Photographing Orcas in Northern Norway

A big male orca in his component in Norway


Each fall and winter, huge faculties 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 massive predators resembling orcas and humpback whales.

The truth that the world the place that is occurring is above the Arctic Circle, mixed with the time of yr, 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 couple of hours of twilight throughout this era, which could be surprisingly brilliant on clear days. However usually the window for images could be very brief and realizing easy methods to regulate to low-light situations is vital.

On high of this come the Arctic situations with very chilly temperatures, usually nicely beneath 32°F, generally robust 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 gorgeous shoreline on a transparent day in early December


A feminine orca and her calf cruise the darkish waters in search of prey


Underwater Encounters

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

There are primarily two forms 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 isn’t an expertise everybody may have. Personally, I didn’t see a baitball feeding state of affairs till I traveled to Norway for the third consecutive yr.

In case you are fortunate sufficient to have the chance to be within the water whereas this occurs, you’ll instantly notice how hectic every little thing is. The ocean rapidly fills up with scales, bones and blood from the herring, which rapidly impacts the visibility. In the meantime, the orcas always push the baitball, generally making it unattainable to maintain up with them. After which there are the humpback whales which might be recognized to sneak up on orcas and lunge feed from deep beneath a baitball—generally stealing all of it in just some seconds and leaving nothing behind however a sea filled with scales.

What’s actually shocking 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 rigorously 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 surprised herring


A humpback whale arising 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 most likely give even essentially the most skilled ocean adventurers an adrenaline rush. If you happen to ask me, although, swim-bys probably maintain extra promising photograph 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 couple of people; generally they are often in teams of 15 to twenty animals. Typically, the orcas clearly be aware of divers within the water however simply keep on doing what they do, not bothering you in any respect. In different conditions, they dive earlier than reaching the individuals within the water, clearly signaling they wish to be left alone—which must be revered by leaving the water.

One of the best conditions, nonetheless—and people who I personally maintain coming again to Norway for—are the encounters the place one or a couple of explicit people change into curious and strategy 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 wished me to share within the feast


The above images all have one factor in widespread: the dearth 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 little thing must align for this to occur. It must be a transparent day. Orcas or humpback whales should be present in time whereas the solar hits the water and so they have to permit us within the water. As well as, an encounter should be in a spot within the fjords the place the encompassing mountains usually are not slicing off the low solar. Over time, I’ve had these components come collectively only some occasions, however once they do, it’s pure magic, with essentially the most gorgeous sunbursts within the water.


A uncommon sunburst penetrates the water and gives the right 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 potential 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 velocity to not get movement blur, whereas once more permitting as a lot mild as potential to hit the sensor. I usually use 1/160s, generally 1/125s.

I’ve not had any inventive experiments with aperture or shutter velocity end up properly in these waters, so I don’t mess around rather a lot with these settings. What I always 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 really helpful to me by different photographers that had been to Norway, however that by no means labored for me, because the digicam tends to set the ISO a lot larger than I personally would. Even when photos 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 probably spoil a shot.

So, my final suggestion is you utilize your digicam in guide mode, attempt the above aperture and shutter velocity settings, after which mess around with the ISO whereas concentrating on composition. All the time begin capturing as quickly as you’re within the water. Take photographs of different individuals within the water, the water floor and even your ft, and instantly regulate your ISO for an publicity that appears about proper once you see a picture in your show. This all must occur rapidly whereas swimming and specializing in a possible encounter.


A feminine orca exhibiting off a bit of jellyfish in her mouth


One other issue for excellent outcomes is getting shut encounters. It’s principally as much as the animals to resolve whether or not you may have it or not, however with the best gear, you may generally get somewhat nearer, maneuver sooner and place your self simpler.

Most operators will give you an Arctic drysuit that you need to use. These fits will maintain you heat however are actually buoyant, which signifies that they’ll gradual you down somewhat when you need to swim rather a lot and so they 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 bear in mind that you’re going to get moist! That you must be ready mentally and bodily for this, given that you simply’re generally always 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 right backdrop for gorgeous images. I like to recommend bringing a separate topside digicam with a zoom telephoto lens and having it prepared always.

For topside images, I take advantage of a 100–400mm lens and have discovered guide mode with Auto ISO to work greatest. Noise is way much less noticeable in topside images, so you may let the digicam regulate ISO to get a superb publicity. Once more, my start line is an open aperture plus a quick shutter velocity. A setting between 1/1250s and 1/2000s ought to guarantee your photos 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 beneath a surprising pink sky


Humpback whales exhaling, their blows illuminated by the solar


A big male orca porpoising


Ultimate Ideas


Whereas in-water encounters are what each underwater photographer hopes for, it may be actually troublesome to get within the water generally resulting from numerous components resembling tough seas or animal conduct. Be certain that to have a separate topside digicam 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 keen on seeing extra of Andy’s superior photos and even becoming a member of him on an expedition to Norway in the future, try his Instagram web page or contact him by way of his web site,