Whales, orcas and a deep sense of gratitude

The alarm rings in the dead of night. 5 more minutes I tell myself, and bash my phone until, with half an eye open, I manage to hit snooze.

It’s 4:30am.

The sky is dark, and I can’t make out the weather, save for the thick snowflakes that catch the light of the street lamp outside my window. With sleep still squeezing me in its comforting grasp, I somewhat begrudgingly roll out of bed and start to put on the many, many layers you need to stay warm on an arctic whale watching rib tour!

For as long as I can remember I have been obsessed with killer whales. I was raised on a healthy diet of ‘Free Willy 2’; for several years I didn’t even know there was a ‘One’ and a ‘Three’ (yes, I later binge watched these too), and a life long love affair ensued.

Fast forward 20 something years and I find myself researching killer whale dentition for my master’s.

A few years after that, I felt an overwhelming pull to go and finally see orcas in the wild, in Northern Norway. They came to me in my dreams, and during the days that followed all I could think about was the moment I would finally hear the blow of their blowhole and see that awesome, tall, knife-like dorsal fin slice through the waters.

So, for a birthday treat, my mum and I journeyed to Skjervoy, 70 degrees north, and the night before our whale watching adventure I felt like a kid on Christmas. I wanted to fall asleep and make the night go by in a flash but I couldn’t sleep for excitement.

And so back to the present, as I waddle out of the front door, I’m greeted by arctic winds and snow beating at my face. It is cold, my hands instantly ache, but I don’t mind anymore as I remember where it is I am going. I remember the excitement I felt a few years before, and feel it rise again.

I’m going back to the orcas.

There is nothing like the feeling of scanning vast, dark waters for a sign of a humpback whale or an orca. When all you hear is the sound of the waves rolling under the rib, the creasing of flotation suits as we all twist and turn to scan the waters. And suddenly you see a black fin in the distance, or you hear the blow of a whale and you think to yourself ‘this is it!’

We watched as humpacks and orcas feast on herring, with sea eagles and seagulls coming down to swoop in any leftovers. We were surrounded by wildlife. Diving all around us, feeding and gently gliding by so close to our idle rib, I felt like I was in a wildlife documentary.

We were practically alone, save two other small boats in the one of many fjord inlets, with orcas and humpbacks in almost every direction. As a photographer, it was incredible – I didn’t know where to point my lens. As a killer whale lover, it was paradise.

And as we had to head in for the day, the sky turned pink and the orcas swam off into the distance, as if also heading home for the night.

To be so close to these apex predators, to be welcomed into their environment is something so special. No matter what animal lets me sit and watch it as it goes about it’s daily business, I’m always left with a sense of gratitude. But when it’s your favourite animal in the world, one you always dreamed of seeing, the feeling is unexplainable.

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