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Exploring Norway’s Arctic seas


On a clear subzero day, I scrambled with childish glee for the front seat of the Zodiac inflatable power boat. Together with 20 other passengers bundled up in layers and windproof suits, I straddled the saddle-like cushioned bench with all the grace of the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man. 

Miles of dark soupy water quickly disappeared beneath us as the boat went into full throttle over Tysfjord and into Vestfjord in search of Killer Whales.

We were carried high by the waves and dropped back into water that might as well have been concrete; that might not sound like fun, but my teeth started hurting from the cold because I could not stop grinning. 

Kitted out in full diving gear, our guide Anthony Mayer recorded our reactions, complete with expletives, for posterity.

Unconcerned about our breakneck speed, he perched on the edge of the boat making jokes about being shaken but not stirred.

I soon lost feeling in my fingers and toes, and the sea spray numbed what little of my face was exposed. It suddenly occurred to me just how potentially stupid it might seem to be in arctic waters in little more than a dinghy, but it truly is the best way to appreciate the wild side of Norway. How else are you going to get this close to the sheer rock wall of Eagle Mountain?

In spite of its inhospitable appearance, the cliff is where 250 pairs of Sea Eagles come to nest every spring. In winter they feed on the abundant herring, made even more so by the tour boats.

Anthony throws some frozen herring on the water near the boat and two eagles immediately start circling overhead, with the larger of the two swooping down to take the fish into its impressive claws. Only up-close does their size, with a 2-metre wingspan, actually register. The 40cm herring looks like a sprat in the eagle’s grip. 

No orcas showed themselves until the third day, when I was in an altogether less pleasant vessel.

Not only was the Leonora an ex-whaling ship, with its harpoon a stark reminder of the past, but it was also a larger lumbering boat which made me violently seasick.  

For a while I clutched a plastic bag at the ready and couldn’t care less whether I ever saw an orca in my life, cursing the foul beasts for luring me into this situation. Two sickness tablets and some lying down improved matters, however, and soon the skipper informed us that they were closing in on a small group of orcas far out in the Fjord, near Skrova. Hurrying back to the upper deck I discovered the unmistakeable shape of a large black dorsal fin breaching the water.

Seeing these animals in captivity is awe-inspiring, but it can in no way prepare you for encountering them in the wild. “This is definitely not Sea World” is a phrase you hear often from the staff, and that applies both for the fact that you don’t always find orcas when you look for them and to the experience of being with them.  

We were held spellbound as these giant 5-ton dolphins came almost close enough to touch and took it in turns to surf the waves created by the Leonora.

They seemed to have as much fun being swept along by each swell as we were having watching them, and only the premature sunset dictated an end to the party.

Back at the hotel I spotted our guide, Lynne Decoster, presiding over a ceremony to mark the day’s sighting. Suffice to say it involved off-key singing and the wearing of a helmet to which a plush orca was ducktaped. Looking at the maps with all the sighting stickers it was painfully clear that the orca numbers inside the Fjord had declined sharply over the past couple of years. Lynne, who spends winters in Tysjford and the summer months in Versteraalen observing Sperm Whales, thinks that this change is due to a natural shift in herring migration patterns. Millions of tonnes of fish used to shelter in the fjords every winter, attracting hundreds of orcas between October and January, but now the herring shoal increasingly stay out at sea, along with their predators.

Long evenings make for plenty of time to socialise with fellow tourists and the friendly staff, many of whom come back each winter to work the orca season. Per Westengen, whose brother-in-law owns the centre, is a self-confessed fishing nut with an easygoing manner and a talent for storytelling.

He says there is a very friendly relationship between Tysfjord fishermen and the orcas. “There was this local who cast a net across a small bay and saw that he had trapped a big male orca in with the fish. He doesn’t want to lose the fish so he opens one corner of the net just to let the whale out, but the orca is quite happy there and doesn’t want to leave. In the end the rest of the pod came in through the opening and ended up eating all the man’s fish!”

Per’s enthusiasm for all things fishing is seriously contagious. So much so that the next day I find myself back at sea fumbling with various silicone bait, razor sharp hooks and a rapidly tangling 50-metre fishing line. “It is impossible for you to come back with nothing. You will catch something for sure” says my guide with absolute confidence as he takes us to a part of the fjord where the only sign of human activity is occasional chocolate-box house perched on a
precipitous cliff.

After a while the sonar screen indicated a good depth, and Per gave the go-ahead to drop our lines. This is one of the shallower parts of the fjord, but my line just kept unwinding until I wondered whether it would ever reach the bottom.

It takes approximately five seconds for the first fish to bite, a metre-long Ling Cod, with extremely tough skin like an eel’s. The tuna-like coalfish I catch a few minutes later is about half its size but much prettier, with a lovely bluish sheen.  After moving around a few more times we also start to catch a Mackerel-type fish called Sei by the dozen, each measuring at least 30 centimetres.

The abundance of fish meant there was plenty to attract the sea eagles, and we fed them about a third of our catch. Per said that in any case I’d be eating so much fish I would end up growing gills.

Life in Norway has always been sustained by its waters, and the Norwegian bond with the sea seems to rub off on tourists too. After my visit to the Viking country, I haven’t quite grown gills, but I do look at the sea in a whole new light.

More information on visiting Norway from Innovation Norway (the Norwegian Tourist Board) at http://www.visitnorway.co.uk/

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