Close encounters of the whale kind in Tromsø’s fjords

Meet Norway’s orcas and humpbacks aboard a whale safari in the waters of northern Norway

Photo: Vanessa Brune
Tromsø’s harbor, with Mt. Tromsdalstind looming whitely in the background.

Vanessa Brune
Tromsø, Norway

It’s 8:30 a.m. on a Saturday morning at the harbor of Tromsø in northern Norway. The local fishermen have tied up their boats and gone to sleep after a night at sea. We, however, are up at the crack of dawn, which in November in the Arctic is somewhere between 9:00 and 11:00 a.m.

The town is still asleep and there’s no one around except for a few tourists on a boat named Aurora Explorer capturing Tromstalstind, Tromsø’s highest mountain, at sunrise. It is a gorgeous sight indeed—a snow-capped mountain illuminated by pink sunrays—but it’s not what we’re here for.

We board the boat with one goal in mind: to see the whales out at sea!

Aurora Explorer
So we board the Aurora Explorer, a boat with two decks that cruises the Barents Sea around Svalbard in summer and brings tourists to see the whales in Tromsø in winter. Inside we hear excited chatter in Swedish, French, Italian, English, and German. Everyone is excited but also a little tired.

We slowly make our way out of Tromsø’s harbor and roam the deck to take pictures of the sunrise. The wind soon becomes icy, so everyone gathers inside again to learn more about the creatures we hope to see that day.

Whale lessons
We learn that orca males have a straight fin, while the females have a slightly curved one; humpbacks can be recognized by their huge size in comparison with the orcas and their relatively small fins.

We also learn that orcas got the nickname “killer whales” not because they’re stronger or more dangerous than sharks, for example, but because they’re actually far more intelligent. They have developed hunting techniques that don’t require much strength or sharp teeth but instead teamwork and endurance.

In Norway, orcas mainly feed on herring, and they have developed a special technique to hunt these as well. Together in a group, they keep the herring at the surface of the ocean by circling around them so that the herring school can’t dive down. The herring are stuck and can’t escape, and so the orcas can eat them one by one.

Luckily for the humpback whales that spend the winter in Norway, the orcas here won’t do them any harm and instead facilitate the hunt for them. While orcas have to keep moving to keep the herring in place and can eat them only one by one, humpback whales can use the carousel to their advantage by simply swimming through it and eating as many herring as they can. Cheeky, right?

Photo: Vanessa Brune
A pod of orcas.

Our guide promised us we’d see orcas on the trip but said that it’s kind of tricky with humpbacks. They are around in Tromsø, but they disappear to deeper ground if they’re fed and don’t show themselves for quite some time.

Who knew that in less than half an hour, we would see both orcas and a humpback in the fjords?

Bucket list item
We got to a spot in a fjord between the islands Kvaløya and Ringvassøya, where at one point 20 boats in total were stopping to watch the whales. It was certainly a busy day at sea, but there was a magical silence as no one dared speaking above a whisper. The only things you could hear were the clicking of cameras and the louder-than-expected “pffff” sound of the whales coming up for air.

We stayed outside to watch these gorgeous creatures for about an hour and a half, and it remained incredibly silent on board the entire time. It was almost as if no one really believed that this was happening and therefore chose to be silent and enjoy it while it lasted.

Even though I had seen a humpback before, it was fascinating to see the orcas work on keeping the herring school in place and the humpback just opening its mouth and eating as much as he could. The interaction between the humpback and orcas is something that was just incredibly interesting to watch. And at one point they were even accompanied by a sea eagle!

Photo: Vanessa Brune
A humpback whale begins its descent.

Whale safaris
The whales have only been coming to Tromsø for the past five years, as that’s how long the herring have been here in the fjords. Whale safaris are therefore the newest tourist attraction in the area, and there are lots of people trying to make money from it without having any prior knowledge about the whales.

Our guide told us beforehand that we’re not allowed to go closer than 50 meters to the whales; it’s fine if the whales come to us, but we weren’t going to disturb them by driving towards them.

I had heard stories of boats driving toward whales in full speed before, and there was a huge discussion in Tromsø about whale safaris recently, resulting in Visit Tromsø and the university working on guidelines to ensure pleasant experiences for both tourists and whales.

We kept our distance, and about 15 minutes before we headed back to Tromsø, the whales decided to come to our boat. It was definitely worth the wait, but I wouldn’t have minded if they had chosen to keep a distance either. After standing outside in the wind and cold for more than an hour, I was really glad for the possibility to go inside, drink a cup of tea, and eat a waffle.

More information
Whale safaris in Tromsø run daily from late October to early February, which makes it the perfect activity if you’re visiting during the polar night to hunt the Northern Lights! Nobody knows how long the whales will hang around Tromsø, however, as they are just following the herring schools. One thing is for certain—seeing whales in the ocean is a once-in-a-lifetime experience!

Vanessa Brune is a German expat living in Tromsø where she works with digital marketing and runs the blog www.snowinTromsø.com.

This article originally appeared in the Dec. 30, 2016, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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