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“The rib boat glides over the glassy cold waters, and only a wake of babbling foam betrays the presence of our 10 meters vessel. But we are not alone in the fjord, and certainly, we are not the biggest.”

Once again, the blue rib boat is cutting through the flat surface of the ocean.

Propellers are biting into the dark waters, powered by the tireless engines roaring behind us like African cats. But we are far from Africa this time, and temperatures are well below zero. It does get rough at times in these waters, where land and ocean seem to be fighting to conquer one another. Today the unstoppable oceanic swell doesn’t reach us, and we cruise undisturbed into a new day at sea. The days are getting shorter and shorter, soon enough the sun will rise for the last time, and the Arctic night will begin.

The rib boat glides over the glassy cold waters, and only a wake of babbling foam betrays the presence of our 10 meters vessel.  But we are not alone in the fjord, and certainly, we are not the biggest.

IMAGE ABOVE:  Killer whale, surrounded by the magic colors of the Arctic sunset.
© Federico Facchin – 2022


Amongst whale lovers, the winter season in Norway is known as the ‘Norwegian Orca Season”. Killer whales are following their favorite prey in the fjord, and many people from all over the world come to see this spectacular gathering. But deep in my heart, despite the whole season being about orcas, I know I am here for something else. Since I was a kid, I have been fascinated by whales, and a species, in particular, has always drawn my attention: Humpbacks.

Humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae, Borowski 1781) are, according to many, the most spectacular cetaceans. Waiting up to 40 tons, they can launch themself out of the water and be completely airborne before smashing against the water’s surface in a big splash. They can also be gentle, and the interactions between mother and calves in the warm Polynesian waters are almost legendary. I have seen plenty of Humpbacks from the boat and shore, but this winter season in Norway is all about seeing them in the water.

For many years since I started my journey as Marine Biologist, I have kept a beautiful underwater image of a Humpback’s fluke taken by Darren Jew as wallpaper on all my devices,  in a  “setting a goal” reminder. Hopefully, soon I will change it with a photo that I have taken myself.

IMAGE ABOVE:  Icelandic Humpback whale breaching in the Faxaflói Bay.
© Federico Facchin – 2018 


We are above the arctic circle, and the short winter day is about to fade into a cotton-candy pink sunset. After many dives with Killer whales, some successful and some not, there is a solid vibe on board, and everyone is happy and exhausted from the day. But we are still sailing in the Kvaenangen fjord. The sun has not set yet, the sea is calm, and the captain wants to give us some extra whale-watching time from the boat. The majestic view over the fjords during winter time, with the top of the mountains covered in snow, doesn’t get old, and that would be enough to justify the trip to Norway. Even better if, every now and then, Killer whales surface next to our boat.

Suddenly, our day is about to go in a completely different direction. We spotted two blows a few hundred meters from the rib boat. They are at least ten times bigger than the blows we saw all day. These are not orcas, but something much bigger instead. We approach the area where we last saw what looks like a geyser eruption, and we wait to see where the animals surface again. Nobody speaks anymore, nobody laughs. All eyes peeled to the horizon, and all fingers ready to point in the right direction. And there they are, less than 50 meters from the boat, if you are not looking in the right direction, the first thing you would notice is the loud blow, like an old steam train coming to the station. The little cloud of steam stays in the air long enough to mark the position of the giants, and after a few screams of happiness and surprise, the boat goes quiet again, as everyone is speechless in front of such a perfect mix of greatness, power, and beauty.

“Can we go?”
The silence is abruptly interrupted by Rodrigo, one of our customers asking if it is ok to jump in the water with such big animals. Despite the hectic day, he still has energy and wants more. The last decision goes to the captain as always, which is good because I am paralyzed. Paralyzed by the emotion and the thrill of fulfilling one of the greatest dreams of my life. The destination of a journey started many years before with books, documentaries, and years at University.
“All systems go” declares the captain, and Rodrigo starts to get ready, but given the situation, he doesn’t feel like going in the water alone.

R: “I don’t want to go alone; who is coming with me?”. Everyone else is either too tired or scared to jump. Hence he looks at me with hope and excitement.
F: “Well.. if I really really have to..” I get ready quickly, and we slide in the water one last time.

IMAGE ABOVE:  The beautiful view of the mountains from the sea level.
© Federico Facchin – 2022


This time I do not feel the cold at all. I am wrapped in the murky frozen blanks of the arctic water and I start kicking. Visibility is not the best, definitely less than 10 meters. They are there, but we can not see them. We do not rush it. Despite their size, despite the fact they could flip the rib boat with one kick of the enormous tail (let alone what they could do to a vulnerable snorkeler), Humpbacks are known for being gentle giants. If we bother them, they would just swim away, out of the fjord and into the blue world where they come from.  We stay close, and slowly we approach the area where the last microparticles of snot and water vapor float in the air and betray their presence.  The long wait is nerve-wracking. I turn around a couple of times to see if someone shows the direction from the boat.  -Nada- I think we lost them.

And then, slowly, from the cold, dark, and empty waters, indistinct shapes start to appear. First, the big bright white pectoral fins and tails, then slowly the bulky dark bodies, and all of a sudden, here we are, sharing a piece of ocean next to two Humpback whales, to me the most beautiful creatures in the world.

IMAGE ABOVE: Female Humpback whale and her calf.
© Federico Facchin – 2022

You can tell it is a mother and her calf by the difference in size and by how the “little” one is playful, and swims around the much calmer and bigger female.  I lose track of time while looking at this family.  It could be one minute or half an hour, time has stopped as if nothing else in the Universe matters.
And as if we did not receive enough from one day, something even more extraordinary happens. The calf, intrigued by the clumsy swimmers, decides to come and have a closer look. Every day is school time if you are a young whale cruising the oceans from the equator to the Arctic. While he is coming slowly toward me, I can see his mum behind him keeping an eye on both of us. Again, it could have been one second or one minute, I honestly do not remember for how long we have been staring at each other. Despite the cold water and the night taking over the day in a smooth transition, I could definitely stay here forever.
But then, mama whale decides we had enough fun, and it’s time to go. She swims to us, puts herself in between me and her calf, and in what looks like a handhold she gently walks him away, and they disappear in the blue. The last image we see is the big flukes moving up and down, as if they are saying “Ciao ciao!” while fading away.

What a privilege to witness the magic bond between a mother Humpback and her calf.

IMAGES IN ORDER OF APPEARANCE:  A curious young Humpback whale checks me out in the cold murky waters (top left). While her calf is getting closer, this female Humpback whale keeps an eye on both of us (top right). The bigger female swims in front of me and walks her calf away (bottom).
© Federico Facchin – 2022

After the whales have gone I look for Rodrigo. At first, we are both speechless, and I am not sure I want to ruin the moment by saying anything inappropriate.
“The best f** day of my life!” he screams, and comes to me drawing me in a sincere and strong hug! All of a sudden we are both screaming at the top of our lungs while floating weightless on the water surface. Well, that is not inappropriate at all, that is accurate! Even the rest of the boat is speechless, but it will take a while to realize that what we have just shared is beyond magic.

“We were at the end of an exhausting day looking for orcas, but I was always prepared just in case something was about to happen, and only my guide Fede was keen to jump into the water again.  Suddenly we saw two big blows and we decided to jump. The splashes, the high waves and the poor visibility made it difficult to see what we expected at first, then suddenly we saw a mother Humpback whale with her calf. Just as a little kid, the calf was curious to be around us, and we had about 30 minutes of the most intense, pure and unexpected moment I have ever lived in my life. At the end, Fede and I hugged and laughed in the water, but as soon as I went up to the boat, I started to cry. 

It was a very emotional moment, that constantly comes up to my mind.”


Rodrigo Carazo

“From the moment we had left the harbor that morning, we had bared witness to countless Orcas, photographing every behavior we could, from breaches to tail slaps. As what sunlight we had began to wane, the fjord provided a surprise: Humpbacks. Most of us on the zodiac had been exhausted from the day, but Rodrigo and Fede saw an opportunity. In their 10mm wetsuits and with Fede’s camera gear, the two dropped into the frigid water and swam against heavy Arctic seas to attempt to witness and photograph the Humpbacks underwater. From the zodiac with the height of the waves, it was hard to tell if they’d made it to whales. We all kept scanning the water, searching for their orange caps and Humpback blows. But before we saw them, we heard them, sounds of ecstatic joy between two men who just had the encounter of a lifetime. We cheered for them on the zodiac, and they cheered in the water. When they finally came back to the zodiac, I asked Fede: “So, how was that?”.  The look on his face was that of a man moved to tears by one of Earth’s most beautiful creatures. It’s a beautiful thing to just share these experiences with ocean lovers, but to see one of your own experience a moment that undoubtedly changed their life is what this journey is all about.”


Allison Dhand

Images credits: Rodrigo and Alma


Later in the evening when the adrenaline rush has calmed down I am going through the raw photos of this beautiful mother and calf Humpbacks on my computer. Poor light and bad visibility force me to delete many blurred and underexposed shots. I am almost at the end of the memory card, thinking that at least I will have a good memory, and I can always try another time to take a good picture.

But there it is, the photo I have been hunting and dreaming about for many years. The Humpback’s fluke, to me the most beautiful shape in nature. The fluke is covered in scars, evidence of all the battles this mother had to fight to protect her calves. The scars, together with shape, color patterns and other details, turn the fluke into a sort of fingerprint that scientists can use to identify not just the species, but even the individual. This technique is called “Photo ID”.

IMAGE ABOVE: “The Fluke”.
© Federico Facchin – 2022

The joy doesn’t last long. There is one thought in particular that troubles me:  how many families like this have been torn apart during the whaling years. How many mothers have been hunted in the past centuries? How many orphans have we left alone in the ocean? Humpbacks, like many other whales, have been hunted to the verge of extinction. Today Humpbacks are protected worldwide and populations are recovering at an unprecedented rate. People from all over the world are fascinated by them and want to see them in their natural environment. Many would go to warm places where crystal-clear water makes everything easier.

But it is above the 70th parallel  North where I have fulfilled my lifetime dream: swim with Humpback whales. In my opinion, this could be the second-best second experience an astronaut will ever have.

Federico Facchin
Skjervoy, Norway

IMAGE ABOVE:  Humpback whale dancing in the water.
© Federico Facchin – 2022

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