September 22, 2023


How Art Works

Photographing Orcas in Northern Norway

8 min read

A big male orca in his component in Norway


Each fall and winter, huge colleges of Norwegian herring migrate from the open ocean to the primary wintering areas off the coast and within the fjords of northern Norway, earlier than they begin heading south alongside the Norwegian coast, the place they’ll spawn in February and March. This attracts massive numbers of huge predators corresponding to orcas and humpback whales.

The truth that the realm the place that is taking place is above the Arctic Circle, mixed with the time of 12 months, makes the situations difficult. First, the hours of daylight are restricted. From across the November twenty fifth till mid-January, it’s the time of the polar nights, and the solar doesn’t even rise above the horizon. There are nonetheless a number of hours of twilight throughout this era, which could be surprisingly shiny on clear days. However typically the window for images may be very quick and figuring out alter to low-light situations is essential.

On high of this come the Arctic situations with very chilly temperatures, typically effectively beneath 32°F, generally sturdy winds, tough seas, and even snow. The water temperature is round 39–41°F. We’re not speaking about your typical tropical ocean images expertise right here, however a fairly harsh low-light surroundings.


Orcas in entrance of Norway’s beautiful shoreline on a transparent day in early December


A feminine orca and her calf cruise the darkish waters searching for prey


Underwater Encounters

The earliest orca sightings within the space often occur between mid-October and early November, and the final sightings between mid- and finish January. Whereas nice encounters are attainable throughout this entire interval, one of the best window of alternative for photographers is earlier than the polar nights begin round November twenty fifth.

There are primarily two varieties of encounters within the water—swim-bys and feeding conditions. In fact, orcas working and feeding on a baitball in a bunch effort is what each underwater photographer that travels to northern Norway would like to shoot. Nonetheless, it’s not an expertise everybody could have. Personally, I didn’t see a baitball feeding scenario till I traveled to Norway for the third consecutive 12 months.

In case you are fortunate sufficient to have the chance to be within the water whereas this occurs, you’ll instantly understand how hectic all the things is. The ocean shortly fills up with scales, bones and blood from the herring, which shortly impacts the visibility. In the meantime, the orcas continuously push the baitball, generally making it unimaginable to maintain up with them. After which there are the humpback whales which might be identified to sneak up on orcas and lunge feed from deep beneath a baitball—generally stealing all of it in only a few seconds and leaving nothing behind however a sea filled with scales.

What’s actually stunning to see is that orcas don’t simply swallow the entire fish after they swim right into a baitball and stun some herring with a tail slap. They really fastidiously choose up one after the other, filleting them and spitting out the top and bones.


A big bull working and feeding on a baitball


A male orca spitting out some bits and items after filleting a shocked herring


A humpback whale developing from beneath a baitball to seize a mouthful of herring


Humpback whales diving again down into the scale-filled sea after lunge feeding


Baitballs are very thrilling and can in all probability give even essentially the most skilled ocean adventurers an adrenaline rush. If you happen to ask me, although, swim-bys doubtlessly maintain extra promising picture alternatives and produce extra intimate encounters.

Swim-bys—the place orcas simply briefly swim by you—can occur in lots of conditions. Generally, it’s only one or a number of people; generally they are often in teams of 15 to twenty animals. Usually, the orcas clearly be aware of divers within the water however simply keep it up doing what they do, not bothering you in any respect. In different conditions, they dive earlier than reaching the folks within the water, clearly signaling they need to be left alone—which must be revered by leaving the water.

The perfect conditions, nevertheless—and people who I personally preserve coming again to Norway for—are the encounters the place one or a number of explicit people turn into curious and method you within the water, generally swimming away, turning round and coming again a number of occasions.


A feminine and a male orca swimming away from the remainder of the pod to verify me out


Two curious juvenile orcas swimming by very shut on a darkish day


A feminine orca presenting me with a jellyfish snack like she needed me to share within the feast


The above photographs all have one factor in widespread: the shortage of precise sunshine penetrating the water and illuminating the scene and topic. That’s as a result of it’s a actually uncommon factor to expertise, given the few hours of potential sunshine earlier than the polar nights begin in late November. Every part must align for this to occur. It must be a transparent day. Orcas or humpback whales have to be present in time whereas the solar hits the water they usually have to permit us within the water. As well as, an encounter have to be in a spot within the fjords the place the encircling mountains are usually not reducing off the low solar. Over time, I’ve had these components come collectively only some occasions, however after they do, it’s pure magic, with essentially the most beautiful sunbursts within the water.


A uncommon sunburst penetrates the water and supplies the proper backdrop for orca mum and calf


Ideas and Strategies for Photographing Orcas Underwater

To get essentially the most out of in-water encounters in northern Norway, I like to recommend opening your lens all the way in which to permit as a lot mild as attainable to hit the sensor. In my case, that’s f/4, but when your lens opens even wider, go for it. Mix that with a quick sufficient shutter pace to not get movement blur, whereas once more permitting as a lot mild as attainable to hit the sensor. I usually use 1/160s, generally 1/125s.

I’ve not had any inventive experiments with aperture or shutter pace end up properly in these waters, so I don’t mess around lots with these settings. What I continuously change is ISO. I by no means go beneath ISO 1000 and go as excessive as ISO 12,800, relying on the ambient mild. I initially tried Auto ISO, which was advisable to me by different photographers that had been to Norway, however that by no means labored for me, because the digital camera tends to set the ISO a lot increased than I personally would. Even when photographs end up too darkish at first, I discover that I can nonetheless get extra out of them once I edit them. Enhancing the brightness will improve the noise, but when the ISO was too excessive within the first place, the noise will already be there and doubtlessly break a shot.

So, my final advice is you utilize your digital camera in guide mode, strive the above aperture and shutter pace settings, after which mess around with the ISO whereas concentrating on composition. All the time begin taking pictures as quickly as you’re within the water. Take photographs of different folks within the water, the water floor and even your toes, and instantly alter your ISO for an publicity that appears about proper whenever you see a picture in your show. This all must occur shortly whereas swimming and specializing in a possible encounter.


A feminine orca displaying off a chunk of jellyfish in her mouth


One other issue for nice outcomes is getting shut encounters. It’s largely as much as the animals to determine whether or not you’ll be able to have it or not, however with the precise gear, you’ll be able to generally get somewhat nearer, maneuver quicker and place your self simpler.

Most operators will give you an Arctic drysuit that you should utilize. These fits will preserve you heat however are actually buoyant, which implies that they’ll gradual you down somewhat when it’s a must to swim lots they usually gained’t allow you to dive down. Investing in an Arctic freediving wetsuit will make you faster within the water and permit you to dive. Simply remember that you’re going to get moist! It’s essential be ready mentally and bodily for this, given that you just’re generally continuously out and in of the water for a number of hours with very chilly water temperatures and subzero exterior temperatures.


A big male orca swims by and comes extraordinarily shut


Topside Encounters

Observing orcas and humpback whales from the floor is simply as spectacular as underwater, with Norway’s colourful Arctic skies and snowy mountains creating the proper backdrop for beautiful photographs. I like to recommend bringing a separate topside digital camera with a zoom telephoto lens and having it prepared always.

For topside images, I exploit a 100–400mm lens and have discovered guide mode with Auto ISO to work finest. Noise is way much less noticeable in topside photographs, so you’ll be able to let the digital camera alter ISO to get a very good publicity. Once more, my place to begin is an open aperture plus a quick shutter pace. A setting between 1/1250s and 1/2000s ought to guarantee your photographs are tack sharp.


Humpback whales lunge feeding


A part of a pod of orcas on a late afternoon


Humpback within the Arctic mild


A male orca underneath a surprising pink sky


Humpback whales exhaling, their blows illuminated by the solar


A big male orca porpoising


Remaining Ideas


Whereas in-water encounters are what each underwater photographer hopes for, it may be actually troublesome to get within the water generally on account of numerous components corresponding to tough seas or animal habits. Be sure to have a separate topside digital camera with an honest telephoto zoom prepared, so you may make good use of prolonged floor intervals and seize these superior orcas and humpbacks in opposition to Norway’s breathtaking backdrops.


If you happen to’re desirous about seeing extra of Andy’s superior photographs and even becoming a member of him on an expedition to Norway at some point, try his Instagram web page or contact him by way of his web site,

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