Northern Norway is one of the best places to snorkel with orcas. Sarah Marshall finds out what’s involved

SOME call them ‘sea wolves’, others prefer the term killer.

Claiming the broadest prey base of any animal, orcas have rightfully earned their reputation for being skilled ocean hunters. Yet respect for the apex predators has always been counter-balanced by fear. Ancient mariners labelled them monsters and in Roman mythology, Orcus was a god of the underworld.

But despite a degree of mistrust, both fishermen and their foes have one thing in common – the same prize lures them to the cold, rough waters of the Norwegian sea.

Every year, millions of herring overwinter along the northern Norwegian coast having spawned further south. This protein-rich magnet attracts a procession of orcas, humpbacks, pelagic birds and – more recently – tourists.

Right now, slamming through waves, I’m one of them. For years, I’ve been fascinated by the species – their intelligence, tactical hunting strategies and complex social interactions which we still don’t fully understand. If even for a moment, I want to be part of their world.

SWIMMING WITH KILLERS

Norwegian entrepreneur Rolf Malnes began offering orca snorkelling safaris in 1996, in the Lofoten Islands where herring returned for two decades to the same fjords. At that time, whale watching was a novel activity while getting in the water with these ‘sea monsters’ was considered a death wish. Rolf’s scientific back-up comes from cetacean expert Tiu Simila, who’s studied Norwegian whale populations since the 1980s.

Back then herring stocks were depleting, and orcas were being blamed. Between 1979 and 1981, Tiu says 171 animals were killed in hunts partially subsidised by the government, until overfishing was understood to be the real culprit.

A MOVEABLE FEAST

Where herring go, orcas follow – forcing whale watching tours to shift operations accordingly. After several winter seasons in Tromso, the fish have moved north to fjords around the municipality of Skjervøy. Between November and January, Rolf has chosen to base his company Lofoten Opplevelser out of the Reisafjord hotel in Sorkjosen.

MY BIGGEST FEAR? THE COLD

A latitude of 70 degrees north should plunge these fjords into a deep freeze, although the warming effects of the Gulf Stream keep channels ice-free.

But science had done little to ease my anxieties earlier that morning, as I squeezed into padded under-armour and a bulky dry suit.

Winsford Guardian:

Clumsy gloves and a neoprene balaclava had prepared me for the worst. In truth, the water is a ‘mild’ 6c – hard to imagine from the discomfort of our sea spray-soaked 12-passenger boat. Waves swirl with the viscosity of oil and as blasts of hail pelt my skin like a rain-shower of nails, I begin to ask myself: ‘Why am I here?’

That question dangles far longer than I’d like, as we search for a pod willing to accept our company – Rolf believes a successful whale watching encounter hinges on respect for the animals.

SECOND TIME LUCKY

Orca safaris depart once per day, lasting around three to four hours – equivalent to the amount of twilight at this time of year. To maximise my chances, I’ve booked two excursions. Multiple calves are born in winter, so it’s not uncommon to see babies porpoising alongside mothers or playfully flicking their flukes in the air. Being so low to the water, we’re at eye level with their dorsal fins as they slice through waves like butter. But it’s my second outing the following day that really delivers the goods. Herring rise to the surface, and a flock of squawking gulls diving and circling indicate a feeding frenzy is about to take place.

Picking up pace, we fly alongside orcas as they surf over whitecaps, firing faster than bullets. Four colossal humpbacks soon join the party, waving their angel-white pectoral fins with glee. It’s time to get in.

IN THEIR WORLD

Flecks of shiny fish scales sparkle like stardust, where orcas twist and turn with a mesmerising combination of athletic power and balletic grace. Above the surface, fins slap and feathers flap chaotically but down here, it’s slow and calm. Anyone who’s watched controversial documentary Blackfish, which recounts the sad story of captive whale Tilikum, might have reservations about getting into the water with these ‘killers’. The truth is, there have been no reported fatal attacks on humans in the wild – and as I turn my head, I’m frozen in awe and wonder rather than fear.

Metres away, a humpback the size of a bus blinks at me. We lock eyes for less than a second, but it feels like forever and I know this is one of those moments I’ll never forget.

Winsford Guardian:

Although there are no guarantees, Rolf predicts herring will return to this area next season. A lucrative fishing industry also justifies detailed studies into their movements. And wherever they go, an increasing number of tourist boats will tag along.

Remarkably, there are no official whale watching regulations enforced in Norway, making it imperative to choose an operator who understands and respects wildlife. Because, as is so often the case, it’s humans who pose the real dangers. Defying so many outmoded beliefs, these marine mammals were born to thrill.