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 are going to 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 taking place is above the Arctic Circle, mixed with the time of 12 months, makes the circumstances 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 may be surprisingly shiny on clear days. However on the whole the window for pictures may be very quick and understanding easy methods to regulate to low-light circumstances is vital.

On high of this come the Arctic circumstances with very chilly temperatures, typically 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 pictures expertise right here, however a slightly 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, 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. After all, 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. Nevertheless, it isn’t 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 rapidly fills up with scales, bones and blood from the herring, which rapidly impacts the visibility. In the meantime, the orcas consistently push the baitball, generally making it not possible to maintain up with them. After which there are the humpback whales which can 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 decide 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 most likely give even essentially the most skilled ocean adventurers an adrenaline rush. In the event you 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 couple of people; generally they are often in teams of 15 to twenty animals. Typically, the orcas clearly pay attention to divers within the water however simply stick with it 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 need to be left alone—which must be revered by leaving the water.

The perfect conditions, nevertheless—and those who I personally hold 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 instances.


A feminine and a male orca swimming away from the remainder of the pod to test 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. The whole lot 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 slicing off the low solar. Over time, I’ve had these elements come collectively just a few instances, 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 Methods 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 best way 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 artistic experiments with aperture or shutter pace end up properly in these waters, so I don’t mess around quite a bit with these settings. What I consistently 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 greater than I personally would. Even when pictures end up too darkish at first, I discover that I can nonetheless get extra out of them after 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, attempt the above aperture and shutter pace settings, after which mess around with the ISO whereas concentrating on composition. At all times begin capturing 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 whenever you see a picture in your show. This all must occur rapidly whereas swimming and specializing in a possible encounter.


A feminine orca displaying off a chunk 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 may have it or not, however with the suitable gear, you may generally 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 are going to sluggish you down slightly when you need to swim quite a bit they usually received’t allow you to dive down. Investing in an Arctic freediving wetsuit will make you faster within the water and assist you to dive. Simply remember that you’ll get moist! It’s essential be ready mentally and bodily for this, given that you just’re generally consistently 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 images. 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 greatest. Noise is far much less noticeable in topside images, so you may let the digicam regulate ISO to get an excellent 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 pictures 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 below a shocking 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 on account of numerous elements corresponding to tough seas or animal conduct. Ensure 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.


In the event you’re all in favour of seeing extra of Andy’s superior pictures and even becoming a member of him on an expedition to Norway at some point, take a look at his Instagram web page or contact him by way of his web site,