|In Pursuit of Giants (2020년 3/4월호)|
Our hands and feet are starting to go numb. Lips are slowly turning blue. The massive triangular dorsal fin of a large male orca cuts through the water, just meters away from us. A truly memorable sight. Get ready…. Get Ready…. now GOOOOO! Any hesitation that you might have disappears and is replaced with excitement. We slide in the water as smoothly as possible, but in reality, our clumsy, not stealth approach, results in a giant splash entry in the water. We immediately face down and stare into the deep trying to get a glimpse of nature’s apex underwater predator. The white marking of its belly is clearly visible when it swims directly under us. Our first orca encounter in the wild; no words can adequately describe the feeling!
Every winter, from mid-October to mid-February, herring aggregate in huge numbers in the fjords of Northern Arctic Norway. This potential feast attracts the largest gathering of orcas in the world, who are regularly joined by humpback whales that also indulge in the herring. The exact fjord-system that the herring go to changes every 5 to 10 years, and it is difficult to predict in advance. Therefore, an extremely successful year in one location can be followed by a year with no orcas because the herring favour somewhere else to gather. In practical terms it means that booking a land based trip can be a very comfortable solution one year, but a nightmare the year after if it means sailing many hours to get to the best spot for the encounters. Consequently, we played it safe and booked a live-aboard trip on board the Sula.
The MS Sula is neither luxurious nor spacious. It is a 30m-long fishing boat that has been converted into a diving liveaboard. It has bunkbed accommodation, with two cabins with four beds, five cabins with two beds and one cabin with three beds. The bathroom facilities are shared. What the Sula lacks in luxury is compensated by an exceptional educational experience with daily lectures, a cozy lounge, and exceptionally good food. Some of us claimed it to be the best food ever enjoyed on a dive trip. Tea, coffee and cookies were served throughout the day.
Winter conditions can be challenging here with brutal weather, so you should expect some bad weather days where white horses will dominate the sea surface. Wintertime is statistically rather cloudy, rainy and snowy anyway, but as you all know statistics are just that, statistics. What the actual weather will be during your visit can be completely different. Not even a 2-day forecast can be trusted. What is rather certain is that there are few daylight hours in November in the very north. The times of sunrise and sunset in Norway are significantly influenced by the country's very northern position in the hemisphere. If you want to look at the sunrise in these days, you can take it easy. The sun rises well after 11:00 and can set at 14:00 making the days short. As a matter of fact, at the end of November, the Polar Night last all day and the sun doesn’t rise at all. But don’t despair because far from a period of absolute darkness, the Polar Night is a time of beautiful colours and soft, indirect light.
So starting a day’s diving at first light gets a new meaning. The operation is relatively straightforward. You leave from the MS Sula on a smaller dinghy to find the orcas. For logistical reasons, we split our small team into two smaller groups, each on a smaller RIB. One of them, Haarek, has a cabin behind which we could find some shelter against the elements. The other, Gyda, was a bare RIB which offered no protection whatsoever. Once a school of orcas has been spotted, the dinghy positions itself in line with the direction of travel. The dinghy that is in the best position claims the right and gets the first opportunity to enter the water. The orca’s behaviour determines whether you are permitted to enter the water, as indicated to us by our resident orca biologists. If the orcas feel relaxed, you might get a change to enter, but if there are any signs otherwise, you have to stay on board. This approach will anyway guarantee the best interaction with the orcas as they are in full control and can decide to leave or stay. Throughout the day we had several glimpsing encounters where the orca was obviously checking us out. Each day, when the light would vanish, we returned to the comfort and warmth of the MS Sula.
The evenings are filled with lectures from the resident orca expert. The lectures detail the method of soft encounters, for which the wellbeing of marine animals is paramount. Following this approach gives you the opportunity to snorkel these beautiful animals on their terms. The lectures also touch upon the fascinating family structure of orcas and how this structure has evolved over tens of millions of years into different vocal dialects. This seems possible because orcas have one of the most detailed mammal brains in the oceans, making them one of the most intelligent species. The basic family structure consists of a matriarch, the oldest female orca, her children and their offspring. To avoid interbreeding, maturing animals will temporarily join other families or strike out on their own to form a new family group. This mixing ensures that genetic diversity in the population is maintained.
The next days followed the same schedule, but one day will stay engraved in our memories for the rest of our lives. Nearly all day we tried to get in the water but the orcas were travelling at a high speed and not showing any signs of slowing down. They clearly had a mission and we were not part of it. At the end of the day our luck took a turn. We jumped in the water because a school of orcas was circling the same spot. Our guide told us to separate and to wait and see what would happen. The next thing we saw were several fins cutting the surface, coming straight towards us. Reaching up to 2 m tall, the dorsal fin of a male is an amazing spectacle. The feeling is difficult to describe, but it is very intense. The group literally passed us within a few meters. A mother was looking at us and had the intention to get closer. However, the pusher big male decided to steer her away. There was no aggression whatsoever, but the signal was clear. Males are significantly larger than females and can be up to nine metres long and weigh up to 6 tons. A truly impressive sight, imprinted in your brain and memory for a lifetime.
We didn’t have too much time to enjoy the moment because two 30 tons humpbacks were heading towards us. Despite the fact that we had been briefed that humpbacks do not stop for anything we dove down. Although the light was low and the visibility limited, we could clearly appreciate the sheer size of these animals and see their distinctive white pectoral fins. These animals can grow longer than a school bus, up to 20 meters in length. Even more impressive are their pectoral fins that can grow longer than 5 meters. This means that Humpbacks have the longest arms of any creature in the world. What a day! With big smiles on our faces we jumped back in the boat and returned to the MS Sula as darkness surrounded us. Cold but happy.
The evening lecture about orca hunting methods was featured at the end of the trip. Orcas are known for their co-operative hunting; individual pods specialize on the type of prey they prefer to target. In the fjords of Norway, the orcas herd herring into a bait ball; members of the pod enter the bait ball and give a rapid, powerful swipe of the tail. The stunned herring float to the surface and are individually consumed by the orcas. We were fascinated to learn that the orcas eat one herring at a time and spit out the head, which contains mostly bone. Can you imagine this apex predator with such good table manners? But most folks are familiar with orca hunting of seals, resting on small ice floes, where some of the pod tip the floe with their wake to cause the poor seal to slide to the other side where the rest of the orca pod was waiting. Or the image of orcas attacking young whales, repeatedly forcing the whale to submerge to exhaustion and death. Orcas have never attacked humans outside of captivity, but these lectures are a reminder that we are interacting with wild animals and should always be on guard.
A fast week of exceptional encounters, this bucket-list adventure was breath taking and should not be missed. We left Norway, feeling privileged to snorkel with these apex predators and witness their behaviour first-hand. Yes, it’s cold and is likely to be outside of your comfort zone, but it is a special experience that you will remember for a lifetime and well-worth any discomfort you may experience. Even if you don’t go in the water, observing the orca behaviour topside is simply amazing. Take the chance and witness these intelligent giants for yourself!
By Theresa Guise and Peter de Maagt
|글쓴날 : [20-03-15 16:10]||스쿠바다이버기자[firstname.lastname@example.org]|
|스쿠바다이버 기자의 다른기사보기|