photography tour

Orcas in Norway – Underwater & Under Northern Lights

Norway is a country famous for its beauty – dramatic fjords, soaring mountains and of course the infamous northern lights. What is less well known are the visiting orcas, the largest gathering of its kind in the world. In January this year, I joined Waterproof Expeditions on board the cosy M/V Malmo to experience the orcas for myself.



Visiting schools of herring entice the orcas into the fjords every year between November and February. Around this time there are also many large groups of humpback whales, and it’s also possible to encounter white-tailed eagles and the northern lights.  At this time of year, the average temperature is a refreshing -3° C,  and the water usually a much warmer 5° C, so it’s not an expedition for the faint-hearted. Once you see an orca under the water though, all thoughts of cold disappear in the magic of the moment (the specialised dry suits also help). The behavior of orcas here in Norway, resulting from the spring-schooling herring & mackerel, makes it one of the best places in the world to encounter these incredible ocean predators.

The daylight hours were spent following the herring schools and seeking interactions with the whales, wherever we found them we suited up and went to get a closer look under the water. The nights were spent listening to informative talks onboard the M/V Malmo, and of course photographing the northern lights. The M/V Malmo is a historical expedition yacht, a legitimate piece of maritime history built in 1943 (but renovated to be comfortable for our adventures). Spending a week on the boat like this is a good way to ensure encounters with the whales.

As with all wildlife expeditions, you never know what to expect. So much is dependent on weather conditions, and of course the behaviour of the animals you hope to encounter. Orca are particularly hard to see underwater, despite being found in every ocean in the world. The often misnamed ‘killer whales’ are in fact a large dolphin, and have never been known to harm a human in the wild (although in captivity, confined to small pools, is another story). While feeding in Norway they sometimes work together, herding herring to the surface in a tight ball and then slapping and stunning them with their tails. This ‘carousel feeding’ is just one example of an incredibly intelligent animal working together in close-knit family groups. A pod normally consists of 5-30 whales, led by females and with a defined social hierarchy. Each family group has its own dialect (varied language) and often unique feeding habits.

Norway has a history of adventure – home to renowned explorer Amundsen (the first person to reach the South Pole), birthplace of skiing, and with a law that protects people’s rights to roam & to wild camping (the Allemannsretten). Unfortunately, it’s one of few countries in the world that continue to hunt whales, despite the International Whaling Commissions ban on whaling globally. The good news is that supporting industries like this, which prove that a whale is much more valuable alive than dead, help push to end Norway’s whaling industry.

This trip was an incredible wildlife encounter set against an amazing backdrop. After a lot of time spent in the warm waters of Tonga with humpback whales, this was a completely unique experience for me.  I’m looking forward to going back next year!


orcas norway promotional image scott portelli

Want to join an orca expedition?


Lord Howe Island Shootout 2019 Bigger and Better

June 1st – 11th 2019

This Lord Howe Island Photographic shootout event just got bigger and better. We now have options for wildlife and bird enthusiasts, snorkelers and water people and hard core divers alike. 3 different packages and 12 categories that you can compete for on land and in the water.

WIN Amazing Prizes!

Holiday Packages for 10 days including flights & Accommodation
Categories for Land based and underwater photographers
Attend Photo Workshops, with Scott Portelli
Awards Ceremony and Gala Dinner

Return flights from Sydney
Workshops with our Hosts
Airport Transfers
Dinner on Arrival
Gala Dinner and Presentation Night
Dive and Snorkel Gear
Price: $4,200
10 dives around Lord Howe Island
1 night dive
Dive Guide
8 guided walks with local expert Jack Shick
3 boat trips with local expert Jack ShickSNORKELER’S AND NON DIVER’S PACKAGE
6 guided snorkels
4 guided walks with local expert Jack Shick
Attend workshops with Scott Portelli to learn more about your photography or tweak what you already know. workshops will include practical and in classroom techniques.

Categories (Maximum 25 Photos)

Land Based

  • Creative
  • Landscape
  • Wildlife/Birds
  • Surf
  • Aerial
  • Plants/flora


  • Macro
  • Wide
  • Split shots
  • Black and white
  • Portrait


  • Portfolio (6 photos)


If you want to join us for the Lord Howe Island Shootout and hone your skills at our workshops, please email for more information.

Australian & NZ Subantarctic Islands

Expedition travel is all about shared experience and collective knowledge. A gathering of individuals with endless stories of adventure that cross the divide between generations, only to find a mutual appreciation of the journey each has made to arrive at the furthest corners of the globe.

The Sub -Antarctic islands are remote, unforgiving, vulnerable, yet filled with life that thrives. Despite the harsh elements that create challenges for those that inhabit the region, life has found a way to exist and more importantly adapt and become one of the most productive and dynamic ecosystem on Earth.

The jewel of the Sub-Antarctic region is without a doubt the impressive Macquarie Island. Situated at latitude of 54” 30’ South and Longitude of 138” 55’ East, the rugged mountains, lush green landscapes, eclectic flora and diversity of wildlife species, make this a world class destination sort by many but visited by few.

Today, Macquarie Island is listed as a World Heritage Area, which is managed by the Tasmanian Parks and Wildlife service as a Nature reserve. During any visit to Macquarie Island you are accompanied by a Parks ranger to guide you through the specified areas. Many of the rangers have spent 6 months or more on the island running research programs and managing these natural resources. Vastly knowledgeable the team impart their experience and understanding of this delicate environment, bringing the past and the present into focus.

Literally thousands of animals leave the marine environment to mate, give birth and feed in the nutrient rich Sub-Antarctic sanctuary of Macquarie Island.

Four species of penguin including King, Gentoo, Royal and Rockhopper, breed on the island and congregate in large numbers all along the coast line. Penguins have developed specialised physiology to withstand the extreme cold of the Sub-Antarctic temperatures. Their feathers are tightly packed and have a layer of blubber to keep them insulated. They are the perfect design for this part of the world.

A first glimpse of the penguin colonies from the ocean heightens the visual senses, followed by the sounds of thousands of penguins before your sense of smell is awakened by the pungent odour of the colonies drifting on the ocean breeze. The sheer numbers and space they inhabit across the island is indicative of the thriving populations.

King Penguins are probably the most iconic part of Macquarie Island and represent the pristine environment that has become a sanctuary for the many penguin species coexisting in this remote Sub-Antarctic island. These penguins are the reason we were here. After many months of permit applications and expedition planning, we were about to get in the water to photograph these majestic marine birds. However, this would prove to be a challenging task.

The King penguins stand at just under a meter and can weigh up to 12kg on average. On land they move reasonably slow as they make their way from the ocean to their colonies at the base of the mountain range. In the water they move at high speeds and can be difficult to track as they quickly change direction leaving a trail of bubbles in their wake. On top of this, our time was limited so we had to determine where our best opportunities to photograph the penguins underwater might be.

Finally, we noticed some rock pools where the King Penguins were entering before coming to land. Carefully entering the water, we moved to the back of the rock pools as the penguins entered the pools from the Southern Ocean. The pools were small, but the penguins demonstrated their agility as they zipped around the rock pools before leaping out to dry land to continue their march back to the colonies.

The Royal Penguins seemed much more curious in the water and would often come in closer to investigate the camera. The curious Royal penguins are endemic to Macquarie Island of which is the largest colony found only on this remote stretch of land.  Royal penguins only breed on Macquarie Island and it is estimated that population numbers are more than one million pairs.

I must admit, I fell in love with the Royal penguins, they had personality and their overtly curious nature made them even more enduring. Deliberate in their actions, they would often come in for a closer look and surround me as I sat on the beach absorbing everything around me. With no real predators on land they were confident enough to interact with anything or anyone that came their way. Truly a unique experience.

Lusitano Bay off Macquarie Island, was a haven for king penguins, the sheer numbers in the water were remarkable, let alone the colonies that shrouded the coastline. Hundreds of penguins rafted along our zodiac’s, curious enough to see what was going on and take a break from their daily foraging duties. Nonetheless, King penguins still dominate the landscape and travel great distances to search for food to feed their young chicks.

Elephant seals also line the beaches of Macquarie Island and they are a dominant presence across the sub Antarctic regions. An era of exploitation saw the seal populations decimated between the 1800s to early 1900s, and the Southern Elephant seal numbers decreased dramatically during this period. However, a rapid recovery after the cessation of sealing saw an increase in numbers to over 60,000 individuals. The breeding season of Southern Elephant seals on Macquarie island begins late August and females usually come ashore approximately a week before giving birth. Pups increase in size from the fat rich milk from their mothers and the weaners can reach up to 200 kilograms in weight in less than 3 weeks.

These charismatic youngsters are thigmotactic and will look for any opportunity to nuzzle up to a warm body. Probably one of the most engaging animals you could meet, baby elephant seals are the embodiment of cuteness and very interactive. Their big affectionate eyes are endearing, and they have no fear.

Adult elephant seals during the mating season will fight with each other for dominance of the beach where they defend their harem of females. These battles between beachmasters can be bloody and brutal. The males have the overpowering urge to mate and will corral a group of females and spend their time defending their fleeting dominance of the harem. It is a constant battle for position, which sometimes ends in severe injuries to the loser.

The Sub-Antarctic is home to a myriad of seabirds, too numerous and varied to define in a typical species but more an evolutionary tale as new species is identified each year. The Southern Royal albatross is only found on Campbell and the Auckland Islands and nowhere else in the world, an endemic species that is the second largest of the Albatross species on the planet, with wing spans up to 3 meters.

The Southern Royal albatross has a repertoire of breeding behaviours including synchronised preening and calling, bill clacking and the language of dance. As the sun heads towards the horizon in the afternoon hours, the sound of gliding birds coming into land dominates the skies above. Like 747’s coming in for a landing, these large birds will swiftly arrive to join the evening ritual. They undertake their dancing rituals in search of the appropriate mate. These rituals can last for years before a mate is finally narrowed down and chosen.

To watch these rituals in all their glory and the intricate communications, that will eventually determine a mating pair, that will stay together for life, was truly fascinating. Wings expanded, vocalising and clacking bills these colossal birds put on an impressive display of sight and sound.

The nesting happens high up on top of Campbell Island, where we follow a 6km track through the spectacular inside valley of the island along a winding ridge of thick tussock grass until we reach the cliff tops that line the edge of the island. Harsh winds pound against the cliffs as the Southern Ocean demonstrates its power, moulding the rugged terrain of these emote island landscapes. At one point we walked the track to the sea edge as the wind pushed us back in retreat and the sea spray drenched us entirely. A clear reality of life in this part of the world.

But despite the extreme elements the flora and fauna were abundant. Walking along the track there were fields of lavender megaherb, daisy, lichen and Bulbinella, with a myriad of colours stretching across the landscape. As we made our way through the thick tussock grass we were startled by Hookers Sea lions that had decided the view and the comfortable grass were better at this elevation. But as soon as we reached the Royal Albatross we had a whole new perspective on the landscape and these incredible birds. We spend the last remain daylight hours watching as rare albatross crossed our path in search of a mate.

Bio Security is probably the most important factor when visiting remote isolated Sub Antarctica islands. Penguin colonies are vulnerable and susceptible to disease and other introduced contaminants, so the strict bio-security protocols in place help protect all the species from the spread of disease through human contact in the area.

This process starts before you even step foot off the ship. We are summoned to the lecture room to partake in the vacuuming ritual. Each piece of clothing, camera bag, equipment etc is thoroughly vacuumed with a clear focus on dislodging any evidence of seeds that could be introduced to a pristine environment. Velcro is one of the worse carriers, so we carefully pick out anything resembling a seed or a foreign object.

The next stage is submerging our boots in a sterilising chemical called Virkon, which is designed to basically kill any germ or bacteria, coupled with a scrubbing brush, this seems to be an effective system to keep these Eden’s disease free. We repeat the same process each time we get on and off the ship to ensure the integrity of all our gear.

Planning a journey to film and produce such a rare series of images involves a great deal of preparation and coordination to ensure success. Unexpected weather conditions, unpredictable wildlife and potential risk of not having an accessible place to land can make things difficult. The Sub Antarctic is a harsh environment to work in but when you overcome all the challenges you realise how much of a privilege it is to be able to visit these remote parts of our amazing planet.

Thanks for all the support from:

Lenovo –
Paddy Pallin Outdoor Clothing & Equipment –
Aquatech Imaging Solutions –
HEC’s Stealthscreen wetsuits –
Australian Geographic –
Olympus Australia –

closeup of a baby gorilla holding onto its mother by photographer Scott Portelli

Gorilla Trekking 2017 Trip report

Rwanda is a beautiful place with a picturesque landscape of rolling hills and lush rain forests. The Virunga Missive mountain ranges borders 3 countries (Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo) and is home to the last remaining Mountain Gorillas. This is where our gorilla trekking journey to see these amazing primates begins.

The Volcanoes National Park is regulated quite extensively and is an example of ongoing conservation success. The local guides, trackers, porters and regulatory government bodies work seamlessly to preserve the natural resources, educate tourism and provide ongoing support for research programs and the health of the Mountain Gorillas.

We visited 3 gorilla families during our time in Rwanda with uniquely different characteristics and behavioural traits. But each visit was a privilege and more humbling than the next. This is one of the last remaining intimate wildlife encounters you can have on the planet and it is an experience that leaves manly lost for words.

March/April is a good time to visit, just before the raining season kicks in. The weather is mild and perfect for trekking.

The process is like a well-oiled machine. You arrive at the permit office early in the morning to register, then you are greeted by the sounds of locals performing traditional singing and dancing in the outdoor gardens with a backdrop of the Volcanoes mountains rising behind. A taste of the culture and beautiful surroundings set the scene for the start of the adventure.

Permits are verified and guides discuss the various options for the families that will be visited each day. They allocate each visitor to a specific gorilla family, generally based on physical fitness and preference of the group.

The next step is the briefing from the vastly knowledgeable guides. A position highly sort by many Rwandans but also one that involves an extensive application and training process. The guides brief us about the family we will visit and the various personalities and characteristics of the group as well as the history/genealogy of the Gorilla families and their daily lives and behaviour.

We drive to the parks edge where we set off trekking across farmland until we hit the barrier that surrounds the forest, a small rock wall that spans 75km that marks the border of the national Park. This is where the farmland ends and the forest begins and is a true indication that conservation is in motion as this restricts any encroachment of the land into the forest.

It is at this point that our guides brief us about the etiquette and behaviour we should abide by while in the forest. We also get a brief lesson in how to speak Gorilla. The various sounds indicating we are saying “hello” I am not a threat, or understanding when a gorilla wants us out of the way by warning us with a serious of open mouth sounds. It is quite straight forward but it helps you understand the communication while in the forest.

Before we even reach the start of the forest, the trackers are already making their way through the lush vegetation in search of the Gorilla family. The Trackers stay in the forest each day to see where the Gorillas settle for the evening, then the next morning they know where to start their search.  The guides and the trackers are in constant communication by radio and it is not too long before we get a call from the trackers saying they have found the family we will visit.

The trekking time can vary from group to group as they move through the forest in search of food and ideal places to rest. But on average you may trek from 1.5-2 hours for most of the groups. But most of the trekking is through thick rain forest and when it rains the terrain becomes muddy. It is real jungle trekking, not just walking a well-worn path.

The first family we visited was the Muhoza group. This family consists of 13 individuals and a large silverback.

We meet the trackers only meters from where the family group is and are advised to remove all backpacks and leave any food and water behind and only take our cameras with us. We quietly and slowly make our way through the thick scrub only to be greeted moments later by a large Silverback. We are on his path and we immediately give way as he moved towards his preferred food source. With little to no concern for us and with the clear understanding we were getting out of his way, he sat only a few meters away and proceeded to eat the lush green vegetation.

The family was spread around the forest but less than 100 meters away from each other. As we settled into the scrub the gorillas started to move around us and above us in some instances as they climbed across the thick scrub. A Juvenile walks past and finds a comfortable spot in the shadow of the forest. We move around to the other side of the scrub and in a small green opening in the forest a mother and her small baby rest. The youngsters are curious and will make their way towards the curious humans, but generally mum has a firm hold on the little ones not to let them venture too far.

Each group is allowed only one hour with the gorillas per day and the time goes so fast it is like a dream and you try and fathom where you are and how accepting these impressive creatures are by letting us into their environment. It takes some time to sink in and words can barely describe the feeling. Humbling, privileged, overwhelming, and once you realise this, your time with the Gorillas is over.

But the addiction has begun, and lucky for our group we have a few more days with the Gorillas to look forward to.

Each day begins the same, the locals performing, the guides negotiating, the briefing beginning. But no two days are ever the same with the Gorillas and we are lucky enough to visit a different family today. And Lucky being the operative word, as we are told the Hirwa group we are visiting is called the ‘Lucky One’. The silverback (Muninya) has begotten a good number of children and plays the role of a doting father and truly looks after his children, and is a definite favourite with the females.

We enter the forest ready to hike another 1.5 hours, but to our surprise the trackers tell us that the family is close. Real close as it takes us 20 minutes to get to the family, and what a special group this truly is. In the clearing 4 youngsters play with each other rolling around, grabbing feet and fur and pushing each other around like siblings might do. The day is perfect, sun is shining and the gorillas have found and open patch of vegetation to play and groom each other.

We are watching the youngsters when from behind us Muninya walks confidently towards us knowing we will move out of his way quickly so he can make his way to his youngsters. He lays down right in the middle of the group of gorillas and starts to groom some of the children who return the favour. Such a special moment and even more so as a youngster keeps eyeing out my long lens and with each glance moves closer to investigate. He climbs a small branch but to the little ones surprise it is not strong enough to hold his weight and he quickly tumbles back down into the scrub. But still persistent he climbs closer again as the branch falls towards me and I am told to move back from the curious youngster not to encourage any contact or close interaction. The guides are very conscious of abiding by the rules in order to protect the Gorillas from any disease or other threats. They are so embedded in the lives of the Gorillas and really take pride in what they are doing and what their country has achieved through conservation.

The Third family was the Sabyinyo group. This family consists of 18 individuals and 2 large silverbacks and one old male called Big Ben who was going Bald. The main silverback is called Guhonda and ironically was born the same year as me and is the oldest Silverback in the Rwandan Volcanoes National park. This group was truly special. The entire family unit was a configuration of males and females of all ages with Juveniles playing and mothers nurturing their young. It was a beautiful insight to the family life of this group and Gorillas in general.

But at the end of each day, we leave the Gorillas and hope to meet them again some other time. Being up close and personal with any large animal is a privilege, but it is the connection you feel while sitting only meters away from these Gorilla families that truly softens the heart. Anyone that has had this on their bucket list for a long time should move it up to the top of the list, there is truly no experience like it and with such a small population left on the planet, it is worth doing sooner rather than later.