Foto: Sophie Scotter

Flukes and fjords: how a lone explorer has been learning about northern Norway’s winter visitors

Who, what, where, when, why?

Russell Baker is a global explorer with a passion for everything cetacean. A self-confessed nature-junkie, Russell arrived in Norway in 2013 after a tip from a local fisherman that killer whales and humpbacks were starting to frequent the fjords here. He was almost totally alone at sea for a long time, but news of this phenomenon soon spread and it is now a highly anticipated annual event. Both species appear to be tracing the movement of Norwegian herring stocks, but until a few years ago these whales were mostly absent from the north coast, arriving quite suddenly in astonishing densities.

Russell has initiated and collaborated on a variety of non-commercial projects around the globe, though has focused most of his efforts in Norway over recent years – pointing to the overwhelming uniqueness of what goes on here. However, regardless of the species or project concerned, he remains extremely committed to building strong relationships with local communities in each of the places he works. Their guidance and assistance is fundamental to both finding, observing and ultimately protecting wildlife phenomena from unregulated human intrusion.

There is so much to learn from whales”, says Russell, who is convinced that we (him included) have barely scratched the surface when it comes to understanding these highly intelligent animals. As a self-funded explorer, Russell is relatively unrestricted in terms of both destination and time. He has the freedom to take advantage of opportunities, and this has enabled him to isolate these new phenomena. Consequently, he has accumulated an astonishing number of hours on the water with killer whales, humpbacks and fin whales, spending all day, every day, at sea, for 3 winters – conditions permitting. To say that his commitment to observation has been fruitful would be an understatement; Russell has learnt a tremendous amount about wild behaviour here in northern Norway.

Understandably, whale-watching has fast become of important commercial interest here in Tromsø. As such, Russell has maintained positive and non-commercial collaborations with ‘VisitTromso’ who are keen to ensure this industry grows respectfully. In the same vein however, the increase in the number of boats on the water has made it more and more difficult for Russell to observe behaviour alone in a natural setting, and he has therefore had to refocus his efforts in different fjords on a number of occasions.

Something unique

Carousel feeding by killer whales appears to be a strategy unique to the population frequenting Norwegian waters. In a carousel feed, killer whales repeatedly encircle shoals of herring, forcing them into a tight ball. When this ball is sufficiently dense, the whales use powerful slaps of their tail flukes to stun small groups of fish, before picking them off one by one. During 2013, Russell observed humpbacks and fin whales taking advantage of these ready-made ‘bait balls’ by lunging through the herring and consequently bringing the carousel to an end. Though sympatry between humpbacks, killer whales and fin whales occurs elsewhere on the planet, off the coast of northern British Columbia for example, there are few other documented instances of feeding interactions between these species.

A weekend on the water

In February, I spent a weekend living Russell’s life. Throughout his three-month tenure here in the Troms region, he is based in small coastal communities and during February of this year, was located on the beautiful island of Senja. Sheer cliffs and dramatic landscapes prevail over this largely uninhabited island, where small-scale fishing operations are a key source of income. Every morning, Russell heads out under cover of darkness dressed in as many layers as possible; kitted out to maximise on the few hours of daylight available during northern Norway’s long and arduous winter. There was absolutely no guarantee that we would find any whales, but that’s the way this works. Indeed, Russell is the first to admit that his day-to-day life is no easy one, commenting that only a “slow, patient, and respectful approach” will allow him to “garner an acceptance” from the animals such that behaviour can be considered to be in its most natural state. As any researcher will tell you, there is little to be gained from studying behaviours clearly influenced by human presence.

Russell and I spent about an hour on the water before we happened across a group of killer whales and humpbacks feeding just outside of the fjord. Whales feeding at or near the surface commonly attract large numbers of scavenging birds, which are considerably easier to spot from a distance in large swell and surface chop. However, by the time we were within 200 metres, the feeding event had ended and the whales headed out to open water, beyond the reach of our small skiff, and so we headed back to the shelter of the coastline. Nonetheless, the whales soon followed, and we were approached by a group of seven or eight orca that spent approximately two hours pushing a ball of herring around the fjord. When you’re out on the water in all weathers, luck simply has to be on your side.

 

Photo: Russell Baker

One thing was abundantly clear, Russell does not jump in the water at every given opportunity. In fact, he spends hours assessing the situation from a distance before he goes anywhere near a group of whales. Indeed, if he can recognize behaviours from surface movements, there is little need to get in the water, and in many instances it would be inappropriate to do so. Unlike many of the commercial companies just beginning to send film crews here, Russell is content to observe from the boat most of the time, and is quick to point out that what he does “is not about photography”. Over the course of an entire winter, there are some occasions when Russell deems the conditions appropriate enough to slide into the water alone, on the whales’ terms and only when he is confident his presence will not compromise the “peaceful continuation of wildlife phenomena”. Any video he captures is discreet, incidental, and for the purpose of gathering data on some important behaviours. Russell tries to follow the migration as effectively as possible, whilst avoiding the new boat traffic, and trying to educate skippers about responsible whale watching.

Man and Whale

For fear of being responsible for bringing unwanted attention to these sensitive mammals, Russell has kept his experiences quiet since the very beginning. However, word about this phenomenon has since spread; the number of boats is increasing rapidly; and consequently Russell has been encouraged to speak out more for the sake of education and protection. In a worst-case scenario, continued disturbance could drive the whales from our coastline and into less desirable feeding areas, and there is a genuine possibility that the whole phenomenon could be lost for good. Indeed, history has shown us that the sudden commercialisation of similar areas can quickly result in there being few whales left to watch.

Russell explains that these isolated communities would hate to see the whales disappear. “Local fishermen and the whales coexist peacefully” he says. There is no time to lose in moving toward positive efforts in this region, since there is an extremely limited window in which to learn from the animals here. Indeed, it’s quite plausible that the plasticity of herring movements may lead the whales elsewhere before other sources of disturbance. This striking unpredictability is one of the things that makes this event so fascinating.

Photo: Sophie Scotter
Photo: Sophie Scotter

Research and forward-planning

Some scientists are already aware of Russell’s efforts, and have noted that his observations might prove valuable in answering some outstanding behavioural questions in the field of killer whale and humpback research. Word of mouth has also attracted further public attention, though establishing relationships in the scientific world is a priority for Russell, and he recently shared some of his observations at the annual conference of the European Cetacean Society in Madeira, with positive results. Via workshops for whale-watching operators and presentations in schools, Russell is educating the public about whale behaviour and at the same time enthusing many about protecting these whales.

The longevity of this unique phenomena is unpredictable, but Russell’s land based efforts will continue so long as communities encourage them. The nature of his future water-based observation work will depend on his respectful evaluation of the environment and Utropia sincerely hopes that his work will increase our understanding of the whales here in Northern Norway, such that they might be protected and continue to bring joy to our coastal communities. Even with a carefully developed, minimal-impact approach to observation, we must remember that “observation of highly intelligent animals is a two-way process”, says Russell.

 

Russell can be followed on:

Facebook: Russell Baker – Learning from whales

Twitter: @LearnFromWhales

Instagram: @LearnFromWhales

 

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