Orca season begins!

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October comes to the end, which means that all big animal divers switch focus from Mexico, where great white shark season comes to the end, to Norway, where the orca season begins.

Despite killer whales are present in all oceans around the globe, Norway keeps the name of world capital of orca snorkeling. When I first time visited Lofoten islands in 2013 onboard Sula, it was kind of exotic travel destination. Today, plenty of companies offer this programme. Is it good or bad? Time will tell.

So, I decided to join the trend and show you the video from our February’s adventure with Northern Explorers. There are moments when DLSR refuses to focus underwater because of the lack of light, so GoPro is the only way to record what’s happening. Murphy’s Law still works perfectly, so those failures usually happen in during the most exciting moments, when orca comes close to you, look eye-in-the-eye, circles around, test you with the clicks. These special moments you can find in this video. Enjoy.

P.S. Orca snorkeling gifts you with one of the most exciting and emotional moments in lifetime. I will definitely come back to Norway, and I can strongly recommend it to everyone who haven’t tried it yet.

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Tales from the White sea. Belugas of Solovetsky islands.

This summer we went to Solovetsky islands in attempt to make underwater footage of local beluga whales. The whales come here every summer, from mid June to mid August to breed, give birth and raise the calves. Sometimes it’s possible to see males fightings. Belugas are seen near the Beluga cape nearly every day during the low tide. Locals say that this is a beluga kindergarten.

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Belugas swim near the IFAW tower. You can find a head of a calf on this pic.

Group of scientists from Institute of Oceanology live in a camp near the cape. They listen to whale voices, taking photographs, counting whales, watch their behaviour, take tissue samples for genetic analysis. They even tried to dive with the whales using specially made one-space submarine. There is a tower on the cape built by IFAW specially to watch whales. Apart of scientists, belugas attract tourists. Every day several boats come to the cape filled with tourists. So we came to make snorkeling with the whales.

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Submarine for beluga research. Abandoned. The glass is broken.

At first, nobody wanted to bring us to the whales. After long negotiation we agreed that we need to ask scientists before we go. Scientists asked me not to go into the water before they leave, because all the whales will immediately leave. I was surprised, because I thought that my underwater experience with different animals will help me to reach the whales, but said nothing. So I had overall 3 days to try my fortune.

We came to the cape when there were no tourists. We saw about 15 whales, including brown and gray calves. When the waves raised, the whales started to show heads from the water. They stayed in the same place, as they always do here. It was looking very promising.

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But in the water it appeared much worse. Belugas refused to let me come close, despite of my attempts to swim quietly, slowly and even stay still. All skills of underwater photographer were useless – whales just left to the open sea in several minutes. Probably I did something wrong, maybe local whales are too shy shy to interact, maybe my time was too short – but in the end I failed.

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The boat we used for snorkeling. Sometimes I think it was our biggest fault…

We decided to film belugas with stationary underwater camera. Our brilliant engineering team built very cool underwater mounting for GoPro. We called it “rocket mounting” and placed it under water just next to Beluga cape. Once in 1,5 hours we changed the batteries.

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Vanya – our skipper, engineer and good friend.

After several hours of watching breathtaking video with underwater landscape, we finally found out that we have filmed the whales! Of course, it’s not the same as you can film in Canadian Churchill. It’s just belugas passing by. But we did it in just two attempts, and we were happy with that!

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Rocket mounting is ready to go to the outer space.

Here is the result of our underwater filming. Notice how the small fishes run away after belugas pass.

Unfortunately, we left Solovky without underwater pics of the belugas. On these islands you can find a lot of great interesting stuff, but you’d better find some other place if you want to make underwater pictures if the belugas. Maybe some other places of the White sea will bring better result…

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Inuit traditional hunt for marine mammals.

Inuit traditional hunt for marine mammals.

It’s not a secret that Arctic is a very severe place. There are no trees, cereals can’t grow here. It’s impossible to survive by gathering or agriculturing. Arctic is not a place for human being. The only way to survive here is fishing and hunting everything you can find. So inuits from Greenland and Canada hunt and fish for living.

Hunting is not just a part of inuit life – it’s a core of their culture, basis of their self-identity. Every man is a hunter. Inuits hunt literally everything they can – seals, whales, polar bears, caribou, musk ox, birds etc. Their hunting techniques are unique and very interesting, so let’s leave this topic for the next article.

Whales are hunted by inuits during summertime.

When man kills the animal, he takes everything – meat for food, fat for lamps, skin for clothes, kayaks and houses, tendons for making ropes, colon as the waterproof material etc. Many people consider hunting as unethical and blame hunters, especially when it’s all about hunting rare and beautiful animals. But what about hunting if there is no other way to survive? I don’t blame people who hunt for living, if there is no other way to survive.

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Humpback diving away from our boat scared by engine sound.

This kind of traditional hunting takes place nowaday in the most remote northern regions of Greenland and Canadian Arctic.

However, the lifestyle of the most inuit people changed dramatically in XX-XXI centuries. Denmark and Canada pays benefts to them, and hunting is not essential for living anymore. The availability of technologies, especially firearms and motorized boats, has lead to the depletion of the Greenland coast.

Take a look at this poster. This one I bought in Tasiilaq during our trip to Greenland. This poster shows the whale species you can meet there. Is that true that you can meet so many species here? So why didn’t Greenland became a whale-lovers capital o the world?

Yes, it is possible to meet different whale species here. But there is not so many whales – you can see much more in other places. The second thing is the whales are extremely shy here and they dive immediately when they hear the sound of engine – the sound of death for the whales. We didn’t seen one single seal or caribou, but what we have seen was shops where you can buy narwhal’s horn, polar bear’s claws and other cute souvenirs.

Tooth of killer whale in the local shop. Tasiilaq, Greenland.

What is the meaning of hunting for the most inuint nowadays? The possibility to kill animal for selling it’s parts to the tourists? For example, would you like to buy a toy seal covered with the real seal fur? Does hunting remains being a core of inuit culture, or is it just a way to get some additional money? Could you count killing narwhal by riffle as the traditional hunting? I don’t have the answers. What’s your opinion?

Hall of our hotel in Tasiilaq. On the right from bear’s skin you can see narwhal’s horn.

Herring killers

Herring killers

Orcas have been given a name of Killer whales, but this is a translation mistake. Spanish fishermen called them asesino ballenas, which means killer of whales, but not killer whale. Nevertheless, killer whale sounds right, so whale killers became killer whales. As we know, Norwegian resident orcas feed mostly on herring, not killing any whales, so we could better call them herring killers, or, if you want, even killer herrings.

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In the water with orcas.

In the water with orcas.

We were more lucky on 4th day. Early in the morning we’ve met a pod of orcas who were hunting herring in the shallow water. Why shallow water? The thing is, when the orcas pushing the school of herring, it starting to go deep, where it’s harder to get it. But if cunning whales are able to push the school to the shore, where there is no way to go down for the fish, orcas will have a feast. For us it means a good chance to stay with them into the water.

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It’s always very tricky to get very close to the pod, but we did it. They were staying a bit far away, but we still got some moments of magic. For me it was very special moment when I saw 4 orcas diving synchronized.

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For whom the ravens circle

For whom the ravens circle

How to find hunting orcas? The best sign you can spot is the flock of birds circling over the surface. This means that under the surface the feast takes place. Sea birds predate on fish, just the same as underwater predators, including local orcas. Birds differ from one place to another – you can find gannets in South Africa, fregates in Mexico. In Norway it’s very simple – local bird are seagulls.