Swimming With Orcas In Norway: An Unforgettable Trip

January 3, 2024
Orcas breaching the waters in Norway during sunset with mountains in the background

Swimming with orcas in the wild is something that Pierce has wanted to do for a long time. I was always a bit apprehensive given they are such large creatures and was concerned about not only the cost of such an expedition, but the ethics involved as well. We took a lot of time to research human/orca interactions in the wild and vetted numerous companies that offer this experience and I quickly became interested!

After saving up and doing plenty of research, we decided on a company and place to go diving! We went on an unbelievably life-changing expedition and finally got to swim with orcas in Norway!

We want to share everything with you, detailing our three days living on a boat and answer questions you may have regarding what to expect, what you need to bring, safety concerns, and how to have interactions that are positive for the orcas themselves!

Enjoy our pictures and videos (keep an eye out for links!) from the trip but note that a lot of the media was captured on a GoPro, which doesn’t have good low light capabilities!

Our Experience Swimming With Orcas In Norway

As your plane is approaching the Tromsø airport, you’re greeted with a vast view of the fjords and mountains that define this iconic area in northern Norway. Within these fjords, specifically in the waters around the islands that make up the Skjervøy archipelago, are billions of herring that have migrated here to overwinter.

A view of the fjords of northern Norway from a plance

They arrive in these waters in October and November and will stay until early February. The mass migration of herring is what attracts orcas and other whales like humpbacks to this area, and why this is one of the best places to swim with orcas.

Getting To The Boat

Before this trip, we did a lot of research to help us decide where to swim with orcas and what company provided the best experience for both their customs and the whales. We chose to book our expedition with Orca Norway. Throughout this article, I think you’ll get a good sense as to why we decided on this company.

Two people in dry suits, hoods, and snorkeling masks to go swim with orcas
Here we are on the dinghy all suited up and ready to get in the water!

We bought a three night expedition that launched on October 31. To get to Skjervøy, we booked plane tickets from Oslo to Tromsø. In Tromsø, Orca Norway picked us up in a large coach bus that drove us and the other passengers three and a half hours north to the city of Skjervøy. Once there, we were greeted by the wonderful employees (they truly help make this experience outstanding) and onto the boat we went!

Our home for the next three nights was aboard the Mårøy. This vessel has seven 2-person cabins and three single cabins. There are two toilets and four showers, and the kitchen is manned by the professional chef onboard. The dining and living area is an open room with windows on both sides.

The dining area and main room of the boat
The main area and Dining room
The view of the boat from the bow with snow capped mountains behind
View of the Mårøy from the bow
A hallway with the orca norway logo, leading to the deck outside
Hallway leading out to the deck on the bow

First Night & Orientation

Something we really appreciated about Orca Norway was their attention to safety. After eating a great dinner (all of the meals were so well made and flavorful!), we had a safety briefing from the captain, dinghy driver (the person who drives the small boat that takes you close to the orcas), and safety divers.

A view of the boat with it's name, Maroy, across the top

While it still felt a bit chaotic the first time we jumped into the water, (I mean, we were jumping in frigid water with HUGE mammals for the first time in our lives) this briefing really helped us wrap our heads around the process and prepare for what to expect. Orca Norway has done this for over three decades and their experience is evident in their attention to detail.

Afterwards, we tried on the rental gear. They provide everything you need, however you can bring your own gear if you prefer. We brought our own snorkels and masks but used their dry suits, hoods, and fins. If you have never tried on a dry suit, you’re in for some fun.

Two snorkeling fins over the arctic waters with the moon rising over the mountains in the background

Since it’s a one-piece suit made of thick material, putting on a dry suit is a feat of balance, contorting, and patience. It’s also tricky squeezing your hands and head through the tight latex wrist and neck holes as well as stuffing your head into the snug hood. Luckily, there is a lot of help!

An Average Day On The Boat

Every morning the crew started the engines and set off into the fjords, leaving the port at 7am. Breakfast was at 8am in the dining room. A full spread is served along with coffee, tea, and juices. From that point on, it was time to keep an eye out for orcas and whales!

A boat captains quarters with a map of the northern Norwegian fjords.
A view of the captains quarters and the bridge

The crew kept their eye out for action from the bridge. During this time, we were either outside on the deck scanning the water or inside talking to the crew. It was a great time to take in the scenery and learn about life above the Arctic Circle, the company, and the orcas themselves.

Once they were spotted, the crew would observe their behavior. Was the pod moving fast and in one direction? If so, we wouldn’t get prepared to swim with them as there was no way we could keep up once in the water. Did they look like they were sleeping? Again, we wouldn’t get into the water because we don’t want to disturb them.

A small red dinghy being pulled behind the large boat with a beautiful purple and blue sunset in the background
This is the dinghy used to take the guests closer to the orcas. This is the boat you jump into the water from!

But if they appeared to be swimming, and staying within a contained area or if we lucked upon a feeding, it was time to get ready. This is where the fun would really begin! Once given the signal, we had twenty minutes to change into our dry suits and gear, get our cameras organized, and be ready to go on deck.

The crew did a final check to make sure everyone was suited up correctly and would help us get onto the dinghy. This is the small boat used to approach the orcas and the boat from which we jumped into the water.

Lunch and dinner were served around noon and six respectively. This of course completely depended on when we saw whales and if we were out on the water. But because it is tiring to swim in dry suits and the act of staying warm taxes the body, they wanted to make sure we were well fed and made sure we never missed a meal.

Day One

Our first full day on the boat was on November 1st and started with breakfast at 8am, right as the sun was rising. In early November, the sun doesn’t set until 2:30pm so this gave us about six hours of daylight in which to search for and (hopefully) swim with orcas.

A view of the bow from the bridge of the boat with people searching for orcas
A view of the bow from the bridge of the boat. Searching for Whales!

At 9:30am we spotted our first pod of orcas. They were clearly in cruise mode so we just enjoyed watching them from the big boat. It was thrilling to watch them glide through the water in their natural habitat with the stunning snow capped mountains in the background. Here are some pictures that will hopefully fill you with the same awe that we felt!

Two orcas with visible spray from blowholes
Two orcas swimming near the city of Skjervoy, Norway

One of my favorite things to witness was the baby orcas popping out of the water to get a breath just a split second after their moms. It was a blip of cuteness that always brought a smile to my face!

One adult orca whale seen from a large boat
Adult orca diving underwater followed by it's baby breaching above the waves

We got the call around 11am. It was time to get ready to swim with orcas because a pod was spotted and they were in the perfect position for a possible encounter. After we all clumsily got into our dry suits and squeezed on our neoprene hoods, we were ushered into the dinghy.

There were no herring spotted which meant that this wasn’t a feeding. The crew said it was likely that the orcas had just fed and were digesting and celebrating. This was perfect for us because they were staying in a relatively small area which gave us a higher chance of seeing them underwater!

It was clear that Orca Norway respects the animals (more on that later). Once in the dinghy, the driver approached the outer boundary around where the orcas were swimming. At a very slow speed, we crossed this boundary and allowed the orcas to get used to our presence. This also gave the crew time to assess their behavior.

Very quickly we started seeing orcas swimming closer to the boat! When we were told “Divers get ready”, we opened the side hatches of the dinghy so we could swing our legs over to the outside of the boat.

The driver turned the engine off and yelled “GO”. At this signal, we slid into the water. After about fifteen seconds I was able to swim away from the thrashing limbs of the other divers and found a quiet area.

When I looked down into the water I remember being absolutely astounded to see an orca swimming below me at a slow speed. She was full grown and began to turn to her left side, with her right eye looking at me. Following was a baby orca mimicking its mother’s behavior. Check out the video of these orcas in action!

Swimming with a mom and baby orca in norway
I believe this orca was within fifteen feet of me.

This was such a surreal encounter, a blend of reality (as I felt the cold arctic water on my face and my heart beating quickly) and a dream (as I couldn’t quite believe I was sharing a fifteen foot radius with not one orca, but two)! It was an amazing interaction with a curious and intelligent animal who chose to close the distance between us to investigate before calmly swimming away. In total, this encounter lasted around 12 seconds.

One orca viewed up close while swimming with killer whales underwater in the wild
A baby orca swimming past a snorkelers camera in norway

A few minutes later the same female orca actually circled back to investigate us a second time. This was very special to experience because it reinforced a sentiment shared with us the night before by orca behaviorist Pierre Robert de Latour. When addressing the question as to whether it is ethical to swim with orcas, Pierre shared the following points of view:

  • There are thousands of examples in nature, both in and outside of the marine world, where animals of different species have been seen interacting together in an undisturbed, positive, or even playful way. Is the interaction between humans and orcas in the wild not similar, especially if the approach respects the animal?
  • Orcas are intelligent and curious mammals. They analyze and respond to their environment. Just like the experience I had on this first dive, Pierre told us that orcas frequently circle back (a second, third, fourth time) to further examine and interact with the humans who are diving in the water on such encounters. 
  • If we were disturbing them, would they choose to extend the interaction? They have a massive speed and maneuverability advantage over us in the water so they easily have the option to disengage at any point. Sometimes an orca may choose to swim away, other times they may wish to investigate further.

After being told to swim back to the dinghy by the safety diver, we all climbed back in to get ready for another dive. While waiting for that perfect moment, we still got to see numerous orcas from above, so there was never a dull moment.

The second jump into the water proved just as exciting as the first. Immediately upon entering the water I saw ten to fifteen orcas begin to dive as a group, right from the surface of the water until they disappeared into the depths. Check out the full video to see how many orcas were in the water with us!

Numerous orcas diving beneath a snorkeler

This dive lasted only a couple of minutes and as I floated on the surface of the water, the waves began to take their toll on my equilibrium. I’ve never been seasick before, but I definitely felt it here. I think it was a combination of things; the swells were quite large (I am no expert but maybe 4 to 5 feet) and because I was looking into the water, I had no stable point of reference from which to ground myself.

Pro Tip: Seasickness is definitely something to consider before booking an expedition to swim with orcas. Whether you get seasick easily or have never experienced it before…come prepared (which we did not). Luckily another guest had extra scopolamine patches and zofran, which made the rest of the trip nausea-free.

After a warm shower, a nice nap, and dinner, Pierre gave a presentation on orca behavior talking about their social habits and migratory patterns. We also had time to walk around Skjervøy and saw the northern lights! Read all about the northern lights in Norway here.

Day Two

After the thrill of the first day, day two was less adventurous as we didn’t get any good chances to get into the water. However, we did see a handful of orcas and humpbacks on the move and later in the day, saw a feeding from the boat. Feedings are a great opportunity to get into the water and see whales up close, but it was getting too close to sunset to be safe (in early November, the sun sets around 2:30pm!).

A pink and purple sunset over snowy mountains with arctic waters in the foreground

Since coffee, tea, and snacks were always available, we spent the day looking over the footage from the day prior and lounging. When whales were spotted we went to the deck or the bridge to observe. We did catch a pod of humpbacks cruising along.

The feeding was spectacular to see. It was easily spotted from a distance away thanks to the hundreds, or maybe even thousands, of birds flying above the water. We arrived right as the humpbacks were coming to the scene.

Orcas find the herring and push them into a sphere, called a bait ball, and raise it to the surface. The orcas feed by eating one herring at a time. Usually within fifteen to twenty minutes, the humpbacks arrive and eat the remaining fish in a few large sweeps of their mouth. Here are some (blurry) photos of the feeding at sunset:

A picture of a whale feeding with orca fins visible and birds flying everywhere
A humpback coming out of the water after feeding

Day Three

On day two we saw a feeding from above water but on day three we were IN THE ACTION. Time was limited because we had to pack up and catch the bus back to Tromsø at 3pm. We initially only saw humpbacks and since time was running out to get back in the water, the crew had us suit up and get in the dinghy to dive with humpbacks. Here’s a picture from the dive and a link to the video!

Snorkeling in the water with a humpback whale
It’s a bit difficult but if you look closely you can see the Humpback’s left pectoral fin with a bit of white just to the left of the fin which is the underneath of the mouth. It’s body extends back to the right of the fin, which is just slightly darker than the water.

For a while after jumping with the humpbacks we didn’t get any good chances to jump in the water again. Here are some excellent pictures from the dinghy of the orcas above water!

Seven orca fins and bodies as seen from above water in a dinghy

We saw a pod of humpbacks on the move. Since we were in the dinghy, we were eye level with them so we got to appreciate their sleek dives back into the water and the graceful dip of their tail. Check out the video here!

Boating along side a moving pod of humpbacks with visible tails

As the sun began to set towards the western horizon, we got a report from some fisherman in the area that there was a feeding close by with lots of orcas. We sped away to approach the feeding site. Orcas were EVERYWHERE! It was incredible to see so many coming to the surface to catch a quick breath before diving back down.

Pierce and I immediately saw orcas right after we jumped into the water. They were swimming all around yet maneuvered gracefully around us clumsy humans. We saw numerous orcas slowly spinning underwater. This is the motion of the orca when they stun herring with a smack of their tail. After stunning the fish, it’s time to eat!

Underwater you could clearly hear them communicating with one another and mapping the area with echolocation. In the video below you will see multiple shots of the bait ball (look for a darker area with shimmering squiggles), a ton of up close shots of orcas swimming, and three humpbacks breaching a bit too close to us for comfort. Here’s a link to a video to experience the orcas in actions and hear these sounds for yourself.

Swimming with an orca in Norway. The orca is within fifteen feet of the diver.
We think that this orca was within ten feet of us!

We were just completely blown away by the whole experience. It was so humbling to be allowed to share the water and be face to face with animals who have such an advanced intelligence and social structure.

FAQ’s About Swimming With Orcas

Here are some of the questions that we had prior to our experience swimming with orcas in Norway. It’s important to be prepared when interacting with wildlife especially in a cold climate such as polar waters in northern Norway.

A snorkeler is swimming away from a humpback coming to the surface after a big bite of herring
Note to everyone: if you accidentally find yourself above the bait ball like we did, swim away to avoid getting hit by humpbacks feeding from beneath!

Can You Swim With Orcas

Norway is currently the only country where it is fully legal to swim with orcas. There are currently no rules and regulations within Norway that regulate or restrict human-whale interactions. In the absence of control from the government, the expedition companies have set the standards.

Norway is also one of the best places in the world to see orcas thanks to the herring present in the winter waters. Thousands of orcas come to this relatively small area every year to feast on these fish. You’ll also find humpbacks, minke whales, and fin whales (which are a relatively new occurrence).

One single orca in the water during sunset

In my research, I found that there are a few other places that mention swimming with orcas, however it doesn’t appear to be the focus of the expeditions. For example, a handful of companies in Baja Mexico and one in Alaska offer snorkeling tours. Their websites mention that you could see orcas if any are in the area. The difference seems to be that it isn’t their specific mission to find and provide guests with orca experiences.

Is It Safe To Swim With Orcas?

Both of us felt extremely safe. However, as with any wild animal encounter, especially with animals that are as big as orcas, there is always some amount of inherent risk due to the unpredictability of any animal. It’s important to remember that even though the name “killer whale” can make them seem scary, orcas in the wild have never killed a human. In fact, there has been only one confirmed case of an orca biting a human while surfing off the coast of California in the 1970s.

They are highly intelligent and social mammals that often show gentle curiosity towards humans. In other instances, they seem totally indifferent to our presence and go about their business as if you aren’t even there.

Is It Disruptive To The Whales?

From what we read and what we learned while onboard the Orca Norway expedition, it all depends on the approach. Boat size, group size, the physical approach of the boat towards the animals, and their initial behavior should all be taken into consideration.

An orca bobbing out of the water
If you look closely along the left side of the horizon you can see an orca bobbing its head straight out of the water.

Big and small boats alike should adjust their speed in the presence of orcas and other whales. Orca Norway uses only small dinghies with small engines to approach the orcas and do so at a slow speed. They also angle the dinghies at a slightly angled parallel line to the orcas which slowly closes the gap and gives the orcas time to decide if they’re fine with our presence or if they want some space.

Being respectful of the orcas’ behavior is also imperative. If they’re sleeping, let them rest. If they are swimming away, don’t pursue.

We really enjoyed listening to expert orca behaviorist Pierre Robert de Latour. He emphasized the importance of observation. He also discussed that there are numerous examples of tolerant or positive interspecies interaction and posed the following question: Is the interaction between humans and orcas in the wild not similar, especially if approached in a respectful way?

Because orcas are so intelligent and curious, they’re able to analyze and respond to their environment. Orcas regularly will approach humans or even double back for a second interaction. They clearly have the upper hand in the water, so can choose the length and intimacy of the interaction.

Pierce and I both think that it’s very important to let the orcas lead and for us to sit back and observe with respect. To maintain a positive relationship it’s vitally important to respect these animals and be acutely aware that we are entering their domain and must do so thoughtfully. We must hold each other accountable in continuing to limit the number of boats in a specific area and the number of humans in the water at one time. It’s vital that the people running these expeditions have an understanding of orca behavior so they can accurately gauge when it is appropriate to approach.

Continued research should be a top priority to further study the interaction between whales and humans.

What Is The Best Season To Swim With Orcas In Norway?

November through mid February are the best months to swim with orcas in Norway due to the migration pattern of herring located in the fjords around the Skjervøy archipelago.

How Close Do You Get?

The closest we got to an orca was probably within ten feet! Let’s be clear though, this isn’t something we tried to do.

We were told to jump when it was deemed safest for us and the orcas. We were also told not to immediately start swimming towards an orca. For one, there’s no way our weak little legs can move us anywhere close to their speed. Secondly, orcas probably don’t like this. Would you want someone randomly making a frantic B-line towards you? Heck no!

Swimming within ten feet of an orca in norway
Snorkeling underwater with a diving orca
Swimming close to a killer whale diving underwater from the surface
The middle part of an orcas body as it dives underneath the water

When we jumped in the water, we swam just enough to get out from underneath the other guests trying to dive in. We were then told to float. Let the orcas come to us, get used to our presence. If we did want to swim, swim parallel to the orcas.

I felt absolutely thrilled to have had this up close encounter, however it was just me being in the perfect place at the perfect time during the feeding! I would say that most encounters were within twenty to forty feet, which is pretty amazing as well.

What Do You Wear When Swimming With Orcas?

Dry suits! The average water temperature in the northern Norwegian fjords in November is around 44°F/6°C, and gets colder as winter descends, though not much below 39°F/4°C. The air is much colder, with averages between the mid teens to low thirties. The dry suits protect you from getting wet and are highly insulated which is crucial, especially when you are boating around in the dinghy.

Underneath the dry suit, we wore two layers of wool thermal underwear on top and bottom in addition to thick wool socks.

Dry suits are a one piece suit that keeps the wearer safe in cold temperatures because of its thermal insulation and ability to keep you completely dry. The only parts of your body that are exposed in a dry suit are your hands and head. You will then put on gloves and a tight fitting hood that leaves only your face exposed. Lastly you will put on fins to help you swim and a mask and snorkel.

Were You Cold?

I would say for the majority of the time spent on the water, we both felt quite comfortable. The coldest part of my body was my hands because water does leak into the gloves. My face was also chilly because it was exposed but didn’t feel nearly as cold as my hands. The dry suit and long underwear did a really good job keeping my core comfortable…I say comfortable, but not super cozy warm, especially after multiple dives and exposure to the cold air.

At one point, after getting in and out of the water for over an hour, my hands became pretty painful. Luckily there were thermoses of hot water we could pour into our gloves which helped tremendously. It’s really important to keep tabs on your core body temperature. Being cold is to be expected, so is shivering. We were told that we should be worried if we stop shivering and the staff repeatedly checked in on everyone to make sure we were ok.

How Much Does It Cost?

For a three day expedition through Orca Norway we paid around $3,240 per person. This is a fairly average price for the area and it includes the following:

  • The expedition itself and full accommodation on one of the liveaboard boats
  • All meals, snacks, drinks
  • The whole snorkeling/diving experience, inducing the safety divers, dinghy drivers, and the boat itself
  • Gear; drysuit, snorkel, mask, hood, gloves, diving weights if requested
  • Wireless onboard

What Are Other Things To Consider?

While you don’t need any diving or snorkeling experience to book an expedition with Orca Norway, it’s important to know what you can handle physically. You will be in cold temperatures both in and out of the water so take this into consideration as well.

Dry suits are very buoyant so I did not need to work to keep myself afloat. You do however need to be able to swim in the bulky suits to be able to maneuver and swim back to the dinghy which can be taxing. You also need to be able to pull yourself either up and over the side of the dinghy or climb up the ladder to get back into the dinghy. This can be difficult especially if it’s wavy.

Will We Do It Again?

Absolutely! Orca Norway also offers 6 day expeditions, which is something we’d consider in the future!

Wrapping Up

This was an unforgettable experience that we hope to save for again in the future. Thank you to Orca Norway for providing such memorable encounters and of course, thank you to the whales for sharing your home with us.

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