Text: Sebastian Näslund

Photo:
Annika Backman / Sebastian Naslund

The hunt for the herring - freediving with Killer whales.

Nine million tons of herring. These are the main characters of the story. Well, the freediving champion Stig Severinsen would argue that he is the main attraction in this TV documentary aiming for world wide distribution. We are 100 kilometres above the arctic circle in a fjord in Norway. Stig and the Danish filmteam wants to see a human interact with the orcas or as they are also called: Killer whales. I am the under water filmer in the team and me and Stig are dropped of a zodiac in the middle of a fjord edged by snow covered mountains. A splendid scenery which we totally foresee as our focus is downwards below the surface. Down in the greenish clear water we are looking for 6 meter long Killer Whales, those huge black and white torpedos.

But we see none – the reason – there are no herring in this fjord. The scientist tagged an Orca a few years back and discovered that wherever the huge shoals of herring went – the orcas went. Follow the herring, always trying to have their food cupboard close at hand.

The Atlantic spring spawning herring is a fat one. It can grow to more than 30 centimetres. But the average herring is only about 330 grams. So if there is 9 million tons – how many individual herrings are there? You do the maths. It is actually so many that when they at last leave their hiding place at the continental shelf an venture into the Tysfjord – they are so many that layers of the fjord get “hypoxic” – they use up all the oxygen. They hide at 100 meters depth in a100 meter thick layer of herring. Down here in the darkness they do nothing whatsoever. They just spend the winter living of the fat the assembled eating zooplankton in the North Atlantic during the summer. Well they do something – they try to survive – finding security in numbers and by staying as deep as they can. During the light hours they go deep, pushing their swim bladders to the maximum, they are actually negatively buoyant down there having to swim upwards all the time in small nervous movements.
As you probably have seen on TV the orcas try to cut out pieces of the shoal and scare them to the surface where they smash them with their flukes – stunning them – and picking them one by one. The orcas need to eat more than 50 kilos of herring every day. Since there are about 600-700 orcas following and grazing this stock of 9 million tons of herring you can yourself estimate how many of the nine million tons of herring is eaten. 700 orcas – 50 kilo a day – 365 days. The orca is considered an intelligent animal, but the herring is not that stupid either. Even though their survival strategy of forming whirling carousels and appearing as one solid object is not that successful against the orcas. The herring has another strategy that works slightly better. At a given signal all herrings in a particular shoal farts air from their swim bladders – the result is a wall of bubbles through which the orcas can neither see or send their sonar through. The water turn whitish and the herring “disappear” and take this opportunity to escape downwards to deeper safer water. Being squeezed in between orcas underneath and birds dive bombing from above is not a favourable situation for the herring.
This scenario above was exactly what we encountered on our first day at sea looking for the orcas. After 90 minutes of zodiacing at 20 knots through rough seas we reached five other boats that were looking for the killer whales. But the five hours of daylight was coming to its end and we didn’t get our gear assembled in time to get in and film. One thinks twice before going in with a wetsuit in arctic 4-6 degree waters. In the water we get by quite well in custom made Eliossub 5mm suits (me doubling with a 3mm shorty) but as soon as you get back up in the boat the wind is killing cold and even getting into a survival suit is cumbersome. On the following days we see only four males, they are characteristic with their long dorsal fin. We manage to drop in front of one and see it as it rolls over and takes a look at us from 20 meters depth. Visibility is that good, but light is low here at the arctic circle – the sun hardly getting over the horizon, just gliding along the mountain range.

We miss the pods of females and especially the young since they are the ones mostly curious about humans in the water. The tourist tour operators have three different tours they offer: ride a big old coastguard boat or a sailboat, or gear up in survival suits and blast around in zodiacs at 25 knots, or get dry suits and snorkel gear and get dropped in front of passing pods of orcas - getting a short glimpse of them.
Stig has higher ambitions, he wants to put on a monofin and go down there and mimic the orcas movements and get some deeper interaction. But if there is no herring – there are no orcas.

The stock of herring has habits, but these have not always been the same. Some scientists say it changes in a cycle of 40 years. In fact there were no orcas in Tysfjord north Norway before 1988. From one year to the other they just appeared, in hundreds. Fins everywhere in the small but deep Tysfjord. What had happened was that the herring usually wintering deep off the coast of Iceland chose to go to Norway instead and the orcas followed.

The scientist has this explanation. A southern flowing cold current above Iceland started flowing slightly stronger and on the other side of Iceland – thus creating a cold barrier in between the herring stock and their winter home – the herring turned back to Norway. Outside Norway they hid deep down at the continental shelf. Nine million tons is such a huge amount of herring and it can get so crowded out at the continental shelf that some of them moved further in into the protected Tysfjord.

Now comes the interesting part: only a small part of the total herring stock moves into the Tysfjord. This is the oldest part of the stock, the ones that was born before 1999 has this habit – the others stay out, far out at sea.

The herring comes and goes in periods. During the 1700th century there were times when there was so much herring that you could fish from land with nets. On a cliff overlooking the Tysfjord we find a nine thousand year old stone carving from the stone age – there is no doubt of what we see carved into the cliff beside the elk: a natural size killer whale. They were here 9000 years ago.

On the fifth day we see no Orcas. This is the third day with no Orcas. For a tour operator that boasts 94% track record of spotting these whales – three days with no Orcas is bad business – well people still pay around a 100 euro to see nothing. If you are one of the snorklers you pay 140 euro. And even if they see whales is usually dorsal fins moving up and down and on a good day a fluke slapping the surface or an orca popping up with the head for a couple of seconds. I don’t really see why people pay this kind of money. Off course it is a grand scenery and great excitement to blast over arctic waves in 20-30 knots – but if you are interested in orcas I suggest you stay in front of the TV. A tourist will never get the kind of access we as a filmcrew get. We have a serious boat at our disposal, a guide with local knowledge, we drive closer, we stay longer, we get under water with our cameras, we meet all the scientist, talk with the crews, visit all lectures.

6th day at sea
Ok I change my mind, I would pay to go out there and experience what I experienced today. Far out in the Westfjord a group of Orcas were sighted. Above them a flock of birds eagerly circling. We get into the water under great stress; waves, wind, engines, boats, birds shrieking, people pointing, mask, snorkel, camera, fall in, breath, check the camera, people pointing, fins, push of and look down into a green empty space. Stig is off with a cheerful: “follow me” and I am expected to do just this; following an eager world champion in dynamic under water swimming; me dragging a film camera and restricted by 13mm neoprene over my torso. I paddle with my long fins trying to breath up at the same time. The birds are closer now. Look! There, a dead herring. A stare in amazement. It is actually a herring, floating around in mid water, half eaten by a killer whale. Whale teeth has cut it I half. All of a sudden a black and white torpedo, Stig is gone, I dive. Get nothing, but when I turn a wall of herring covers my sight. It is a carousel of herring; turning this way and that way. Fleeing for their lifes. And there - an Orca, and there another one, both disappear and three more appear behind the herring. What was empty ocean is now gone. In front of my eyes – flukes slapping, herring, black and white whales, birds dive bombing, hunger, death and hope of escape, side by side. I double check that the camera is recording, and I dive…
7th day
The first minute riding an inflatable rib flat-out at 28 knots is very interesting, the following two minutes is pure fun, splashing into the waves brazing yourself always keeping your knees bent. The following three minutes are exciting, you feel like a hero in an action movie, seeing yourself from higher angle surrounded by waves and swell from the north atlantic (15 minutes after falling over board and you will be dead). The arctic mountains all around you snowcovered touching the sky above the low low sun barely making it above the horizon. After 90 minutes of this its no fun anymore – you are just concentrating on not hurting yourself, not letting go of your two grips or you might find your head smashing into a holdbar in front of you.
Yes we went far out into the Westfjord today, following the Lofoten islands out into the wild seas. The orcas has not moved into the cosy Tysfjord, or rather the herring is still out there by the Lofoten islands. Today we will not be able to get back home before darkness, our Australian skipper is phoning about finding an alternative harbour further out.
We encounter the orcas when there is only 30 minutes of sunlight left. They spyhop and tailsplash and seem to be a happy lot, not moving so fast, there must be herring down there. Stig and I get in. And there they are: a flock of 12-15 orcas passing 5-10 meters in front of us, one turning and looking at Stig. The object of the day is getting Stig and an Orca in the same shot. Visibility goes down with the diminishing light so I am not sure I got the “moneyshot”. Suddenly an Orca passes under me to the side and rushes up behind Stig and it looks as if it touches his fin blades with its nose – did I get that on camera – don’t know – it was over in a second. As usual there is total chaos in the windy wavy water, we are as stressed as the little herrings. Look, there! Herring floating paralyzed in the water 5 meter down. We follow the streak of silvery scales raining down towards the deep bottom of the fjord. Soon we see the ball of herring gathered by the orcas.

I dive down towards the ball of herring and at the same time a 5-6 meter orca male comes in from the other side opens his mouth flashes hundreds of teeth and STOP: let us freeze there for a moment. An orca only has to open his mouth about 10-15 centimetres to swallow a fat herring – this one has his mouth wide open, maybe 20-25 centimetres. In a second a thought flashes by. For the first time when diving with sea mammals, I am actually afraid (I have dived with turtles, dolphins, sharks, sperm whales). What if this animal thinks I am after his food. Actually I am IN his food. Is the flashing of the teeth a way to tell me to “piss off or get slammed with the tail”. When I am filming my world is reduced to what is on the screen, I am totally focused on getting stable and interesting shots with good light. The camera is an alibi to do things I normally would not do – I am not sure I would have dived towards a killer whale that is feeding if it was not for the camera in my hands. The single herring goes into his mouth and he zooms by and I check the screen to see if the “rec” is on…

8th day
Amazing. We move in right after the orcas have slapped the ball of herring with their ”tails” and we pick paralyzed herring out of mid water. The shocked silvery herring wrestles in our hands. I move in with the camera a feet from the swirling ball of herring, all of a sudden a black and white head is coming towards me, hesitates for half a second and he moves on. Was he going to slap the herring and found me in the way?
Some say we are pushing it. “What you are doing is on the edge” says a skipper on one of the boats. Are they getting annoyed with us, are we seen as competitors for the food? “Stick with the herring” I shout above the waves to Stig. “The Orcas will follow the herring”. The nervous shoal of herring goes this way and that, changing direction simultaneously. I was wrong, all of a sudden the Orcas have moved on – we are alone guarding a ball of herring. The 4x4x4 meter ball in between us dare not to escape to the deep – do they think that we are Orcas?
So how do they perceive us - the orcas? Mostly they swim away when they see us, sometimes they swim by and check us out, but while feeding they focus on their job and we are let closer in. On rare occasions they (as dolphins) come from behind and race past in a flash right at our tail. If they wanted they could bite or hit us with their flukes or kill us by just swimming into us at high speed. We are crippled compared to them, they are truly the top of the food chain in this realm. Since they are used to being predators I believe they do not know fear from anything in the water. And without fear, no aggressiveness. But what if they get fed up by being disturbed. A pilot whale in Hawaii once pulled a snorkler down to 30 meters. Stig believes we will get a warning before they would hurt us – somekind of “piss of or you are in trouble”. What would that warning look like? No one knows, not even the scientist that have studied their simple “language” for decades can tell us what an aggressive sound would be.

This is the only place in the world where tourist are offered to go in the water to see the orcas. Only in dry suits and with no fins. But there are signs that this “saga” that started 1987 is coming to an end. Next year there might not be any Orcas here. Why? Because the herring are showing signs of changing their migration routes. Only the old herring born before 1999 enter Tysfjorden and they are being fished up. The younger and bigger mass of herring are showing signs of wanting to winter outside Iceland as they did some 20-30 years ago. And the orcas will follow.

After ten days Stig, me and the Danish filmcrew leaves. We have been both lucky and unlucky. Many days with no orcas, many days only encountering them after the sun has disappeared behind the mountains – but we have encountered them – at close range down on their kingdom and we have enough on tape to make a programme.