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Underwater Feeding Frenzy – Poetry in Motion

Paul Nicklen
 
Behind the Frame of ‘Orca Ballet”
“Dance less in motion and more in spirit; awaken the dreamer within.”
— Shah Asad Rizvi

We were working in northern, Norway, 71° degrees north, in Andenes fjord, in Lofoten, with beautiful, towering granite mountain tops coming out of the sea, covered in ice and snow.

It was January, when the sun does not rise above the horizon. It stays below. All you see is a faint, pink glow. Even at midday, the sky remains dark.

When one of the most impressive apex predators ever to evolve breaks the ocean’s surface in an explosion of power and grace, you can’t help but question the human need to place ourselves on the pinnacle of evolved species.

The waters in this area are deep and black, and full of mystery.

Every year, like clockwork, vast schools of herring come into these fjords, billions of them, on their annual migration. They are followed by orcas, apex predators of the sea, as many as 2,000 of them, accompanied by the larger, more placid but no less wondrous humpback whales.

We were there to record the importance of this biomass, in our mission to learn more about the natural cycle of life and spread the word about marine conservation and our collective need to protect the world’s oceans.

Lofoten is one of the world’s richest marine ecosystems. Frigid waters well up from the Continental Shelf and furnish vital nutrients for the planet’s largest cold water reef, which in turn sustain substantial populations of keystone fish.

We wanted to document the behavior of what marine mammal biologist Tiu Simila has identified as “carousel feeding,” a unique way in which the orcas work cooperatively to herd the herring into tightly, compressed balls of fish in the shallows, where they can’t get away.

The orcas work together — squealing, clicking, communicating, packing the ball of herring tighter and tighter. When the moment is right, they swat the herring with their tails, stunning the smaller fish, and allowing the orcas to eat them one at a time.

The amazing thing is that they take the time to delicately decapitate each herring before swallowing the body. They don’t eat the heads! So you see all these heads floating around.

Orca feeding displays are incredible to witness. They’re a study in motion as they drive herring into tightly packed bait balls and then gorge at will on the protein they need to survive.

Scientists once believed orcas and humpback whales worked together in tandem, in a kind of symbiotic relationship. We would be some of the first witnesses to see this behavior underwater.

We quickly learned the relationship between orcas and humpbacks is not that cooperative at all. The humpback whales sit to the side and wait for the orcas to do all the work in packing the ball together. Then the whales come charging through and take big mouthfuls of fish along the way.

On this particular afternoon, the water was exceedingly rough and we were thinking of calling it a day. It was only 2 p.m. but it was almost pitch black.

As we turned back, my companion Göran Elmé, co-founder of Waterproof Expeditions and the first to lead diving expeditions ot the polar regions, saw this feeding frenzy boiling below the surface. There were about 50 orcas as well, accompanied by humpbacks, but it was all just so dark.

My friend and companion Göran Elmé is always telling me to, “Get in the water”.

It looked incredible and terrifying, so we decided, let’s just go, let’s just do it and see what we see.

It was a wise decision, as it turned out. Modern camera technology allows us to see so much better underwater than even just a few years ago. As our eyes adjusted to the underwater scene we could barely make things out, but the water was clear. We could see these black orcas racing by; we could see their white throat patches, bellies and tail patches — enough to tell what was going on. They were working the ball of herring tighter, together and driving them to the surface. And then the humpback whales would come crashing through.

The fjords of northern Norway are an important sanctuary for wild nature. The region is home to orcas, humpback whales and sperm whales, and if you dive deep enough, you’ll find the world’s largest cold-water coral reef.

I was suddenly struck by how elegant and poetic it all looked. What appeared from the surface to be a wild frenzy was actually a beautifully coordinated, artistic dance when viewed underwater, the way the contours twisted and turned as the orcas angled and flexed around the ball.

I noticed this one orca just as it was about to swipe down with its tail. The herring were forming around it, resembling a kind of corkscrew just under the fish. It was poetry in motion, beautiful and ballet-like — and that’s why I call this piece Orca Ballet.

It’s one of my favorite images, because it shows how athletic, supple and beautiful, and how capable the top predator of the sea is in its natural environment. It was unforgettable.

Orca Ballet.

And in a fitting grace note, these images proved to be essential in a campaign to ban big oil from these fjords. Capturing a beautiful moment feels great, but nothing feels as great as good as a conservation win.

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