I’ll start with a little anecdote, shall I? Then maybe I’ll delve into the nitty gritty. I love the above image. It took me quite a while to figure out why. But I finally realized it evokes a lot of memories for me. I found myself, quite often, staring down at my fins hovering above the rushing water, sitting on the edge of our RIB boat awaiting the signal to jump in. At times I’d be excited while staring at those fins (oooo Orca time!) and at other times I’d find myself staring at them, hunched over, simply trying to ignore the cold seeping into my bones. Then I’d look up. The beauty I saw was a respite from the cold. It would remind where I was and what I was doing. And, if only for a brief moment, the cold would melt away. Here I was, at the top of the world, doing what I love.
Ok, now I’ll start from the beginning. My flight arrived in Tromso after dark. Everyone was waiting for me at the airport. Thankfully, the fog had cleared and my flight was on time. Bags all arrived (thank goodness!). We piled into the car and headed to the boat which was docked in Ersfjordbotn. On the ride I was looking out the window and saw what I thought was a wispy cloud. As my eyes adjusted I realized it was a glowing green cloud. In other words, the Northern Lights! What a welcome! By the time we got to the boat, they were (momentarily) nowhere to be found. So we loaded onto the boat and before we knew it we were told they were back. Alright boat full of strangers, find your gear and set up for some shots!
Full disclosure, I obsessively looked at the weather in Tromso for a month before the trip. Of course that made no logical sense but I wanted to see what my odds of seeing the northern lights were. Turns out I had nothing to worry about! Which leads me to my two biggest fears regarding this trip… not seeing the northern lights (because of weather) and not seeing the Orcas (because of weather and herring movements). Turns out I worried for nothing. But how was I supposed to know?!? Plus, I’m a worrier. It’s in my genes. Can’t help it. Sorry.
After a day of testing out gear and getting ready we headed out in our new home (for the week) the Ostsee Star, to the small town of Skervoy which is where we ended up being docked for the entire trip.
Our first day with the Orcas arrived. We struggled into our drysuits and set out. Just the day before, no one had reported seeing the Orcas. We left the harbor and immediately spotted two fishing boats. And they were surrounded by about 100 individual Orcas and a dozen or so humpbacks (and countless birds, of course)! It was the most incredible sight to behold on our first day. We drove the boats over and sat watching and photographing the feeding frenzy. The water was thick with herring scales, bubbles and whales! I honestly didn’t know where to look, let alone photograph. I was getting incredibly frustrated, feeling like I was missing all the shots. Then I realized I just needed to be patient and enjoy the moment. And what an incredible moment it was!
Now it’s time to take a brief moment to mention the amazing Whales Underwater crew that worked their butts off for all of us. Thank you Darren and Jasmine for organizing the trip and leading our “Nemo” boat. Your advice, warm welcome and kindness meant the world to me. Thanks Darren for staying up late and making sure my underwater housing was all ready., and for stepping in when I got frustrated with it! Thank you Jasmine for your warm conversation and infectious love for adventure! Thank you Ali for your amazing drops, your sixth sense when it comes to whale behavior, and for pulling my butt up on the boat (for what felt like) a million times. I’ll work on my pull-ups and hopefully give you a rest next time! Thank you Norbi for manning the Brig, being an amazing skipper, and for your all your help getting us into drysuits and out on the boats in the morning. Thank you to Krisztina for all of your incredible knowledge. Your presentations were amazing and your love for these animals is infectious! I hope to see you here in Monterey one day! And last, but not least, thank you to Torben for keeping the boat running smoothly and Peggy for keeping our bellies full and happy. We couldn’t have gone on this trip without a single one of you! Thank you so much!
And to my fellow guests… holy crap, you were all so awesome I don’t think I could have been luckier meeting all of you! Elvira, thank you for being such an amazing roommate. You never minded my later nights or equipment all over the room and you always set the alarm! I’m eternally grateful. Robert, thank you for the amazing conversation and advice! You’ve changed the way I think about my photography and there’s no going back! And thanks for the beer and whiskey… I owe you a few if you’re ever in the States! Pasi, thanks for the political discussions. Kept me grounded! And thanks for showing me that a photo isn’t about the camera you use, it’s about the photographer. I’m constantly amazed at what you capture with an iPhone! Kei, thanks for sharing all your goodies (including your whiskey!). And thanks for all the post-trip support. Chuta, thanks for your laughter. It’s infectious and an absolute delight to wake up to every morning at breakfast! And last, but not least, Sonya! I’m amazed at what you do in life. I’m amazed at your determination to make it to Norway! And I’m ever so thankful for the post trip support - your comments and likes keep me posting!
I have to say, I anticipated that this trip would be physically challenging. Luckily, I dive a drysuit on a semi-regular basis (although never as much as I want to!!) and I’m aware of the extra buoyancy and weight needed. Not to mention the huge pain in the butt it is to get your head and hands through the drysuit seals… But my biggest worries were the cold and pulling myself up on the boat. Both of which ended up going about as I expected… not great but certainly not horrible. I’m not totally out of shape, but I could always be in better shape. And I’m always cold… so… yeah… I was cold. Not all the time. Not even every day (I think the adrenaline kept me warm the whole time that first day!) but there were moments my brain got a little fuzzy I was so cold. My fingers were always numb… leading to a bit of an injury on my pinky finger. I don’t want to sugar coat anything. The reality is, this was the most challenging environment I’ve ever photographed in. That being said, I’d go back in a second and do it all over again. In fact, I’d go right now if I could. I did ditch the weight belt a few days in, realizing the extra weight wasn’t enough to get me down and was just causing trouble getting back up on the boat. You really have to figure out a routine that works for you. It took me almost 3 days to get into the swing of things. Then I felt like I mostly had my shit together… mostly… except for that one day I forgot my fins…
I’d be remiss if I didn’t at least mention the humpbacks! They were a huge part of the experience and an added bonus to the encounters! I, for the life of me, couldn’t get a decent underwater photo of one (next time!). It annoyed me, to no end, but the encounters were unforgettable! Even when they ran the Orcas off by eating their bait balls in one huge gulp! Their size and grace is absolutely incredible. I’ll never forget the one encounter where I saw this glaringly white pectoral fin coming out of the gloom below me. It’s approaching at, what feels like, a fast pace. I hold my breath thinking, “oh no! It’s going to bump me!” Of course, the humpback didn’t. Their awareness and dexterity in the water is amazing and mesmerizing. I thought about trying to move but I just couldn’t. I somehow knew, in the back of my head, that the humpback would know I was there and miss me. Sure enough, that’s what happened. And I was just floating there like a duck out of water… totally ungraceful and in complete awe! And, of course, immensely grateful.
We were lucky enough to have another brilliant night full of Northern Lights. And boy what a show they put on for us! We drove out of town and stopped on the side of the road to capture some more images. Below you can see my fellow travelers setting up their own shots. Part way through our photo adventure, Jasmine laid down on the ground to just look up at the sky. For a moment I was jealous! Why wasn’t I just enjoying the spectacular show? So I stopped taking photos, just to look around. That lasted all of about three minutes until the lights started swirling in a circle and I just had to capture it! That balance between living in, and enjoying the moment, and capturing it, is a struggle for me. I want to savor moments. But I also want to capture those moments! What to do?!? Still working on the balance. Hoping I’ll find it one day…
So we didn’t just see whales and herring. Those were definitely the highlights (duh), but I can’t describe my experience without giving you the full picture. I love jellyfish! I saw my first comb jelly in the wild. Maybe not that thrilling for most people, but it was for me! Of course I couldn’t dive down far enough to get a great shot, but I compromised by snapping the below shot of a comb jelly among the fish scales. Looks like an alien in outer space!
You’re probably wondering right about now, where are all the Orcas?! Yeah, yeah… I know that’s really why you’re here. So thank you for holding out this long. Here are a few. But I have to save some for the next post! So hang tight. This is about my experience photographing them. The few triumphs and the many failures…
As I mentioned before, this was one of the most challenging photography experience I’ve ever had. We were working with cold water, low light (hello, it’s November in the arctic!), water full of bubbles and scales, frozen fingers, and fast moving subjects. Despite that (and the urge to pee almost as soon as I got on the boat…) I was able to eek out some shots I’m proud of. As far as the rest… well… they were all learning experiences. Each and every one of them!
After the first day of shooting, I realized that I really wanted to try and capture a photo with both pectoral fins, the dorsal fin and the fluke all in one shot. A tall order, as it turned out. The above image came so close… the Orca was just a little too far away for my liking (and backscatter). And then of course, I had some missed opportunities… like the below image. So close! And yet so far… I botched the focus! Grrr!
My other photo goal was an Orca with a bait ball. Uh…. yeah, I didn’t get that either….
But then you get other amazing shots (and video!) and you’re satisfied. At least for now…. I’m going to have to go back. Obviously.
That’s all for now, folks! My next blog post will be all about the Orcas! Soooo many underwater photos to share (good and bad!). I think they deserve a dedicated post. This trip was about them, after all!
Part III will be posted after the New Year. Sorry guys, we’ve got holiday travel and family time to focus on! But I promise the two week wait will be worth it! Stay tuned… ;)