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“The night blizzard is sandblasting our faces and all the eyes on board are closed, but in our minds we can still see the ocean, and the black and white “ghosts’ we just met.”

The definition of a “Perfect Day” is subjective, and the combination between freezing cold wind, salty water and rough seas might not fit everyone’s taste or choice.  But for the 10 of us on board, today is a day to remember, and the bubbling jacuzzi waiting for us on land is going to be the icing on top of what I would describe as a perfect day indeed. Above the arctic circle, the sun sets early at this time of the year. It is 2:30 pm, and it’s already time to go back to the base camp. Our captain brings everyone’s attention to the safety instructions once more as we are getting ready to cross the fjord. What should be a smooth thirty minutes ride, can easily turn into an hour rollercoaster with these waves. The powerful engines are ready, I am not. “Hold on to whatever you can and close your eyes, it’s dark already anyways”.
The night blizzard is sandblasting our faces and all the eyes on board are closed (except for the captain I hope), but in our minds we can still see the ocean, and the black and white “Ghosts” we just met.

Kvænangen - Norway

Kvænangen. I had to copy and paste this word, and I’m afraid I am not the best person to ask how to pronounce it either. It’s the name of a fjord, situated a few kilometers from Tromsø, just above the 70th parallel North.  On the banks of the fishing waters of the Kvænangen, thrives the small community of Skjervøy. With little less than 2600 souls living here all year around, I would not recommend you to pay a visit, unless you are fond of the cold, loneliness and fish soup. Let alone during the winter.  The arctic night can be very harsh, with strong snow blizzards forcing you to stay home in the cozy and colorful Norwegian houses. I believe the lockdown didn’t have much of an impact on the winter lifestyle of Skjervøy inhabitants. Yet, in the last few years, hundreds if not thousands of people have been drawn to this little Norwegian outpost between November and January, right in the heart of the dark and cold season. Certainly, the Northern Lights are attracting travelers from all over the world but Lady Aurora can be seen from many places around the Arctic region, some more accessible than others. Instead, many people are traveling to Skjervøy with another goal in mind.
What are they looking for?

IMAGE ABOVE:  Northern Lights above the Norwegian sky.
 © Federico Facchin – 2022

Atlantic Herrings

The keystone of this pilgrimage is the Northeast Atlantic Norwegian spring spawning herring migration, try to say that ten times in a row.
Atlantic herrings (Clupea harengus) are among the most abundant fish species in the world and they migrate into the fjord to find shelter from the turbulent waters of the North Atlantic Ocean, where they rest before the spawning season. For the last few years they have chosen the Kvænangen waters, but in this fjord they are not going to find the calm waters they need. They have been followed and are being hunted. They can grow up to 45 centimeters in length and roughly one kilogram in weight. One single herring would not be enough to sustain any food chain, but they gather in large schools, and hundreds of hungry predators come along to feast. Different marine mammal species are attracted to this event and some have migrated for thousands of kilometres to take part. Somewhat like the explorers I have the pleasure of guiding into this new adventure. The most abundant participants are the Killer whales, and for this reason we refer to this event as the “Norwegian Orca Season,” the Mecca for any whale-watching lover.

IMAGE ABOVE:  Male Killer whale patrolling the Norwegian fjord.
© Federico Facchin – 2022

Orcas, the Killer whales. 

Also known as Killer whales, Orcas (Orcinus orca Linnaeus, 1758) are probably among the most evolved predators that have ever lived on planet Earth. Orcinus, the gene species means “belonging to Orcus”, the ancient Roman god of the Netherworld, after a quick glimpse at them you can begin to understand why. Wherever there is an ocean, there are Killer whales, from the Arctic to the Antarctic. They are the apex predator of any food chain they are in. No sea dweller dares to hunt them. They aren’t just raw power, but coordinated, tactical, and masters of teamwork. One Killer whale alone would not go far, but when hunting in pods, nothing stands in their way. The everyday life of the pod is dictated by the matriarch, the eldest female orca, accompanied by her daughters and grandchildren. She decides where they go, what to look for and how to hunt it. Here in Norway, during this season, Killer whales feed on small prey such as herring (due to their abundance and the fairly effortless feeding strategy). Additionally, they take down Great White sharks and successfully attack mother and calf pairs of larger whales, Blue whales included!
In light of these facts, who wouldn’t like to see them?

My first encounter with Killer whales goes back to the summer 2018, when I was working as a whale-watching guide in Iceland. While the Faxaflói Bay is not famous for having Killer whales, it is the largest bay in the country and faces the North Atlantic Ocean, so at times, there may be an unexpected encounter to spice up your day at work. On the 18th of August 2018, I spent a whole day in the company of a pod of Icelandic Killer whales and I was totally enchanted. But for a deeper connection with these creatures, I would have to wait a bit longer and travel further North.

IMAGE ABOVE:  Icelandic Killer whales (Orcinus orca) spy-hopping in the Faxaflói bay.
© Federico Facchin – 2018

Diving reflex

We leave the harbor with the first lights of the day (meaning 9:30 am, so not an early wake).
Humans evolved from Africa about 6 million years ago, thus we have not evolved to survive above the arctic circle, certainly not without adequate clothing layers on. After an hour of sailing, my nose, beard and lips (the only parts of me exposed to the elements) are frozen stiff. To survive a whale-watching trip here, you need to be well equipped with gloves, hat, overalls, a wetsuit and.. a mask? Wait, what? Fins and snorkel?
Yes, seeing whales from a boat has been the best thing I have ever done, but it is time to raise the bar. Norwegian law allows you to jump in the water, if you feel like it, in a game changing perspective, something very different from a typical whale watching cruise.

Once again the question is always the same: “Isn’t it dangerous? Aren’t you scared?”.
To date, there have not been any fatal incidents between humans and Killer whales in the wild (that I know of at least). The only registered casualties have been in captivity, where these complex animals are kept like prisoners for decades until they die in solitude. Would you rather see a six-tonne whale swimming in a few meters of water, or fight the Arctic elements and see dozens of them doing what they do best, in their natural environment? 
Today we are not just watching whales from a boat. We are diving into the liquid ice to change our lives forever. The excitement is through the roof. Given the circumstances, it is easy to feel anxious and overall a bit uncomfortable in the thick wetsuit, on a small boat, rocking back and forth in the ocean. But thanks to evolution, we humans have a reflex activated by cold water, the so-called diving reflex. When water hits your face, it immediately lowers your heart rate and relaxes the tension. 

IMAGE ABOVE:  Thousands of herrings gathering in a bait ball.
© Federico Facchin  – 2022


Today is my day off, yet I am on board with my colleagues, there is nowhere else in the world I would rather be.
We reach a sheltered inlet on the fjord northern coast, but instead of being calmer, the water was bubbling, as if the entire ocean had been put in a pot on the stove. It looks like the Kraken has been released, but instead of reaching for the safety of the land, we gear up and prepare to dive in. We know exactly what is happening under the surface as we see huge black dorsal fins rising from the water as well as many seabirds flying around in the hope of grabbing a bite. Killer whales have gathered a school of herring and are carousel feeding on them. Today I am a guest on board, and like the other people on board, I wait for the crew’s “go” before jumping in.

All systems are go as I slide down the side of the rubber boat, into the dark waters.  Despite the ten-millimetre neoprene suit, the unforgiving cold waters hit like a bullet, especially on the bare skin of my face.  A few seconds after impact the feeling of cold has dulled, and the second thing that hits me are sounds I’ll never forget. They are hunting and communicating between themselves.  Whistles and clicks I had never heard before, that seems to be coming from a foreign galaxy. After all, the underwater world is very alien to us, as we know more about the moon’s surface than the ocean’s floor. There is no time to waste, the bait ball is moving, pushed by the killer whales, and so must we. With minimal sunlight and turbid nutrient-rich waters, visibility can be poor underwater and to catch a glimpse of the action you must get close.  The thick wetsuit and the bulky camera do not make it easy. Luckily, the adrenaline is rushing, the heart is pumping and my muscles are propelling me into the unknown. I will deal with Lactic acid tomorrow, for now I have other priorities.  My eyes are at surface level so I can check out both above and below the surface. I can see the dorsal fins in front of me above the surface and hear their whistles beneath the surface. Finally, I get close enough. 

A Killer whale.

“This was just a casual day in the office for an orca expedition guide! Well, at least that’s how it felt when our sea shift began. You see, every now and then, the orcas’ expedition lifestyle blesses you to witness some epic stuff but other days, it just throws you a bone in the form of pretty blue sky and mountain views. However, this bumpy zodiac ride turned to underwater action pretty fast! Usually, when orcas are feeding you see so much “organized chaos” around you! Circling birds in the sky, laser-focused orcas scissoring the waters while the whole pod prepares for the carousel feeding!

But this time, orcas were calmer and everything felt calculated, and precise as there was no place to rush. And this was the exact moment when my colleague Fede captured this homeboy minding his business!

What I love the most about this picture is the impressive size difference between the diver and the orca! Killer whale gentlemen can grow up to astounding 20-26 feet (6-8 m) and weigh up to 12,000 lbs( 5,400 kg)! Surprised about that?”


Mishka Borzova

IMAGE ABOVE:  A male Killer whale diving right in front of the photographer.
© Federico Facchin  – 2022

IMAGE LEFT:  A male Killer whale diving again after reaching the surface for air.
© Federico Facchin  – 2022

IMAGE RIGHT: A very young Killer whale swimming right next to the mother.
© Federico Facchin  – 2022

To be honest, he comes to me. A huge male, with his three-metre-tall dorsal fin, comes to check me out. Behind him, the rest of the pod is feeding on herring, following the orders of the matriarch. Up she comes, rising from the deep blue, heading to the surface to grasp some air before the next dive. Goosebumps, but not for the cold. 

Like ghosts in the dark, they move. Fluid and powerful. Spellbound by what I’m watching, I freeze, and although I know the answer, I ask myself “Am I in trouble?”.

IMAGE LEFT:  A pod of Killer whales preparing the carousel feeding.
© Federico Facchin – 2022

© Federico Facchin – 2022

IMAGE LEFT:  Cetaceans, like any other mammals, must surface and breathe air.
© Federico Facchin – 2022

IMAGE RIGHT: Female Killer whale diving into the unknown.
© Federico Facchin – 2022

For half an hour we swim right in the middle of this madness, where three to four tonne Killer whales feed on a bait ball of herring as big as a condo, picking their prey as I would pick an apple, one by one.  All of a sudden, a Humpback whale appears from the blue, rising to the surface at full speed, lunge feeding on the surface next to me. You can easily fit a small car in the wide open mouth of a Humpback whale, and I almost got swallowed like Pinocchio! But when the bait ball disperses and the hunters swim away out of reach, I head back to the boat, alive as never before. 

Davy Jones’s locker has to wait a bit longer.

IMAGE LEFT:  A Killer wale is pushing the herrings from one side of the bait ball.
© Federico Facchin – 2022

IMAGE RIGHT: Male Killer whale swimming in a blizzard of herring’s scales.
© Federico Facchin – 2022

GALLERY ABOVE:  Orcas feeding and pushing the bait ball to the surface.
© Federico Facchin – 2022

What I could witness in this Norwegian fjord and the memories I take home with me are the pure essence of the raw  wilderness. I have seen Killer whales in captivity before, long ago when I was younger and less educated on their complex society, communication capabilities and behaviours.  I have seen them being fed from a bucket as well as hunting their prey with surgical precision, breaching out of the Arctic waters on a display of power and beauty.  I have seen them splashing water over the pool for some happy kids and I have been one of those kids, but now I would choose the cold every single time. 

We still know very little about these animals. We know they are complex but we are a couple of generations of scientists away from fully understanding how complex they really are. As we look back at the tragedies of the past, I believe in a few years, we will look back at today’s dolphinariums as one of the darkest moments of our “modern’ society.  What I know for sure is that these experiences can truly change your life. 

Those magic sounds, those majestic shapes make being underwater never the same.


Federico Facchin
November 2023
Skjervøy, Norway

IMAGE LEFT: In what is a game of perspective, a Humpback whale is giving a kiss to a Killer whale.
© Federico Facchin – 2022

IMAGE RIGHT: Humpback whale lunge feeding.
© Federico Facchin – 2022

Would you like to listen to the whales? 

© Toulon University

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