waterfront Andenes, with a population of 2,700, sits 190 miles (305 km) north of the Arctic Circle. This means that when we arrive in mid-January, it’s still Polar Night — from late November to mid-January, the sun doesn’t technically rise at all in Andenes. When it’s light outside, from roughly 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. each day, it’s a constant dream-like twilight until the sun goes down in earnest at around 2:30 pm. There will be no real sunrise until the third day of our visit, when the sun peeks over the horizon and splashes the sky and water with vibrant pinks and reds. The fjord sparkles in the light for approximately an hour before the sun slowly sinks again.
The town itself is something of a snowy fairyland. There’s one main street, with a few shops, a few hotels, and a few restaurants. We eat most of our meals at the harbor-front Orion Café and Restaurant, which happens to be downstairs from where we’re staying, the Grønnbuene Rorbu Hotel. Orca excursions leave from the Andrikken Hotel just down the road, and our accommodation’s sister property. We’ve arrived too late on our first day to look for orcas, but after our briefing and an early dinner, we’re ready to get started the next day.
Snorkeling with orcas
We’re here in the peak season for snorkeling with orcas, and after breakfast we head down to Andrikken’s basement — Lofoten’s headquarters for the season — and gear up. Excursions can take up to 12 people on each of three RIBs for up to three hours, searching for pods of orcas that can number up to 15 animals. We enter the bay, watching the sky for flocking seabirds, a telltale sign of a herring bait ball. Mayer told us the previous evening that there are 43 individual orca families in Norway, and scientists have identified over 1,000 individuals. On this, our first day out in the fjord, we’d be happy for just a few.
“It’s not the water that’s cold, it’s the wind,” says Mayer as we motor out. Mmm hmm. Water temperatures hover around 41 F (5 C) this time of year, so once you slip into the water, she’s right — the wind on a wet hood and gloves as you search for orcas can be quite bracing. We hunt in vain that first day, cold but undeterred when we returned to the hotel just before lunch. Our second day proves much more successful: we see multiple pods of orcas almost immediately, including one with a relatively new baby. One of the males spy-hops nearby, meaning he goes vertical, as though he’s standing up. He pokes the upper part of his torso out of the water to get a good look around.
Although we see lots of orcas near the RIB, and slip in the water to try to catch a glimpse a few times, we strike out once again underwater. As the week progresses and we continue to see them above water (but not below), Marx and Mayer say that the orcas have been late coming down this year, remaining a bit further north in Tromso because that’s where the herring are. It’s hard to get too upset though — divers know that underwater encounters are always unpredictable. One unplanned-for factor is disrupting our orca viewing, however: humpback whales.
Before visiting Andenes, if someone had said I would be upset to see a humpback in the water, I would’ve laughed in his face. After our first day on the boat, Mayer tells us that in recent years, populations of migrating humpbacks have cottoned on to the bait-ball bonanza that orcas have happily enjoyed for years. As they pass through the fjords, they wait for the orcas to herd the herring into balls near the surface and — rather than eating them one at a time, like the orcas do — they rocket from below with their mouths agape and swallow the entire ball in one go.
While undeniably spectacular (if you happened to be underwater when it happens), the humpbacks’ hijacking of the orcas’ hard work means that when we do see birds diving and roiling surface seas on the third day — evidence of a bait ball underneath — by the time we get there, a rogue humpback has scooped up all the herring and the bait ball is gone. We see two humpbacks near the boat though shortly thereafter, and it’s hard to stay mad at these magnificent creatures.
After almost a week on the water, we still have no luck spotting orcas underwater, so we finally decide to enjoy their presence from the boat, clad in extra-warm boat coats. And although we don’t get to snorkel with orcas on our visit, those who arrive just a week later are rewarded with spectacular underwater sightings. Orca encounters on the surface or underwater (and the stray humpback) plus the ethereal feel of Andenes combine to make for an unforgettable experience, and before leaving, we vow we’ll be back for another try.
There’s an airport in tiny Andenes thanks to a nearby military base. From December to January, you’ll have to fly first on one of the daily flights from Oslo to Tromso. From Tromso to Andenes it’s a 30-minute flight on Wideroe Airlines.
We spent our first night at the Andrikken Hotel — home base for the orca excursions — before moving down the street to the suite at Grønnbuene Rorbu Hotel. Pro tip: you cannot beat an hour-long soak in a hot tub overlooking the fjord after a morning spent searching for orcas in the fjord. There’s a good restaurant downstairs as well, so after your orca excursion, you can be snug and cozy, with everything you need right there.
Don’t miss a chance to participate in a Northern Lights Safari, which will also leave from Andrikken. On a promising night, a guide will take you out into the darkness of the island, past the villages and any tiny bit of light pollution they may create so you can get the best possible view. Note that as of January 1, 2018, Andrikken Hotel will become Thon Hotel Andrikken.
Take a few days on either end of your orca expedition to check out Oslo, Norway’s charming and easy-to-get-around capital city. We stayed at the comfortable, centrally located Thon Hotel Panorama. Thon Hotels has 15 locations around the city, so it’s convenient wherever you’re staying.
To get around and see the sights, your best bet is the fantastic Oslo Pass, which includes free public transport, free entrance to most major sights and discounts on activities and restaurants around town. The best place to pick one up is at the Oslo Visitor Center right next to Oslo Central Station. Many hotels have them on hand as well. A 24-hour pass is €40 ($47 USD). On our visit, we stopped in at the Fram Museum, the Kon-Tiki Museum (right next door), the Viking Ship Museum, and the Nobel Peace Center, all participants in the Oslo Pass.