We were honoured to have one of the world’s most acclaimed nature photographers, filmmakers and marine conservationists Paul Nicklen and his team from SeaLegacy visit us in Tonga this year. Paul has spent over 20 years documenting the beauty and the plight of our planet and as an assignment photographer for National Geographic magazine, he captures and inspired the imagination of a global audience.
Paul is also the co-founder of non-profit, SeaLegacy which plays a crucial role in ocean conservation centred around extraordinary visual storytelling using a team of the world’s best photographers and filmmakers to capture the beauty and the threats below the surface of our oceans. SeaLegacy then utilises the incredible captured media to fuel, inspire and fund global campaigns that trigger lasting and sustainable change to protect our precious oceans. You can read more about their inspiring work here.
We had some truly amazing experiences and interactions with the whales during the week, we even got to see some baby whale dancing (Check out Paul’s awesome Instagram footage!).
Synopsis: Scott Portelli is an acclaimed wildlife and underwater photographer, and has swum with whales and other magnificent creatures of the deep in some of the world’s most exotic locations, like Antarctica, Tonga, the Falkland Islands and Norway. Among many other awards, Scott was awarded Wildlife Photographer of the Year in 2016, and he runs tours that you can join up with around the world to swim with whales.
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!
The 2018 Humpback whale season is about to kick off and as we get closer to seeing these majestic gentle giants, I can’t help but think of some of the truly amazing encounters we had last season. After 17 years taking people to swim with whales, I am still pleasantly surprised by the multitude of different behaviours I observe that have rarely been seen before. Last year we had baby whales licking their lips with their big frilly tongues, adult interactive whales that would spy-hop inches in front of us, false killer whales trailing the boat, pilot whale pods extending for kilometers across the ocean. So much to see in a season.
But I think the highlight would have been the 15 plus Humpback whales pursuing each other in what is called a ‘heat run’. The heat run is the ultimate wildlife encounter, multiple whales competing for a female which can last for hours or even days. Males show a multitude of behaviours while in a heat run: bubble netting, open mouth gulping, physical contact, loud acoustic sounds, it is truly one of nature’s great events. After 17 years I have documented some of the most common and unusual behaviour seen by Humpbacks in the region, but it is truly heart-thumping and adrenaline-pumping action to be a part of.
Check out the footage capturing this amazing behaviour above and below the surface: