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“Are you afraid of failure, or of success?” underwater photographer Amos Nachoum had asked me. Face-to-face with an Orca underwater, I concluded that I was scared of success—very scared.
I was in the Lofoten Islands of northern Norway on a two-week diving trip led by Amos to search for Orcas, and I was—or so I thought—desperate for an underwater encounter with these toothed whales.
But when the Orca came zooming through the night-black waters to inspect me, all I could think about was its mouth and its teeth. Orcas aren’t called killer whales for nothing, or so my addled brain told me.
A more rational mind might have remembered that although Orcas are called “killers,” they are eaters of sea-dwellers, not of humans. Often working in organized packs, these wolves of the sea pluck basking seals off beaches, stalk migrating whales twice their size, play catch with Manta Rays and, in at least one recorded instance, attack Great White Sharks.
“They don’t try to taste things that they don’t know,” Amos had said, and they have so little familiarity with humans that they consider us a novelty, not dinner.
There is no record of an Orca in the wild wounding a person and only one case of a captive Orca causing a fatality. Besides, there are better things to eat than humans. According to Orca-researcher Anna Bisther, whom I met in the Lofoten, herring are such a delicacy for the Orcas that they won’t be interested in humans. (However, the fact that she has only once been diving with the whales—she prefers to gather scientific data by listening to hydrophones and making surface observations—did leave doubts in my mind.)
In the fall, herring (fat from a summer spent near Iceland) migrate north to the long, narrow fjords of the Lofoten in search of deep water and the deep sleep of hibernation. But for many herring, it’s a permanent sleep—last year almost 600 Orca followed in their wake, single-mindedly tracking one of their favorite foods. The combination of this large number of Orca and good underwater visibility usually makes these rock-strewn islands an excellent place to dive with Orcas.
The final factor keeping humans off the menu is that Orcas in the Lofoten tend to live in pods, matriarchal social groups of five or more whales. Podding Orcas prefer fish, according to scientists. And the transient, nomadic Orcas—perhaps outcasts—go for mammals like seals and whales.
So if I was so safe, why was I scared?
Though balmy by arctic standards because of the Gulf Stream, the 40°F waters of the Lofoten would suck the life out of most of us in minutes; so we wore dry suits. Now, multiply this with wind-tossed wave crests that look like Lofoten mountain peaks. The result, at least for my version of this formula, was that my insecurity in the environment was complete.
Not that I noticed. Instead of contemplating my oceanic inexperience, I would launch off the boat like my life depended on it, finning fast and furious toward any Orcas I could see from the surface.
“They can tell when you’re hypertense,” Amos warned, somewhat pointlessly since it wasn’t like I could help it.
As a result, my encounters were transient, like the ray of sunlight that once during the trip crawled down through the omnipresent clouds, a reminder that somewhere the sun existed. Underneath me, Orcas would rush past, swimming sideways to get a better look at the strange, flippered creature silhouetted at the surface. Or, prompted by my diving down, they’d double-back, belly up, for a fly-by. The worst part wasn’t that the encounters were brief, but that I was so anxious I couldn’t appreciate them.
Bubbles are an Orca’s bread and butter. Using bursts of precisely placed bubbles, Orcas herd deep-swimming herring close to the surface. The Orcas then slap their tails into the ball of herring. (On a hydrophone, the tail-slap sounds just like a door slamming.) With one slap of its tail, an Orca can kill 40 or more herring. But instead of wolfing them down several at a time, the Orca will feed on them one-by-one, delicately, like picking flowers.
Of the 40 or so Orca pods that frequent the Lofoten, only about nine hunt this way. Amos calls the technique “carouseling” and believes that the pods have learned to do it. “In ’94, one of the first years of Orca diving, only one or two pods were carouseling when we were swimming. Now many more do.” The other pods seem to herd the herring against the shore and then slap their tails into them, but this procedure is less productive.
When herring numbers dropped in the early ’70s, the Orcas were blamed. And then they were hunted. In the early ’80s, fishermen and others killed 400 Orcas in the Lofoten. Scientists and the Norwegian government stepped in to restrict hunting and enforce fishing quotas, and, by the end of the decade, both Orcas and herring were returning to the area. Now both species seem to have reached their pre-’70s populations. But the Orcas are still getting back up to speed on how best to capture their favorite food.
I saw some of the carouseling behavior. I saw an Orca swimming the circumference of a ball of shimmering fish, sidling into it like a cat rubbing up against a post.
As we rocketed over the waves, Orcas sometimes swam along with us. They generally kept their distance. But as the largest members of the dolphin family, the Orcas couldn’t always contain their curiosity. Several times they approached the boat and rose up out of the water to get a better look. They were rewarded by our “oohs” and “ahs” and, when it wasn’t pouring, by the clicks of our cameras.
We also watched them slap their tails against the surface of the water, along with head-butting and jaw-snapping (behavior that may be an expression of dominance). Orcas have an elaborate system of movements and pod-specific vocalizations—whistles, chirps, trills and other sounds produced by air movements in the region of their blowhole—that establish the pod’s social structure.
Mothers never stray from their calves. The mother-calf bond is so strong that if the calf dies, she will mourn it by cradling it in her front fins, or try to resuscitate it by pushing it to the surface to make it breathe.
Among adults, even sleeping is a social experience. Two Orcas will trade off sleeping, Anna said, with the wakeful Orca pulling the dormant Orca by its dorsal fin. They will then switch positions.
On one of our last successful diving days, I had the face-to-face encounter. My first reaction—fear of being eaten—was replaced by overwhelming awe as the Orca swam away.
Being so close to an Orca underwater is perhaps akin to a religious awakening—a blessing from a consciousness apart from one’s own, a blessing that made me feel that all is right with the world. Everything seemed to gel. Perhaps I was no longer scared of success; perhaps I learned, finally, to enjoy the moment and appreciate the world.
And while I was still in this state, seven Orcas approached, a wall of black-and-white bodies closing down on me. Like the other encounters, our meeting was fairly brief. But, for once, I wasn’t afraid as they zoomed up at me. I didn’t think of their teeth. I thought only of their beauty.
I am now ready for my next Orca encounter. Bring it on.
Story by Oakley Cochran
Photography by Amos Nachoum