Divernet

HUNTING FOR THE ULTIMATE IMAGES OF ORCAS, or killer whales, in Norways Tysfjord in early winter has always taken my breath away. Literally. The water is a chilling 3C and the cold weather is made even more unpleasant by a brutal wind-chill. Frankly, you hate it.

But none of that matters when you are out criss-crossing a fjord in a small boat day after day, looking to free-dive, relatively unencumbered in a weighted drysuit, with one of the greatest of marine animals.

Orcas are a fascinating combination of forbidding power, grace and high intelligence. And as the winter season sets in at the end of October, hundreds of Norwegian orcas pile into Tysfjord, 150 miles north of the Arctic circle.

They are after the herring which gather in the fjords 800m waters to slow their metabolism for the winter season. A grown orca can munch through 200-250kg, or about 250-300 fish, each day.

The herring are relatively easy meat for the whales, but their teamwork in herding and feeding on the fish makes for one of the greatest shows in the aquatic wilderness. In what is known as carouselling, the whales dive - if necessary to their limit of about 250m and breath-holding for some 15 minutes - to group-hunt the fish.

Blowing bubbles, they push the herring towards the surface, where they flick their tails to kill or stun the fish before consuming them.

Sometimes one of the orcas will swim around and flash its white underbelly to scare the herring further, forcing them into an even tighter ball which can be blown more effectively upwards.

The first time I saw the orcas team-hunting, I could hardly believe what I was seeing. In the boat we headed for a boiling patch of surface water, indicating herring swimming for their lives. Free-diving on the perimeter of the action, we watched a pod of 12 whales - three males of about 8m, five females of 5m-6.5m and four calves of 1m-2.5m - circling the herring in perfect harmony, constantly blowing bubbles to push them upwards.
We could hear and feel against our chests their communicative sonar clicks as they stage-managed their impressive manoeuvre, which culminated in the whales moving up into the mass of fish.

I became worried when I found myself floating into the herring. The thick school started moving to all sides at increasing speed and I opened my mouth, temporarily losing my snorkel, as a 5m orca came up through the hole. Would it see me, and know I was not a fish

It stopped about an arms length away, and we looked at each other. I was paralysed, unable to move (although I later found I had fired off a frame).

The whale, on the other hand, seemed to have a spark in its eyes. It hung vertically for a few more seconds, turning its belly and pectoral fins upward to better inspect me and other divers nearby, before rejoining its friends.

Its wonderful to watch the orcas feed, rest and play, and on occasions it is possible to share in other aspects of the killer whales lives.

On one trip, organised for a National Geographic television crew, we came across a pod of four orcas which swam by some 5m away. One held something in its mouth, and we realised that the still mass was a dead calf.

Unfortunately, the cameramans equipment jammed when he tried to film it, but what an unhappy sight to have to try to film.

Later we were told that a female orca will carry its dead offspring for a day or two before letting go - and that orcas experience an infant mortality rate of almost 40 per cent.

But we had far more joy than sorrow. We would be recharged and stimulated when playful pods of orcas - typically of 8-15 animals, led by a female and her offspring - would approach and check us out, either as we swam or by escorting us for a while as we proceeded in our boat.

Getting to know individual orcas is particularly stimulating. I flatter myself that one 6m, 3 tonne female recognised me a full year after we had first met.

I named her Anna and couldnt mistake her, because she had a distinctive movement and a saddle marking (the white area behind the dorsal fin) which I had committed to memory.

As I idled on the surface, Anna would approach, stand up on her powerful tail and blow bubbles from just 3m below the surface. The closest she would get was about 2m, and if I tried to get closer and establish strong eye contact, she would back off.

But if I retreated first, she advanced. Anna controlled our dance.

At first I thought she was maintaining a safety zone, but I later wondered whether she required a minimum distance to be able to focus on me.

After our dead-calf sighting, it was particularly enjoyable to meet another female with its newly born calf - and in my determination to photograph the happy scene I almost pushed my breath-holding too far.

Having free-dived to 10m, the surprise meeting occurred. I was running short of time but here she was, with her young one. They were both looking straight at me, as if to ask: Who are you, and what are you doing here

My lungs were starting to scream their need to release carbon dioxide, but I was determined to have my picture of this splendid moment.

Using my last gram of air fighting to stay under water, I aimed my camera and got one shot.

Every now and then, an experience would serve as a reminder that intelligent marine mammals can be aggressive as well as friendly; that you must operate with respect in what is their patch.

Having dived with a lazy moving pod of six whales, we elected to dive with them again and, sitting somewhat fatigued on the side of the boat ready for clearance, I allowed myself accidentally to splash in to the sea rather than glide in quietly.

I stayed motionless on top of the water after the embarrassing entry, sure that the pod would have been frightened off.

I was wrong. A 6m male appeared some 12m away, making towards me in a very deliberate move, and I was not at all prepared for its next act of forceful communication.

The orca stopped in its tracks 5m away, raised its head, put its powerful tail down in the water and opened its mouth wide. Then, as if one strong gesture was not enough, he moved to within 3m, just to make it absolutely clear who was dominating proceedings.

I noted some enormous jaws, a perfect row of large ivory teeth, and a richly pink tongue. I regained the boat shaken and stirred.

The Tysfjord saved a memorable encounter for the last day of one particular trip.
As we motored along, enjoying a rare colourful sunset, a colossal jet-black male orca, which we judged to be 7.5m long, surfaced only centimetres away from our boat.

We gasped as his 2m-high dorsal fin shadowed over us, like a giant machete set against a dramatically pink sky.
Then potential menace turned to pure joy as two more orcas joined the first and together they porpoised toward the setting sun. We kept up with them for as long as we could.

  • San Francisco-based Amos Nachoum runs a range of charter holidays tracking large marine animals. If you wish to join one, call 001 415 923 9865, or visit www.biganimals.com

    CAPTURING ORCAS
    Amos Nachoum employs unusual methods to cope with the challenge of photographing dark animals against very dark water with widely contrasting bright white body markings.

    Rather than accept grainy slide films of 400ASA or 800ASA, he uses colour print film pushed to between 1250ASA and 1600ASA. The negative film, even when pushed, retains acceptable form, and it has a wider latitude of exposure - five to seven stops, rather than two to three stops for slide film, he says.

    Computer imaging is used to improve the quality of some shots, for instance those of the orcas with herring. Negatives are scanned and electronically enhanced to tighten image grains.

  • Divernet Divernet Divernet Divernet Divernet Divernet Divernet


    CAPTURING ORCAS
    Amos Nachoum employs unusual methods to cope with the challenge of photographing dark animals against very dark water with widely contrasting bright white body markings.

    Rather than accept grainy slide films of 400ASA or 800ASA, he uses colour print film pushed to between 1250ASA and 1600ASA. The negative film, even when pushed, retains acceptable form, and it has a wider latitude of exposure - five to seven stops, rather than two to three stops for slide film, he says.

    Computer imaging is used to improve the quality of some shots, for instance those of the orcas with herring. Negatives are scanned and electronically enhanced to tighten image grains.