20 Days on Whale Watching Vessels: An Incredible Adventure

by Lana Tannir
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Whale

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.

Male Orca in Skjervoy
Arctic Fjords in Kvaloya

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. This 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. During the summer, they mate in the tropics and give birth to their young cover. Before winter sets in, they 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. It 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. Prior to that, it had been absent for 3 years during Fridtjof Nansen’s expedition to the North Pole.

Mountain with Crescent Moon

Why whales, what attracted you to them?

Whales are such fascinating creatures. This is not only because of their grand size, but also because they are highly intelligent. Whales 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. These 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. 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. This is a result of 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. They 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. This allowed me to 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. This technique 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, they stun them and serve 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. Whales use bubble-net feeding to confuse and trap the fish above the Humpbacks. The whales then rise to the surface, with mouths wide open and catch their meal in one big gulp. The latter is both a fascinating and thrilling sight!

Humpback Whale Tail
Male Orca in the North Sea

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. Topics covered entailed 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. In particular, they observed their reactions when the boat would approach them.

Typically, our day would consist of sailing out in the early morning towards the fjords in Skjervøy. This is 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 we would spot whales, the captain would either turn off the engine or go into electric mode in order to approach the whales carefully. We would then observe the pod of Orcas or Humpbacks from the deck for a reasonable amount of time. Afterwards, we would move on to a new sighting. Throughout the entire tour, the guides on board would present interesting facts about whales. They explained the behaviors of the Orcas and Humpbacks that we saw 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 were jumping out of the water with their mouths wide open while bubble feeding. And Sea Eagles flew above our boat in the glowing, crimson sunset sky. It’s a moment in time I will never forget!

What challenges did you face in the field?

Photographing on a boat in wet conditions, sub-zero temperatures, strong winds, and with heavy photography gear is physically demanding. It takes quite a toll on the equipment. These challenges are magnified, since all of the actions that occur take place on a moving and unsteady deck. As Orcas and Humpbacks only dive up for air for a brisk moment, there is only a split second to capture them. As a photographer, I had to do a lot of guess-work, prediction and foresight to capture these moments impactfully and powerfully. To top that off, the days in Norway become significantly shorter in November as the Polar Night sets in. This leaves only a few hours a day to photograph nature and wildlife. Therefore, it is all-the-more inspiring and fulfilling when an exceptional whale encounter comes to life in a photograph.

Did you learn anything new from the other crew members?

The most significant lesson I took away from the crew members is the importance of ethical whale watching. Whales are gentle creatures. Approaching them incorrectly can lead to their feeding cycles being disrupted. Moreover, it can impact their ability to rest and rear their young. Therefore, the whale watching vessel should make every effort to minimize disrupting their normal behaviors or activities.

As a general rule, boats should never chase whales or approach them head-on. Rather they should be approached in parallel to their direction of travel. The group must be approached slowly, quietly and cautiously to reduce additional stress. Viewing time should be limited to 30 minutes or less per pod. Most importantly, the vessel should abandon the whales immediately if they show signs of agitation or alarm. Some good indicators of disturbance are: diving underwater for long periods of time, splitting up of a pod, or changes in traveling direction and speed to move away from the area.

Whale

What should tourists look out for when selecting a whale watching company?

To date, there are no government whale watching regulations in Norway. Therefore, it is extremely important to choose an ethical and sustainable company when going whale watching. Primarily, this ensures that the whales in Norway are kept safe. Secondly, it also reduces the impact on the environment. Additionally, it also sends a signal to companies that they have to raise their standards of whale watching in this region.

Generally, tourists should look out for the way that whales are being approached and raise their concerns if they see any disturbing behaviors. And if possible, selecting a sustainable option over others is always a good choice.

Several whale watching companies are innovating the industry nowadays, providing more eco-friendly alternatives for tourists. For example, one of the ships my project took me on was a hybrid. This boat uses an electric engine when approaching whales to minimize disturbance and reduce their toll on the environment.

What can we do to help protect our oceans and the marine wildlife in it?

The most alarming problem nowadays is plastic pollution and overfishing. Whales often mistake plastic for food. As a result, they die of starvation as a due to eating only garbage from the ocean. Moreover, it is estimated that approximately 300,000 cetaceans (whales, dolphins and porpoises) die each year by entanglement in fishing gear.

Therefore, the most effective way to help whales and our oceans is to make small changes in our own behavior. Three simple ways to make a difference are: avoiding single-use plastics (e.g. bringing your own water bottle, carrying shopping bags and containers to the supermarket, buying unpackaged food), recycling our trash, and reducing fish consumption.

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