Photographing Orcas in Northern Norway

A big male orca in his ingredient 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 giant numbers of huge predators corresponding to orcas and humpback whales.

The truth that the realm 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 number of hours of twilight throughout this era, which may be surprisingly vibrant on clear days. However on the whole the window for pictures may be very brief and figuring out the right way to regulate to low-light situations is vital.

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


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 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 doable 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 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 isn’t an expertise everybody can have. Personally, I didn’t see a baitball feeding scenario 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 part is. The ocean shortly fills up with scales, bones and blood from the herring, which shortly impacts the visibility. In the meantime, the orcas continually push the baitball, typically making it unattainable to maintain up with them. After which there are the humpback whales which are identified to sneak up on orcas and lunge feed from deep beneath a baitball—typically stealing all of it in only a few 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 decide up one after the other, filleting them and spitting out the pinnacle 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 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. For those who ask me, although, swim-bys doubtlessly 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 number of people; typically they are often in teams of 15 to twenty animals. Typically, the orcas clearly pay attention to 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 individuals within the water, clearly signaling they wish to be left alone—which must be revered by leaving the water.

The most effective conditions, nonetheless—and those who I personally hold 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, typically 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 examine 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 encompassing mountains should not chopping off the low solar. Over time, I’ve had these elements come collectively just a few 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 offers the proper backdrop for orca mum and calf


Suggestions 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 doable 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 doable to hit the sensor. I usually use 1/160s, typically 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 so much with these settings. What I continually 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 useful 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 greater 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 smash a shot.

So, my final advice is you utilize your digicam in handbook mode, strive the above aperture and shutter velocity 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 pictures of different individuals within the water, the water floor and even your toes, and instantly regulate your ISO for an publicity that appears about proper while 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 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 determine whether or not you’ll be able to have it or not, however with the proper gear, you’ll be able to typically get slightly nearer, maneuver sooner and place your self simpler.

Most operators will give you an Arctic drysuit that you need to use. These fits will hold you heat however are actually buoyant, which signifies that they’ll sluggish you down slightly when it’s important to swim so much they usually gained’t allow you to dive down. Investing in an Arctic freediving wetsuit will make you faster within the water and let you dive. Simply bear in mind that you’ll get moist! It’s essential be ready mentally and bodily for this, given that you simply’re typically continually out and in of the water for a number of hours with very chilly water temperatures and subzero outdoors 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 digicam with a zoom telephoto lens and having it prepared always.

For topside pictures, I exploit a 100–400mm lens and have discovered handbook mode with Auto ISO to work finest. Noise is far much less noticeable in topside photographs, so you’ll be able to let the digicam regulate ISO to get a great publicity. Once more, my place to begin is an open aperture plus a quick shutter velocity. 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 beneath a shocking pink sky


Humpback whales exhaling, their blows illuminated by the solar


A big male orca porpoising


Closing Ideas


Whereas in-water encounters are what each underwater photographer hopes for, it may be actually tough to get within the water typically because of numerous elements corresponding to tough seas or animal conduct. Make sure that to have a separate topside digicam with an honest telephoto zoom prepared, so you can also make good use of prolonged floor intervals and seize these superior orcas and humpbacks towards Norway’s breathtaking backdrops.


For those who’re curious about seeing extra of Andy’s superior photographs and even becoming a member of him on an expedition to Norway in the future, take a look at his Instagram web page or contact him by way of his web site,