In the Norwegian Arctic, Swimming With the Killer Whales

  • By Guan Tan

  • Travel /9 March 2018

  • By Guan Tan

Andreas B. Heide grew up in the southwestern town of Stavanger, Norway. "I started free-diving when I was seven. I got my first boat when I was eight or nine years old. Growing up in nature is quite important, you need the basic skills." His love for nature eventually led him to embark on a career as a marine biologist, conservationist and sailor.

"For the past three winters, I have been studying killer whales in the cold winter months in the Arctic." Heide sails on his own sailboat, christened "Barba". Compared to an engine boat, the sail is quiet and non-intrusive. Together with three other crew members, he recently returned from a four and a half month-long trip out to the Norwegian Arctic. It is not a trip that everyone will — or can embark on. "The experience is critical," he laughs. 

"Usually there is a professional sailor with me, so that makes two persons who know the boat. The other two or three are photographers. We are a small team of professionals," Heide continues. Accompanying him on the recent trip from Stavanger to Tromsoø was a professional sailor, Kristian Nygard, pictured below at daybreak, with a table stacked with all sorts of camera and videography gear.

Crew members enjoy a hearty breakfast before they begin preparing their camera and diving gears for the day. "There is a kitchen and an oven. It is simple living but you are warm and dry, and you get to eat. The water is four to six degrees Celsius. You need to eat well, stay warm and be well rested."

Andreas B. Heide

Other crew members include Dutch sailor Jaap van Rijckevorsel who won a world championship in 2015 (in yellow) and professional sailor and boat builder, the Danish-born Rasmus Tornqvist (in red). Here, the sky is dim but it is 1:00PM in the afternoon. "We start preparing lunch at 2:00PM, lift up the anchor and we sail out to where the whales will be," Heide continues.

David GonzalezHeide himself at the helm as the sailboat approaches a group of whales. Here, he is wearing ice fishing boots, and a pair of rubber gloves lined with wool to
Heide himself at the helm as the sailboat approaches a group of whales. Here, he is wearing ice fishing boots, and a pair of rubber gloves lined with wool to "combat the cold".

The crew has to carefully approach the pack of whales. "Carefully means that you don't drive straight into them. You approach them from a distance, try to figure out what are they doing — their behaviours. Are they resting, transiting, moving, or eating? Usually, after they eat, and are playful or socialising, that is the best time to approach."

David GonzalezArmed with his camera, cinematographer Matthew Ferraro is about to plunge into the waters.
Armed with his camera, cinematographer Matthew Ferraro is about to plunge into the waters.

While there have been numerous reports on killer whales attacking humans, — notably in 2010 when a killer whale in captive attacked its trainer at the Orlando SeaWorld – Heide found that to be untrue. To him, those killer whales probably reacted out of stress from being kept captive. When in their natural habitat, the oceans, "they don't care about you. They just go about their business — even when they swim past you. They are very curious, sometimes you have them come up and look at you, or swim around you in a circle, or swim over you." 

A killer whale can grow up to six or eight metres, and weigh three to four tonnes. "They are massive," Heide exclaims. Pictured below, Heide swimming with a group of orcas in shallow waters.


"The killer whales are often joined by humpback whales in a feeding frenzy," Heide explains. Pictured above, on the far right, is a solo humpback whale surrounded by a shoal of herrings — a popular choice of food for both killer, humpback whales, and the Norwegians.

These trips are often fraught with dangers. "A strike from a humpback tail can be lethal. They do not strike you out of aggression. But when you find yourself in a feeding frenzy, a humpback whale can come charging in with tremendous speed and power. At one point this winter, I found myself under a fishing vessel in the dark — surrounded by 50 killer whales and a humpback whale coming towards me at high speed. I curled up in a ball waiting to get hit by a humpback. Fortunately, it was a close shave," Heide recounts. "It was dangerous. The humpback whales are so huge. If you get hit it can break your spine. I know people have been injured by humpbacks. But it's not aggressive. It's just that you're in the wrong way."

Heide and crew are never deterred by these dangers. The surreal hours they spend swimming and interacting with these whales outweigh the risks. For one, they get to hear the killer whales' voices — or sounds to be exact. "When you look at the ocean, you think of it as a quiet place. You feel the tranquillity and it's nice and calm. You put a hydrophone, an underwater sound recorder, and it opens up a whole new world."


Matthew Ferraro

"What we are hearing is a pod of killer whales communicating while they are hunting for herrings. It is possible that they use sounds to cause panic with the herrings," Heide explains. He works with marine researchers to understand the different sounds and what they signify.  "It's a highly intelligent animal. They talk and communicate. I'm not sure what they talk about," Heide laughs. 

By evening, the crew is back on board for dinner. Below, a herring killed by a whale collected by the crew. 

Andreas B. Heide

The crew drops the anchor — concluding a day's work out at sea — and takes in the breathtaking Northen Lights before they turn in. "When the sky is clear, we see this just about every day. It varies in strength from faint to the strong ones, dancing over the sky," Heide recounts.

David González

The footage from Heide's trips will soon be made into a documentary by Way North Films, a production house founded by Heide and his fellow crew member and photographer, Matthew Ferraro. Learn more about the sailboat, Barba, and its expeditions here.

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Videography by Buendia Photography & Barba
Orca Sound Recording by Norwegian Orca Survey 
Cover Image by Kurt Arrigo