Humpbacks and Orcas: Surprise Whale Sightings in Norway

By Renuka Rayasam

Amateur photographer Espen Bergersen's career took a serendipitous turn when he spotted an unusual winter appearance of whales near his hometown in northern Norway. His spectacular images, marked by eerie polar light, were made possible by the changing migratory patterns of fish.

Photo Gallery: Winter Whale Watching in Norway Photos
Espen Bergersen/ NaturGalleriet.no

Two years ago, Espen Bergersen was visiting his parents in the northern Norwegian island of Andøya, where he grew up, for the holidays. About a week before Christmas he was walking along the shore, taking photos of the landscape. When the hobby nature photographer saw something splashing in the water, he thought perhaps there were waves crashing on the cliffs. But then he remembered there were no cliffs in the area, and realized that the splashing was coming from whales.

The sight caught Bergersen completely by surprise. While sperm whale watching has long been a summer activity in the deep waters far off the Norwegian coast, they aren't usually seen in the winter. Bergersen says that humpbacks and killer whales like the ones he saw had never been spotted near his hometown before -- and certainly not so close to land that residents could catch a glimpse without even getting on a boat.

Bergersen spent the rest of his holiday taking pictures of the whales every day, spreading news of the whale sightings and even landing an article in the local paper. By Christmas the word was out.

"I especially remember December 25, 2010, when lots of people were gathered at one place, and the killer whales seemed to put on a show for us, almost like a circus!" says Bergersen.

The unusual and serendipitous whale sightings near his hometown elevated his passion for photography to a new level. Since then, Bergersen has sold the photos to magazines, newspapers and books. The BBC also printed his stunning images.

Though the whale photos have brought Bergersen some recognition, he has no plans turn photography into a career. "Then I would lose photography as a hobby," he says. Instead, he started a blog to show off his work. "I thought it was nice to show people what was happening in their 'backyard', and I still do," he says. He uses the money he earns from selling his work to pay for photo equipment and travel.

Self-Taught Photographer

The next year Bergersen kept his eyes open for the whales, and he wasn't disappointed, though in 2011 they came a bit later. This year, fewer winter whales have been spotted in Andøya so far. The humpback and killer whales have moved to the Kvaløya fjords, a 25 minute drive from Tromsø, the biggest town in northern Norway and another unusual spot for whale watching.

Bergersen says that while there has been no official count, he estimates several hundred humpback whales and several pods of killer whales are around this year, and says that they are easily observable from land. "It really gives you goose bumps when you see hundreds of herring scared to death, jumping out of water followed by a hungry humpback -- only 10 meters from land!" he says. "It's intense."

Bergersen became interested in photography at the age of 11, when his father brought home an SLR camera from a trip to Germany. He started by taking pictures of birds and teaching himself the art from books and the Internet, only attending one photography class. Over the years he says he's become more of a perfectionist.

Bergersen's 'day job' as a drilling fluids engineer on an oil rig off the coast of southern Norway is both at odds and complementary to his work. He spends two weeks at a time on the rig, making sure that the fluid that replaces the rocks drilled out has a certain consistency so that the oil well remains stable. If it doesn't, the well could collapse, unleashing a catastrophe for the nature he so loves to capture.

At the same time, his career leaves plenty of time for his hobby. After a two-week block of work, he has four weeks off. "But," he says, "a job is a job."

Winter Light

Humpback whales arrive in Norwegian waters in the summer, says Nils Øien, an expert in marine mammals at the Institute of Marine Research in Bergen, Norway. During the summer they migrate north, and in late fall they migrate out of the Barents Sea south towards warmer waters, taking different routes. Lately, says Øien, the herring that the whales feed on have changed their migration patterns, which is what he thinks might have caused the unusual sightings.

"The guess is that the humpbacks take a break for fueling before they continue on the trip to the Caribbean where calves are born and mating occurs," says Øien. "Because the herring are very close to land, there are opportunities for people to see these whales."

Still, capturing these spectacular winter whale sightings has tested Bergersen's photography skills. From November to January the area only gets polar light, which means no sun.

"Light is important for photography, so photographing at this time of the year can be a challenge," he says. "But even if we don't see the sun, the winter light can be extremely beautiful."

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1. High decibel levels of sonar energy driving whales to quieter shores
leonaks 12/21/2012
Apparantly high sonar decibel levels are driving whales to quieter shores. Is that the case also for the herring and other migratory fish ? Perhaps one day fish will be harvested by driving them with the aid of sound waves into waiting fishermen's nets. In the mean time enjoy the fine photographic opportunities while the mystery is being solved.
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