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Onboard the M/S Sula & Orcas, Norway, 2016

This trip is the quickest impulse decision I’ve ever made in my life. An early morning of November 2014, I was reading stuff on the internet about shark diving. I was curious about it and thought of doing that myself. But many people do it and I was trying to find something unique. Orcas crossed my mind and I couldn’t remember anyting about people diving with large marine mammal in the wild. I started to look this up and ended on Strømsholmen Sea Sports Centre’s website. They were organizing the only expedition I could find to get in the water with orcas. In fact, the season only lasts a few weeks from late November until January so spaces are very limited. Half an hour later, my mind was made and I was booking mine on the MS Sula for January 2016, 14 months away. It meant I could dedicate that time to freediving training with the aim of getting underwater with the animals. 🙂

After a long wait, comes the 15th of January 2016, time to fly to Tromsø, Europe northernmost city inside the arctic circle. My greatest concern is the amount of daylight being that far north in the winter. While at the airport, I check the forecasts, out of curiosity. Today, the sun has not come up at all, it’s polar night. Tomorrow, the sunrise is planned for 11:50am and the sunset for 11:58am… Plenty 😀 But nothing can affect my excitement when stepping out of the plane onto the snow covered tarmac of Tromsø airport and later enjoying a juicy reindeer steak for dinner.

DSC_0081Tomorrow, I’m getting onboard the Sula for the Orca Expedition!

Day 1

It’s still pitch black when I get up at 9am. But the light level slowly but surely increases while I’m having breakfast. I’ve got some time this morning to explore the city.

DSC_0312My first observation is that, although the actual amount of time the sun spends above the horizon is only 8 minutes today, there is a lot of residual light before and after. And that is due to increase significantly in the next few days.

At 2pm, I head to the meeting point for the start of the expedition. I meet the people who I’m going to share the next 6 days with: Udo, Simon, Caroline, Kerry, Michael, Gwen, Blaž, Andy, Carole & Régis and the crew: Olav, Pierre, Gijs, Alessandro, Norbi, Krisztina, Murielle & John.

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It’s an old fishing boat so not the luxurious type, the cabins are tiny, the beds have little headroom. But it gives it so much more character, the common area is very comfy, we are going to have such a great time here. Let me take you on a quick tour.

We’ve just entered through this door, from the deck, into a the middle deck narrow corridor.

DSC_1731-Edit_reduced sizeJust left of where I took the previous picture, is the access to my cabin in the lower level.

DSC_1730-Edit_reduced sizeDown the stairs, right door is a four-bed cabin. I am glad there’s only three of us though, cause it’s quite small. 🙂

DSC_1714-Edit_reduced sizeAnd like I said, the comfy living room, accessed from the middle deck main corridor. 🙂

DSC_1744-Edit_reduced sizeLater in the evening the snow continues to fall.DSC_0334-Edit_reduced sizeAnd covers the Sula of a white blanket.

DSC_0328-Edit_reduced sizeAfter dinner, we receive the expedition’s briefing covering safety measures but mostly the diving guidelines to ensure the best possible interaction with Orcas in the water. Finding sleep is hard tonight, I am so excited about getting in the water tomorrow. 🙂

Day 2

The boat leaves the harbour in the twilight, passing through wonderful and superb landscapes, on the lookout for our first orca encounter.DSC_0352-Edit_reduced sizeIt is only a couple of hours before the first humpback whales appear at the surface, and very soon after, Orcas! I thought I was ready in my mind for this moment but I’m just absorbed by what is happening around me. Seeing these large dorsal fins cutting through the water, I have to let that sink in and realise where I am. I’m quite happy to let the first group get ready and prepare myself mentally for getting in the water. There is actually a lot for me to be ready for, getting into the cold water in a wet suit, holding my breathe, the presence of an 8 meter predator.

A detail which has its importance, I need to stop by the toilet to make sure I don’t pee in my suit. The view is great 🙂

DSC_0086But finally, it’s time to get on the rib boat. I am trying to relax, slow my heart rate but I can’t. I’m way too excited about that. I’ve been training for this for more than a year. It doesn’t take very long before the skipper maneuvers around a group of Orcas to get us into position: “DIVERS GET READY!”, Gijs shouts. My heart is beating at 100 miles an hour! I’m sitting on the edge, in position to let myself fall back into the water immediately, scuba diving style. But we have to let the orcas accept the interaction, both Gijs and Pierre observe their behaviour to know when it’s time to go. The minutes are long, sometimes it feels we’re in a perfect position but the killer whales change direction at the last second. But finally: “GO! GO! GO!” That’s the signal we were all waiting for. I fall backwards, camera in hand, into the water. I feel the cold water on my face, all my face and into my eyes… My mask just came off! Damn it! The couple of minutes it takes me to put it back is enough for the orcas to swim by and disappear into the blue… and I missed them… I feel like an idiot!

We get back on the boat quickly so we can move closer to them. But it’s a long wait, they are either resting, or travelling fast, never in an environment allowing us diving. About 45 minutes pass before we get another opportunity. This time I’ve learned, I sit again on the edge but this time the legs already in the water. Much better. When the signal is given, I get in the water without any trouble, take in a deep breathe and dive. I can see the big male but it got really dark and the visibility isn’t great. I focus on my camera to try and take a picture but it’s rubbish. And before I’ve had the time to enjoy the moment, it is over. It’s also way too dark for us to have another go so we are heading back towards the Sula. Not a great experience but definitely worth getting in the water to get more familiar to the conditions and the environment.

Back on the boat, lunch is served and right after that is lecture time! The other particularity of this trip is the orca biology course given onboard, by the world renowned shark and cetaceans expert Alessandro De Maddalena (https://www.facebook.com/orcaexpedition/). He is also an amazing photographer and took an amazing one of me in the water today.

12621969_1106299076049438_8556318609097600936_oTonight we are back in the harbour near Tromsø. We keep an eye out on the aurora forecast but it is snowing again so it doesn’t look very good. Now that I have had a glimpse of orcas underwater, I can’t wait to go again tomorrow and hopefully have more time underwater with the animals.

Day 3

As I guess it’ll be everyday’s routine, we rope off in the dark so we can be out in the fjords finding orcas when the light is bright. We find humpbacks almost immediately.

DSC_0567-Edit_reduced sizeI’m out in the deck and I feel that today is colder than yesterday. There is a bit of wind which makes the perceived temperature at about -15 degrees. Pierre already advises that we probably won’t be able to get in the water today. It’s a shame, the conditions are great, there are no clouds so visibility must be better than yesterday. We find the orcas in a nearby fjords surrounded by gorgeous landscape.

DSC_0687_tiff-Edit_reduced sizeI am standing in the front deck when I see something incredible about to happen. A few orcas are very near the boat. One of them is playing right in the front, on his side in the water. He lets the boat comes so close, we’re so close to hit him. But fortunately he dives into the water at the last second. But that’s only to put on a greater show. He joins other individuals and four of them swim towards the boat in perfect synchronization.

DSC_0663-Edit_reduced sizeThey are very playful and all decide to begin frenetic tail slapping a few meaters away from the Sula.

DSC_0662-Edit_reduced sizeThey continue past the boat, right underneath where I stand, absolutely incredible!

DSC_0671-Edit_reduced sizeAfter such a parade, they take their distance in a magical setting.

DSC_0714_tiff-Edit_2_reduced sizeAs the sun disappears behind the horizon and we are heading back to the harbour, the orcas travel out to sea as well.

DSC_0700-Edit_reduced size DSC_0784-Edit_reduced sizeOf course, Orcas and fishing boats are both after the schools of herrings. It is no surprise to see them cross path!

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DSC_0823-Edit_reduced sizeI am staying out on the bridge until the last minute of light available (which was at about 3pm :s), in order to spend as long as I could with the animals.

DSC_0905-Edit_reduced sizeAfter lunch, the lecture, relaxation, dinner and an animated game of times’s up, we head out on foot in the town to try and see northern lights. We soon see some shades in the sky but the street lights stop a good view. I find the perfect spot, on top of a snow hill, to observe the aurora dancing in the sky

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Day 4

It’s Tuesday! As usual, we are out looking for orcas at first light. It’s taking a lot longer today and it’s a bit past midday that we finally locate a pod. The first group gets ready and on the boat. But the orcas are really spread out, they’re very difficult to approach. Today, I’m leaving my camera on the boat and will only have my GoPro, so I can enjoy the time underwater with the orcas. The first attempt is the good one! Head above the water, I can see the big dorsal fin of a male coming in my direction. I need to time my dive properly so I can be underwater when the animal is nearest to me. Now that I have lost sight, I take a deep breathe and get underwater, here it is…

The feeling is fantastic. The underwater environment is completely silent, no one is shouting, no engine is roaring, it’s just me and the animal, graceful, beautiful. I swim next to him for a short 10 seconds before being brought back to the surface by the buoyancy of my 8mm wet suit. Short but magical!

The other attempts will not be as successful and we are heading back to the Sula as the light has almost completely disappeared.

The afternoon passes with the movement of the boat at sea. We are travelling south and will stay in a different harbour tonight. We arrive just before midnight and rope just next to a fishery. The snow is red from the blood of the fish and it smells like guts. There is nothing to see around here tonight and now that the boat is still, I can head to bed.

Day 5

I wake up with the sound of the engine, clearly indicating our departure. Odd… we weren’t due to leave that early. Well, I later find out that the fishermen had to unload their catch of the night and needed us to leave. Looking on the brightside, we find orcas really early. A lot of them with humpback whales in a deep channel. The problem is that this area is exposed and a little bit too rough to get in the water. We move on trying to find them in a fjord.

DSC_0993-Edit_reduced sizeSome people are out on the deck, I stay in the warmth of the captain’s cabin.

DSC_1005-Edit_reduced sizeBut after a couple of hours of search, we’re unsuccessful and decide to head back to the channel.

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The spectacle is somptuous!

Humpbacks? More than 50!

Orcas? HUNDREDS!!!

I don’t know where to look, the landscape is stunning, the light surreal.

DSC_1205-Edit_reduced sizeMagic happens everywhere I look!

DSC_1147-Edit_reduced sizeDSC_1098-Edit_reduced sizeAnd even when the light is gone!

DSC_1514-Edit-Edit_reduced sizeI do not regret for a second not getting in the water. Of course it would probably have been exceptional but so was staying on the boat. What a show!

The fantastic captain, Olav, is taking us back to the safety and comfort of tonight’s harbour!

DSC_1528-Edit_reduced sizeIn fact, we rope in a much more welcoming place, actually a little resort town which even has a bar. 🙂 To add to that, I hope today’s fantastic spectacle will continue as the aurora forecast looks great.

A few of us head outside before dinner to see if the northern lights are out. We find a nice spot with a 360 degree view over the ocean, the mountain and the town.

DSC_1534-Edit_reduced sizeThe shapes it takes shows that nature is often a very inspired artist!

DSC_1535-Edit_reduced sizeAfter dinner, the activity is almost inexistant, there is no point freezing outside. It’s the perfect opportunity to make the most of the area and have a couple of beers in the local bar. 🙂

But as we’re almost finished with the second pint, Pierre appears to let us know that the hot tub is almost ready? “The HOT TUB you said?” Yes, a hot tub on the boat. It’s very traditional, sea water warmed up with wood to a lovely 39 degrees, héhé :D. A couple of minutes walk back to the boat, changed and I’m in.

IMG_0704-2(Merci Carole pour la photo.)

The only thing is, it comes with a less motivating aspect… jumping in the sea, where the water is about 4 degrees…

I stand up in the cold air, climb down the stairs, cross the deck, step onto the small rib, walk on the snow and jump… Youhouuuuhouuuu, it’s bloody freeeeeezing! I swim towards the rib’s ladder as quickly as I can, climb up and run back to the hot tub. It feels so great just to re-enter the hot water. Although it feels like I’m being stung by a thousand needles at the same time, it also heats up my entire body instantly! And you know what the saddistic thing is? It feels so good that it’s worth the pain of going in the cold water… so I do it again… and again… Three times is enough though and it’s time to call it and head to bed.

Day 6

We’re leaving the lovely harbour this morning, still plunged in the dark of the artic circle.

DSC_1570We are heading back to the deep channel where we found hundreads of orcas yesterday.

DSC_1580-Edit_reduced sizeAnd as expected, they are still here. The first group gets ready for getting into the water while Gijs brings to rib to pick them up.

DSC_1621-Edit_reduced sizeWe’re going to have a long time in the area today, great. After a couple of hours, it’s finally our turn. It doesn’t take very long until we have an opportunity to jump in the water and observe the orcas again. I’m really happy that my breath hold has become a lot better. I guess I got used to the environment: the cold water, the 8m mammals, etc. I’m a lot more relaxed and I can spend longer underneath the surface. And then, the special interaction happens.

I can see the orcas coming towards us from the rib. I jump in the water and without hesitation, take a deep breathe and dive. I realise that I’m swimming right above three of them at about 5m depth. The moment continues as they overtake me and end up on my side. Suddenly one of them stops and looks straight at me… That’s the moment most magical. I have dived with marine animals before but nothing similar to this. Eye contact, ackowledgement of my presence, curiosity, communication, never I feel threatened but only blessed by that short emotional moment with this orca, only a few meters away. 😀

Pierre was right, it’s addictive. 🙂 I jump back on the boat only hoping for more. A very similar experience happens again, only longer, closer and even more intense, WOUHOUUUU 😀 It’s really hard to describe how it feels but that’s really fantastic. The cold has no importance, I’ll take every single moment I can even if I have to lose a toe for it (cause I can’t feel my feet anymore, they’re completely numb).

However every good moment has an end and ours comes as the light drops. Going back onto the big boat is a bit harder as the sea is a bit choppy but I soon find the warmth of the cabins safely. Now we’re heading back towards Tromso, in the harbour where we boarded.

It’s a little weird to open the door to a landscape very familiar. It does give a “this is the end” type of feeling. We are back where we started and tonight is the last night. But as it has been the case since the start of the expedition, what a laugh spending it with the rest of this crowd! 😀 But hey, that’s not over, there is tomorrow left and who knows what it might bring.

Day 7

This is the last time I wake up on my tiny bed, the ceiling only 50 centimeters above it that I keep hitting my head. But I’m going to miss this. Carole and Régis are leaving this morning, time to say goodbye, sign an approaching end.

We’re on the move by 9am but we’re struggling to find Orcas. When we do, they’re very spread out, not too welcoming and the weather is depressing… Is it worth getting in the water? Yeah, I want to! We’ve got nothing to lose, if we don’t get in the water or engage with Orcas, at least we’ve tried. It’s our last day. But destiny has got other plans for us today. There is someone talking on the radio emergency channel. I can’t understand but Olav is taking notes, it must be important… a fishing boat has lost engine power in the area. Not a major incident for now but we’re the closest ship so we’re asked by the authorities to move towards the area in case the situation deteriorates and the fishing boat needs assistance. I’m so disappointed to leave the Orcas behind…

We travel for about 45 minutes when we see the fishing boat in question. But there is also another ship coming towards it from the opposite direction to us, which gets on the site first.

DSC_1709The rescue operation lasts less than 5 minutes and we only get to watch. I know safety is the number one priorty but it does feel like we’ve come here for nothing… We head back to the fjord where we left the orcas and observe them for a bit of time but the weather is awful, the light is getting low and the animals are still very spread out. This is it then! That’s the end of the expedition and time to head back to the port for the last time. On the way, we are giving the last lecture by researcher Krisztina Balotay from Ocean Sounds. She is showing fantastic images of Orcas in the wild, both heart warming in their beauty and heart breaking in the horror humans cause to these animals, mostly when caught in fishing nets.

I have now become familiar to the perception of wildlife that this type of expedition gives me: fantastic but yet so fragile. The population of Orcas is unknown so it is difficult to say how endangered they are. But the crew have already observed changes of behaviours that are most definitely a result of human activity. For example, humpback whales usually feed on tiny plancton, krill, leaving the herring for the orcas. But the big whales have recently started to feed on the fish as well, probably as a result of overfishing and krill shortage, taking hundreads at a time through their gigantic baleens and pushing the orcas away to struggle to find another food source. However the encounters with the big cetaceans has been truly unique. They’re so grateful and observing their moves underwater was mind blowing. They’re capable of communication with us, through eye to eye contact and interactive swims which I found heart moving. And again, the experience and passion of the crew completes the picture for a successful expedition. I only got a glimpse of Pierre’s unique relationship with Orcas but I can only understand his drive to get in the water again and again. His will to share stories, knowledge and respect for the animals intimacy is inspiring. Many thanks Pierre, the rest of the expedition crew and my fellow guest companions for this amazing adventure! 😀

FB_IMG_1453552302790I hope you’ve enjoyed reading this. Please share your thoughts and comments, or even if you have any question, I will be happy to help. 🙂 You can also visit and like my facebook page for regular updates on my adventures; Happy travels!