Foto: Espen Bergersen/www.naturgalleriet.no

The Baleen Routine – a beginner’s guide to whale watching in Tromsø

As if northern lights, beautiful snowy mountains and fjords weren’t already enough, Tromsø has recently gained another very unique attraction:  gigantic humpback whales, stopping over on their long way from Svalbard to their calving grounds in the south to hunt herring alongside flocks of orcas and fishermen. Before 2010, the herring gathered further south; according to nature photographer Espen Bergersen, who has been documenting the yearly visits from the beginning, their wintering grounds change occasionally, so we should probably enjoy the phenomenon while it lasts.

Text: Elinor Tessin

Where can you see the whales? Your chances are pretty good anywhere on Kvaløya with view on a fjord; however, as Bergersen states, both whales and herring arrive from the North in the beginning of the season, and move towards the south as it progresses. Right now, your chances will probably be best around Sommerøya. There is a Facebook group, where whale-watchers share their observations can help you keep up to date. The season usually starts in October, and ends at some point in February; but the number of whales and length of their stay vary from year to year.

Photo: Espen Bergersen/www.naturgalleriet.no
Photo: Espen Bergersen/www.naturgalleriet.no

Taking good pictures of the whales can be quite challenging, Bergersen says: there is very little light during the main part of the season, and as whales move around quickly, good equipment and higt apetures lens are helpful. A high ISO number and a big lens will allow you to capture as much light as possible. Underwater pictures of the whales are harder, as a lot of the scarce light doesn’t make it through the surface.

But if you get lucky, and you’re at the right place at the right time, with the right equipment, you will have the chance to experience and capture some amazing moments. Espen has many stories to tell about both the huge humpbacks and the smaller, but equally fascinating orcas: one time he observed an orca toying with a little auk, as a cat might play with a mouse. The bird got thrown around like a tennis ball, but survived the experience with only slightly ruffled feathers and probably some psychological scars.

Other times, he was lucky enough to see the giant humpbacks breach – i.e., jump out of the water, not unlike dolphins but a little less graceful. It’s rare one can observe such behavior, and nobody really understands why they do it – Bergersen hypothesizes it might be to shake off parasites, get rid of an itch (which must be hard without arms), or simply because they can – it does look like fun! Another unforgettable experience is watching the humpbacks feed in groups by herding the herring upwards, then exploding through the surface in unison while gobbling up as many fish as they can fit into their mouths, like slightly plump and extremely hungry synchronized swimmers.

Photo: Espen Bergersen/www.naturgalleriet.no
Photo: Espen Bergersen/www.naturgalleriet.no

As a human observer, one can feel quite small and insignificant next to these colossal, mysterious animals, but apparently, they are just as curious about you as you are about them. Bergersen has captured many pictures of both orcas and humpback whales “spy hopping”, meaning that they stick their heads out of the water to investigate their surroundings while practically swimming upright, a little like humans treading water.

There are a few companies in Tromsø that offer whale-watching cruises. For those on a smaller budget, bus 42 to Eidkjosen goes three times an hour; from the last station, it’s a short walk to Kaldfjord, where you have a good chance of observing whales from land. Other buses around the island go more infrequently, so if you want to have a look at beautiful Sommerøya, Grøtfjord or Tromvik, you should rent a car or plan an overnight stay. Especially Sommerøya is worth a visit – if you are lucky, you might see a whale from above while crossing the bridge!

Photo: Espen Bergersen/www.naturgalleriet.no
Photo: Espen Bergersen/www.naturgalleriet.no

Missed the season and all the whales are gone? You might still get a chance to see some – whale safaris leave from Andenes (6 hours from Tromsø by car; a little less in summer when the ferries operate) throughout the whole year. You will probably not observe humpback whales during summer, but you might spot sperm whales, minke whales and orcas.

Head over to www.naturgalleriet.no to see even more pictures of whales, mammals and North-Norwegian landscapes!

 

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