My teeth were uncontrollably chattering as the North Atlantic wind repeatedly greeted my numb face. Wetsuit on, I was getting ready to take my first plunge into the dark waters of the Norwegian Sea. My body riddled with panic and anxiety. For one, I’ve never been much of an ocean kind of person. The possible unknowns that exist in the depths of the ocean scares the living hell out of me. This experience was going to be worth every second of fear.
Surrounded by snow capped peaks, I watched as the short November sun rise and create soft pastel colours in the sky. In the distance, a sharp black fin was surfacing from the water, forcing me to hurry to get my snorkel in place. My heart was beating so fast I thought it was going to blow out of my chest. I could tell the nine others that I was with were feeling the same way as we got ready to swim with whales.
The First Sighting
The fin was not alone. More and more black fins appeared from the water so our captain switched the boat’s engine off and parked. We paused and let the pod come to us. This was the moment. Trying not to make a peep with the bulky underwater housing systems, we quietly slipped into the water one by one.
Protected by wetsuit, I was initially not bothered by how frigid the temperature of the arctic water was. I felt as light as air as the small waves floated me and gently bobbed me up and down. The fins were getting closer. A tingling sensation ran the course of my body and I could feel an out of body experience begin to take place.
The whales were less than five ft in front of us now. I was scared to fully submerge my head but I quickly built up the courage to go under and have a peek at what was taking place. There, close enough to touch, an enormous, beautiful Orca was right in front of me. A connection that no words can describe occurred between us and it felt as though time stood completely still. Its gentle blue eye was staring back at mine and assured me that I was welcome in its home. The pod was in transition so the Orca quickly scurried onward with the rest of its family.
I instantly awoke from what felt like a dream and realized where I was, what I was doing, and what just happened. Being in the presence of the whales made me forget that I am a human, it felt as though the boundaries had been lifted and the water wasn’t this big scary place. I felt like an earthling observing a fellow earthling.
How to Swim with Whales
You’re probably wondering how it’s even possible to swim with such magnificent creatures in one of the most beautiful places on our planet. Well, I’ll be the first to tell you that this experience is life changing, however, swimming with whales in the wild, especially in the Arctic, is certainly not for the faint hearted. There are some challenges that come with such an extreme activity. First of all, it’s cold as hell, especially with the wind. Be aware that you will be jumping in and out of the ocean for hours on end in the Arctic Ocean. The only way you might not be as cold is if you wear a dry suit, which I highly recommend! Secondly, you’re going to have to travel to Norway in order to have this experience. Norway is an expensive country but your experience doesn’t have to hurt your wallet too much.
You’re going to need to go with some kind of guide in order to have this experience. It’s so important to leave it to a professional who understands where to find the whales and how to read their behaviours. Our professional wildlife guide, Jonas, was absolutely amazing at predicting the location of the whales and getting our group in the water with them as often as possible! Jonas’ knowledge and expertise made our experience so memorable as we were able to get in the water as often as possible. It was amazing to witness Jonas’ ability to find and how we were able to catch them when they weren’t in transition.
Is it Legal?
There are no laws against swimming with whales in Norway. The issue is, sometimes swimming with the whales can be extremely unethical. There are several tours that run right out of Tromso/ Skjervoy, however, many of these tours aren’t kind to the whales and will do whatever it takes to give their guests an experience with them. Disrupting the whales for human amusement isn’t ethical nor is it enjoyable. In order for your tour to be ethical, ensure that the guide/ tour you are with keeps enough distance from the whales and allows them to come towards you. Whales get curious and will swim close to you if you’re patient enough!
Out on the water, we witnessed tons of tour groups that would urgently dash towards the whales and get way too close to them the second they saw fin. A lot of the time, the whales are strategizing with their pod and working hard to round up herring. Their effort can easily get wasted if humans disrupt them.
Watch out for these unethical tours and thoroughly do your research before booking.
What Should I Know Before Hand?
Remember that you’re in an uncontrolled space and anything can happen. Whales are wild creatures and the ocean is no joke. Your safety should be your top priority, however, this activity is dangerous in nature and you’re not 100% safe even with a tour guide.
The combination of arctic temperatures and cold ocean water can be a deadly combo. Make sure your gear is safe for cold weather swimming. Either learn how to properly use a drysuit or get a wetsuit that’s at least 7 mm thick.
Where Do I Go?
You’ll fly to Tromso, Norway to begin your journey. From Tromso, you will travel roughly 3 hours north to Skjervoy. If you are not staying with a tour group, there area few hotels in Skjervoy.
What Types of Whales Will I See?
You will most likely see both humpback whales and orcas. We had saw so many of both and had the opportunity to snorkel with both of them. We were able to catch the orcas at a time when they were feeding so they hung around longer. The humpbacks made quick appearances but we saw plenty from the boat.