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The Fish Thieves

Paul Nicklen

The large triangular fins of orca whales slice the surface of the water and the inky predawn blackness stubbornly clings to everything as we travel by zodiac through the northern fjords of Norway.

It was late winter and the first shy rays of spring sunshine won’t be seen for a few more days. I strain to make out the shapes as they surface; I can barely distinguish their bullet-like bodies when they break the water, but I can clearly hear the whisper of their breath, a crisp sound that is expelled in a white mist every time the whales surface to breathe.

A primeval fear takes hold of me as the zodiac buckles on the choppy sea. I am trying to stop myself from thinking, “there is absolutely no way I am diving into this black water with a pod of wild orcas,” but before I can gather my thoughts together, my partner, National Geographic photographer Paul Nicklen, quietly slips overboard. There is no choice, I grab a camera, steel myself against the cold, and follow him under the thin blue line where the arching horizon meets the sea.

Orcas come to the fjords surrounding Lofoten in Norway, to feed on the abundant herring. CREDIT / Paul Nicklen

Like many other large marine creatures, orcas instill a primeval fear in our hearts. From the ancient tales of the first mariners to the fear mongering of modern media and social media outlets, we are brain-trained from an early age to fear the watery wilderness of the ocean. Sharks, giant squid, leopard seals, and even sperm whales, are all characters in a dramatic narrative that teaches us to fear the unknown.

Orcas hunt for herring in Norway’s Andfjorden. Members of the pod coordinate their moves, herding a mass of herring into a manageable ball. They then whip their tails against the ball, stunning or killing the fish. CREDIT / Paul Nicklen

For me, and especially for Paul, the opposite is the lure. Over his 20 year-long career with National Geographic magazine, Paul has used his camera to dispel myths about some of the most feared and misunderstood animals in the ocean. From polar bears and walruses to leopard seals and tiger sharks, he has spent countless hours in the solitude of nature documenting animal behavior and trying to give wild creatures, especially those with a bad, and often undeserved reputation, a fair shake. For Paul, these beautiful animals are not ferocious, dangerous or mindless killers, but curious, intelligent, and almost always misjudged.

This elder orca’s thin frame gives away her age. CREDIT / Cristina Mittermeier

Back in the fjords of Norway, I put my head underwater and immediately forget about being cold. It is dark and gloomy, but I am not afraid. Before me is an orca ballet, and a feeding behavior that few people have ever had the privilege of witnessing.

The orcas are working together, performing a highly coordinated exercise to herd the fish: huge schools of herring, larger than any other I have ever seen, are compacted together into a tight ball. This immense ball of fish, a mere five feet under the ocean’s surface, buckles and sways, trying to escape, but the orcas swim relentlessly around the ball making it tighter and tighter. In this sophisticated team effort every orca plays a role and every member of the pod gets their turn to feed.

As orcas get in place around a school of herring, they stay in close contact with calls, whistles, and echolocation clicks. CREDIT / Paul Nicklen

Young calves flank their mother’s sides and mimic every move as they hone their herring-herding skills. They call out to one and other, and we can hear the constant high-pitched sound of echo-location all around us.

After herring at the edge have been stunned, orcas feed, not taking big gulps of the fish, but picking them off one by one. CREDIT / Paul Nicklen

By the sheer volume of water they displace, Paul and I are able to “feel” the presence of the humpback whales even before they arrive. I peer out of the water and spot Paul several feet away. He too has seen the larger whales and is signaling desperately, trying to warn me to get out of the way. The humpbacks are approaching fast from beneath the herring ball.

Through the dark water I can barely make out the humpback whales’ white pectoral fins. Like enormous ghosts, they are coming straight at us, shooting upwards from the depths of the fjord.

Humpback whales rise from the depths of Norway’s fjords with power and grace. CREDIT / Paul Nicklen

With no echo-location they are unable to sense us and unless we start swimming fast, we could be injured as they snap their massive jaws, or worse, risk a head-on collision. We witness their tremendous power when a humpback emerges from the depths in a corkscrew upsurge that drives its immense body out of the water. Hanging briefly in the air as if held by an invisible thread, fish spilling out of its open mouth, it whirls the tip of its flukes and then turns and crashes back down into the water.

A humpback whale feeds on herring in the northern fjords of Norway. CREDIT / Paul Nicklen

Paul and I kick back, colliding into each other. In the end, we are missed by mere feet. After I catch my breath I look underwater again, but the humpbacks are gone, the herring ball has dispersed, and the orcas, deprived of their meal, are also swimming away.

Until Paul’s images of this remarkable event were made, the assumption was that the orcas and the humpbacks were collaborating to herd the fish in what is known as “carousel” feeding behavior. Now we know that it is the orcas who are doing all of the work, while the humpbacks, who are newcomers to these fjords, are being opportunistic fish thieves.

Orcas prefer to hunt herring where they can force them toward the surface, as in the pale shallows of this branch of Andfjorden. CREDIT / Paul Nicklen

As we head back to our sailboat, we see the first glimpse of the sun over the horizon. The thin shell of the moon hides behind snow-capped mountains as the sun rises for the first time in months.

The tide brings the gentle lapping of water onto the rocky shore and darkness melts away. In these winter fjords, however, the gift of light is short-lived and a mere 18 minutes later, the sun sets again. Water flickers as the orange orb casts its last long shadow. The million specks of light that dance on the sparkling sea make it seem as if the northern lights have fallen into the water. The ocean and our spirits are soaked in grace.

An adult male orca in the deep waters of the Andfjorden. Their tall dorsal fins distinguish them from females. CREDIT / Cristina Mittermeier
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