This article was published in National Geographic Serbia on the 25th of February 2020.
Photographer Lana Tannir has made several appearances in our magazine with her beautiful work from Finland and Iceland. A few years after sharing her impressions from Mongolia with us, the young photographer now returns with a story from the beautiful Arctic.
Even though she is only 29 years old, Lana Tannir has already achieved a great deal in her career. Behind her is a successful Bachelor in film directing and TV production, and she has been involved in photography and videography projects for many years. In addition, she has recently become an ambassador for the international non-profit organization World Animal Protection in England.
“The main purpose of my work is to tell stories of nature conservation, advocate for animal welfare and wildlife protection, and motivate individuals and industries to be more sustainable. Thereby, I hope to drive global change by raising awareness, promoting education and inspiring people to act. I collaborate with sustainable outdoor companies, eco-friendly tourism boards and NGOs, as well as regularly exhibiting my work in Munich and the UK,” Lana explains.
What drew you to Northern Norway?
Each winter, one of the most incredible events in the natural world unfolds in the Arctic fjords – the return of Orcas and Humpbacks in the Norwegian Sea. During the winter season, the Norwegian Sea harbors a large supply of plankton and krill, which attracts fish (mainly herring). Humpbacks and Orcas migrate according to their food sources and follow the movements of these herring. This is why whales are abundant in these areas during winter. In fact, Humpbacks embark on the long journey from the Caribbean – where they mate and give birth to their young – and cover thousands of kilometers to reach the cold Arctic waters.
Where did you sail?
My trip took me to the Arctic fjords of Tromsø and Skjervøy in Northern Norway. Tromsø is the largest city in Northern Norway and is located approximately 350 kilometers north of the Arctic Circle. In the early 1900s, it was the starting point for expeditions to the North Pole. This is also where its nickname, “Gateway to the Arctic” comes from. Skjervøy is an island in the northern part of Troms County. Its main source of livelihood stems from the fishing communities in the area. In 1869, Skjervøy was also the first port that the famous polar vessel “Fram” stopped at, after having been absent for 3 years during Fridtjof Nansen’s expedition to the North Pole.
Why whales, what attracted you to them?
Whales are such fascinating creatures – not only because of their grand size, but also because they are highly intelligent and have evolved complex social mechanisms over the past 50 million years. I think that whales can teach us many great lessons on how to keep our society cohesive and take better care of our planet.
For one, whales have highly developed emotional capacities and complex social structures and hierarchies. Orcas usually live in pods, centered around older females, such as grandmothers or great-grandmothers, which pass on knowledge to the young. The offspring remain in close association with their mothers for life. Moreover, a bond between a Humpback whale mother and calf is extremely strong – a calf puts on tremendous demands on a whale mother’s body, as she must nurse it with approximately 350 liters of milk a day, while she has not eaten for months. This is an incredible demonstration of love, tenacity and dedication.
Whales are also some of our main climate heroes. They play a crucial role in the health of our oceans and contribute towards the reduction of CO2 in our atmosphere. Today, studies show that whales and dolphins are facing increasing threats from climate change due to rising sea water temperatures and sea levels, declining food sources, the acidification of the oceans, and over-fishing. If whales did not exist, our CO2 levels would rise by 40% and the oxygen production in our atmosphere would decrease by 50%. Therefore, whales are a strong reminder that once one piece of our ecosystem is not doing well, the remainder of our environmental structure collapses too.
What did you learn about whales during your trip?
During my time in Northern Norway, I had the opportunity to speak to many marine biologists, guides and boat captains, who provided me with such a vast amount of knowledge about whales. One aspect that I was truly impressed by are the exceptionally clever hunting techniques of Orcas and Humpbacks. I was very fortunate to observe these firsthand and learn how these cetaceans work together as a group to hunt down their prey in the process.
Orcas engage in a hunting technique called carousel feeding, which requires good communication and close cooperation between the entire pod. During carousel feeding, a pod of Orcas blows bubbles, calls out loudly, and flashes their white bellies at the herring to confuse them. This forces the herring to swim closer together towards the surface of the water. The Orcas then slap the fish with their tails, thereby stunning them and serving up a meal.
Similarly, Humpbacks work in teams when using a technique called bubble-net feeding. This involves a group of Humpbacks blowing bubbles, creating loud sounds and swimming in a circular pattern to confuse and trap the fish above them. The whales then rise to the surface, with mouths wide open and catch their meal in one big gulp – a fascinating and thrilling sight!
What does a typical day on a whale watching boat look like?
It is important to note that my experience does not reflect one of a typical whale-watching boat tour. Many whale watching safaris go out on a RIB boat for several hours to observe whales up close. The focus of these tours is on whale observation and the experience itself, rather than education and conservation. In contrast, the tours I was involved in focused on educating the guests on board about whale behaviors, their social structure, characteristics, and what we can do to support marine mammal conservation efforts. At times, there were also scientists on board monitoring specific pods, and observing their reactions upon being approached by the boat.
Typically, our day would consist of sailing out in the early morning towards the fjords in Skjervøy, where most of the whale sightings occurred. Throughout the 8-hour trip, the captain and crew would look out for whales from the deck and the captain’s cabin. When whales were spotted, the captain would either turn off the engine or go into electric mode in order to approach the whales carefully. A pod of Orcas or Humpbacks would then be observed from the deck for a reasonable amount of time, before moving on to a new sighting. Throughout the entire tour, the guides on board would present interesting facts about whales and explain the behaviors of the Orcas and Humpbacks that were seen on site.
What is the one moment you would especially like to take from this trip?
One particular moment stands out – when I witnessed an extraordinary feeding session with Orcas and Humpbacks close to Skjervøy. Most mornings on the boat, it was usual to witness a pod of Orcas or Humpbacks within the first few hours of the tour. However, this particular morning, the Orcas and Humpbacks were nowhere in sight. We had already begun to lose hope, when we spotted a small pod of Orcas actively swimming. As we continued sailing in their direction, the boat came up to an immense Orca and Humpback feeding session. There was a pod of approximately twenty Orcas and about 4 humpbacks on site. We had curious Orcas swimming up to the boat and spy-hopping, Humpbacks jumping out of the water with their mouths wide open while bubble feeding, and Sea Eagles flying in the glowing, crimson sunset sky – it’s a moment in time I will never forget!