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Swimming with Orcas

Updated: Apr 11

If you are familiar with the rest of my work, you know by now that I spend a good portion of my life in the water. While sharks give me amazing experiences every day, when asked about the craziest encounter I've ever had, another creature comes to mind.

female orca whale swimming underwater in norway coming in for a closer look

I’m sure you can guess from the title where this story is going. Swimming with orcas was on my bucket list for a long time, and even after experiencing it, it remains on that list. Similar to my life with sharks, I would repeat the experience over, and over…and over again. Yet, swimming with orcas proved to be a very different experience from diving in the blue water with the sharks. The location, the temperatures, the ocean conditions, and the lighting—all of it was new to me. This experience taught me a lot about what to do and what not to do when you're sharing the water with Killer whales and trying to take good pictures.

I reached Norway as prepared as I was going to be, and in hindsight, I made some mistakes I wouldn't make again, mostly related to the diving and camera equipment I brought with me. I had warm clothes, a drysuit, weights, my DSLR, and my underwater housing. From my experience, here’s a list of things I would pay attention to if you are planning to swim with killer whales in Norway:

  • Ditch the drysuit for a good, thick wetsuit, and bring hand warmers.

  • Get a camera that works well in low light.

  • Avoid using strobes.

  • Choose an expedition that respects the animals.

I experienced this adventure as both a photographer and a diver, and swimming with orcas was a dream come true, with or without a camera. But if you are about to dive in Norway for the first time, there are a few things to keep in mind because Norway is not like the rest of the world.

sunrise from inside the water of a fjord in Tromsø Norway

Norway is cold. Always. And in the winter, Norway is REALLY cold. Which meant two things for me: First, I got to dive in fjords surrounded by mountains covered in snow. Which sounds absolutely awful, but after jumping into that dark water during the short daylight (not sunlight) window available, I looked up speechless. What I saw was stunning, orcas or not.

Secondly, I quickly realized I was under-equipped for the activity. I was advised to bring a drysuit, and I ended up struggling for the better part of six days. If you have no experience as a freediver in cold water they are amazing. If you are a already a freediver they are uncomfortable, great for scuba diving, but they act like a big lifejacket that gets in the way of mobility in and out of water. (If you need pointers on what wetsuit to buy, let me know).

After that first jump, and after figuring out how to snorkel efficiently in a drysuit, dealing with dark water was a new challenge for me. I had very little light available, and at the time, I was working with a camera that was a bit hard on the autofocus. The good news is, since autofocus works on contrast, once the orcas are positioned sideways, they are every photographer’s dream as they seem designed to help with camera focus.

There are two roadblocks though: 1. The orcas come close to shore to hunt herring, and when they do, the water fills with chunks and shiny fish leftovers. Think backscatter but a lot worse. 2. Photographing a black fish in black water is so challenging! Without the right camera, you are going to listen to your autofocus struggle while you watch the best shot of your life disappear in front of your eyes; and a black and white fish will test your exposure skills. At the end of the day, comfort is going to make or break your shot, so test your dive gear and test your camera equipment in low light before making this trip.

Aside from the discomfort of lighting up every piece of dead fish in the area, and how ugly it looks on camera, there’s another reason why I don’t recommend using strobes. Strobe lights on cetaceans are not something I enjoy using, especially in low light. That bright light source shot at them all of a sudden scares them and blinds them. As a photographer, I prefer opting for a month with a bit more light or using continuous lighting.

Orcas are very large animals with a mission, and in Norway, that mission is feeding on Herring just like every other predator in the area. When it comes to people, they will either ignore and tolerate, acknowledge, or take a brief interest. We are not on their menu for food, and they are not interested in harming us. To me, this experience was absolutely breathtaking, and not only for the orca encounters. I took photos I didn’t imagine possible and saw rivers of herring, humpback whales feeding, northern lights, and so much more. As I'm preparing to head there again, I hope you will join me. It will change your entire life.

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