In the North of Norway, during January, there are twenty hours of night-time.
It seemed a little strange to me at first, as my body stepped into evening mode as the sun went down, and I realised that instead of going to bed, it was only 3 pm. However, I became used to the rhythm in a matter of days. It is the opposite, of course, in summer, where there are twenty-four hours of sunlight, but that is worthy of its own story.
I have been observing and following whales for a fair part of my life, as I have been involved in whale-watching and research expeditions and have sailed the oceans for twenty-four years.
The two main species that we were looking for here in the winter were humpback whales and killer whales. Both of them came to the Northern fjords to feed on herring, who arrived at these areas of Western Norway’s coast in huge schools. The herring presence in these fjords fluctuated, a tremendous invasion was observed in 2011 and 2012, for example, but few herring were seen in 2017.
It is uncertain, but it seems that 400-600 humpbacks visit these fjords during the season, with some individuals remaining in the area for a period of four to six weeks. These humpbacks consume an estimated 20,000 to 25,000 tonnes of herring within the season, about half of what the local fisheries catch.
Looking for herring was not my job, and I wouldn’t have known where to start, but my eyes were trained to look for blows on the horizon. With only four hours of light in the peak of winter, one needed to leave port or anchorage well before the sunlight hit the fjords, which is when navigational aids became crucial. It was such a pleasure to work with top range radars, ECDIS, night vision and all the bridge equipment available to make our way through the fjords to where the whales had last been seen. The night vision was the gamechanger, as you could observe the blows at night due to the temperature difference.
This generally allowed us to arrive at the whales by sunrise. If that was not the case, as soon as the sun started to rise, the bridge asked for the assistance of an expedition guide and a deckhand, to help with the search by climbing up the bridge with their binoculars looking for blows. The moment a blow was seen, the message was relayed to the guests that it was time to wrap up the breakfast. I must admit that I had never seen so many humpback whales in my life, they really were there in large numbers, and the sightings were spectacular.
Without a doubt, the orcas were the highlight for me personally, as I had been passionate about them for many years. They were less easy to spot, moved faster and also changed course underwater more regularly than humpbacks. We encountered groups of females, mother and calf sightings or solitary males steaming their way through the fjords.
Since the massive presence of herring occurred in these North of Norway fjords, there had been a boom in the whale watch industry. We had the advantage of being first on the spot, as our vessel allowed us to travel “overnight”, but once the light hit the fjords, small ribs appeared out of nowhere. I must say that generally, the Norwegians were respectful towards the whales and the other vessels, which was a crucial element when observing whales, compared to previous whale-watching experiences I had had in Spain, Ecuador or Brazil. There was always ‘one’ that squeezed in where we all knew they shouldn’t, to cash-in on the well-paid customer experience at any cost.