Norway Expedition 2017
It’s been a while since my last contribution to this blog, but great to see that Jeremy and Gus have been keeping things ticking over nicely since my departure. A brief outline and pictures of my recent trip to Norway is what Jeremy asked for – a tricky task for such an epic expedition, but here goes…
My Dutch friends Melvin and Fiona, whom I met in Shetland during my 4 seasons up on Noss, invited me to join them as boatman on their second expedition to Arctic Norway filming Killer Whales and Humpbacks feeding on the Herring population that moves closer to shore during the winter months.
Craig the boatman, with Melvin behind, and Hilco to the left (Fiona behind the camera)
After last winter’s expedition they knew that the action would be further north this year, so with the help of Fiona’s parents they located fantastic accommodation on a small island called Rebbenesøya. On arrival it quickly became clear that we’d need to relocate even further north in order to get the footage that they were hoping for. So after several long boat journeys north, we found a new home in the Skjervoy area.
The relocation immediately paid off, and within half an hour we were in the midst of hundreds of Orcas and dozens of Humpbacks.
A bull Orca
A diving Humpback
Each day we set off in their small, but very well equipped rigid inflatable boat (RIB) in search of feeding whales and interesting behaviour. Every day on the water brought with it new challenges, both in terms of locating the whales in sometimes challenging sea conditions, and in terms of gaining the desired footage by getting Melvin in the water with his underwater camera equipment. Other recording media included regular cameras, a drone and 5 Go Pros positioned at various locations around the boat.
Melvin equipped and ready to submerge
Their aim was to accumulate good footage. They also invited a Dutch friend and documentary maker, Hilco Jansma to join them with a view to creating a documentary about the expedition. Their regular video blogs throughout the trip (primarily aimed at a Dutch audience, but with plenty of content to interest people of all nationalities) gave people an insight into the difficulties, methods and successes encountered throughout the trip. Follow the ‘Melvin Redeker Explore’ Facebook page (www.facebook.com/MelvinRedekerExplore/) to view the vlogs and to view some of the incredible underwater and drone footage that we’ve obtained over the season.
Melvin filmed several underwater encounters with Orcas herding schools of Herring to the surface, before using their tails to stun the fish then picking them off one by one. Where the Orcas hunted, the Humpbacks were never far behind, often feeding at the surface as they lunged upwards and swallowed vast numbers of Herring that were bunched together in an attempt to avoid predation by the Orcas. During one such encounter Melvin was taken by surprise as a 15 metre long Humpback appeared from the dark water below, lunging within 2 metres of him as the camera rolled.
The whales are drawn to the Herring in the same way the Norwegian fishing fleet is, and every year both man and whale plunder the billions of fish, wherever they happen to be each season. As the winter rolled on, the whales began to turn their attention more toward the larger fishing vessels, often gathering in large numbers as the purse seiners hauled in their nets, waiting for any opportunity to mop up the escapees. This strategy has proved fruitful for them, and has resulted in conflict between fishing vessels and Orcas. As highlighted in the final episode of Blue Planet 2 recently, the Norwegian fishery is now carefully monitored and managed with a view to ensuring that the fishing fleets and whale populations are able to co-exist and benefit from the plentiful supply of food.
Orcas surround a fishing vessel as it hauls in its nets
A Humpback lunges into view as Orcas pick off individual escapee Herring from the net
This feeding strategy resulted in many pods of Orcas remaining quite inactive during the daylight hours, as the fishing fleet waits for the Herring to rise to the surface during the hours of darkness. Whilst restricting opportunities to film interesting activity in the daylight hours, their hours of rest allowed us plenty of opportunities to attain identification photographs for our friends from the Norwegian Orca Survey (www.facebook.com/norwegianorcasurvey). The Norwegian ID Catalogue (https://www.norwegianorca-id.no) is an extensive database with over 900 individual Orcas identified using nicks on dorsal fins and scarring on saddle patches. The catalogue represents an excellent citizen science initiative that allows everybody the opportunity to contribute their sightings to the database, increasing knowledge of this population and enabling scientists develop a deeper understanding of where and on what, individual whales are choosing to feed.
One of the easier females to identify – NKW607 ‘Froya’ showing her distinctive saddle scar
NKW-686 – displaying distinctive scarring and an obvious dorsal fin nick
With the relatively recent arrival of Humpback Whales to the area, another citizen science project is also in place to contribute identification photos. Humpback tail flukes are like fingerprints, and individual animals can be identified using images of the underside. The North Norwegian Humpback Whale Catalogue (http://www.hvalid.no) is used to record individuals of this population, and by using these records, as well as satellite tags, it is now understood that this population migrates between the Caribbean and Norway, crossing the Atlantic each year and often frequenting British waters on route.
NNHWC-286 – one of several successful matches obtained from the North Norwegian Humpback Whale Catalogue
An unidentified tail fluke submitted to the catalogue
Fin Whales are also known to occur as Herring come close to shore in the winter months. The second largest animal on Earth is known to reach a length of 22 metres, and our brief encounters with a pair of these giants was enough to appreciate their sheer scale and elegance. Look back through Melvin’s vlogs and you will find awesome drone footage of them surfacing for air during one such encounter.
The long back of a Fin Whale
In addition to the cetaceans, other Norwegian highlights included the birdlife. White-tailed Eagles are common in this part of the world, and watching the so-called ‘flying barn doors’ swooping down to grab fish from the surface was a spectacular sight. Seabirds were also well represented, despite being the off-season for breeding birds. Amongst the more common Herring and Great Black-backed Gulls, Glaucous Gulls were often spotted, and 5 species of auk were often seen on the water in their winter plumage, with Little Auks the most frequent. Long-tailed Ducks and Eider Ducks were also regular around the coast, but unfortunately the King Eiders eluded me on this visit. Passerines are less common in winter, but Fieldfare remain common, as well as Snow Bunting, Great Tit, Hooded Crow, Magpie and Greenfinch.
White-tailed Eagle with a huge catch
Undoubtedly one of the biggest draws to Arctic Norway in winter is the spectacular Aurora Borealis, or Northern Lights. We were not disappointed during my 5 week stay, with frequent displays, and several truly spectacular moments of green and purple shimmering curtains. Photographs rarely capture the magnificence of this natural phenomenon, but Melvin’s time-lapse photography sets and videos demonstrate more clearly the movement that can be seen with the naked eye.
Aurora highlights – too many to choose from!
Safe to say that this experience has been unforgettable, and the welcome we have enjoyed from the locals on Rebbenesøya during our time there has been exceptional. If you are ever keen to visit yourselves, I can thoroughly recommend the Nordhavet Guest House (www.facebook.com/nordhavetguesthouse). Marit, Tone and May-Kristin were wonderful hosts and would be delighted to welcome more visitors to their island, whatever the time of year!
Norhavet Guest House, Rebbenesøya
What now for me?
As many of you will know, I’ve enjoyed 4 great seasons on Noss NNR in Shetland. Next season I’m moving to Handa (www.scottishwildlifetrust.org.uk/reserve/handa-island), another spectacular seabird island to the north of Ullapool, where I look forward to working for Scottish Wildlife Trust for the first time with my partner Francesca. Another beautiful corner of Scotalnd awaits, and I hope that a few of you will find the time to stop in on your travels in the New Year. Keep an ear to the ground for social media updates as Francesca and I settle in to our new role up there.
If you’d like to look back at the many photos and news I posted during my time in Norway, or if you’re interested in hearing all about our upcoming season on Handa, feel free to follow me on Facebook – www.facebook.com/craig.nisbet.31.