Andøya – the Norwegian whale kingdom
"Over there! A fin! 50 meters to the right!" Just off Andøya, the sea suddenly plunges to a depth of 1,000 metres.
This is precisely why the beautiful island has been nicknamed 'the whale kingdom'. Visitors from all over the world come here to experience these mighty creatures.
There are few places in the world where you can get as close to whales as on this island in the far north of Vesterålen. You don't even have to go very far from shore before you can spot a fin or a tail rising above the surface. Just a few hundred metres out into the magnificent Andfjord there is a shout.
– Over there! A fin! 50 meters to the right!
One of the 24 visitors on board has spotted something in the waves and points south. Sure enough, the boats are surrounded by two large flocks of pilot whales within seconds. Hardly anywhere else in the world do pilot whales get as close to land as right here.
A whispered chorus of "wow" is heard all around us.
The whales are now so close you can almost touch them. Although some of them have calves at this time, they are not at all affected by the two RIB boats that are bobbing up and down in the sea. Pilot whales can weigh up to 4 tonnes and are protected in Norwegian waters. They surf in the choppy waves and swim right up to boats.
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– They are doing human watching, the guide explains, laughing.
Not much is known about pilot whales. Safari operators such as Whale2sea play an important role in research. The company cooperates with research institutions, including the Arctic University of Norway in Tromsø, and several of its staff members are marine biologists and marine biology students.
– We have a major geographical advantage that brings us close to the whales all year round. Andøya is completely unique and located closer to the great ocean depths than anywhere else in Norway," explains nature photographer and general manager of Whale2sea, Marten Bril.
Its proximity to the deep sea makes Andøya one of the surest places to observe whales in the world.
– Not far from land, there is a steep and narrow underwater canyon on the seabed, which affects the ocean currents along the coast. The currents push nutrient-rich water from the depths up towards the surface, Bril explains.
Sperm whales up to 45 tons big
Whale2sea's safari boats can be seen out at sea every day during the season, weather permitting. The sperm whale is probably the most common species off Andøya and can be seen in both summer and winter. It's the largest toothed whale in the world. Males can grow to around 18 meters long and weigh up to 45 tons. Only male sperm whales come to these waters, while female whales stay further south.
But sperm whales are far from being the only species observed off Andøya. Killer whales, humpback whales, and fin whales follow large schools of herring and other fish to our waters.
Whale research has always been strongly linked to the whale watching industry in Andøya. The island's location has allowed international whale researchers to get closer to male sperm whales than anywhere else in the world and to shed light on some of the most important unanswered questions related to the whales' biology.
Unique tail fins
Whale researchers use photo-ID techniques to study sperm whales. The individual marks on and shape of each individual's tail fin allow researchers to identify the whales and tell them apart – just like a fingerprint.
– Some of the sperm whales have been observed every single year, and these 'regulars' have been given names. For example, a male whale that was first observed in 1994 still returns every single year. We have named him Glenn.
The safari guides have a variety of different strategies to locate whales out at sea. Having a first mate, listening equipment, and even a lookout in the lighthouse at Andenes, all combine to virtually guaranteeing that whales will be spotted.
Midnight sun and northern lights
Safety is taken very seriously by Whale2sea. All safari passengers are equipped with warm survival suits and flotation equipment and the crews are experienced captains and guides. The boats are specially designed for big waves and are very comfortable. However, if you are sensitive to heavy seas, you may still get seasick, especially if you are observing the whales through binoculars or a camera lens.
Whale watching is offered under both the midnight sun and the northern lights, which makes the experiences extra spectacular. You can also combine whale watching with safaris that also include sea eagles and puffins.
Snorkelling with whales
Whale2sea also offers trips where you can actually snorkel with whales.
"You can join us from November to January to see whales or snorkel with killer whales and humpback whales in the area around Skjervøy. Seeing these fascinating whales up close and underwater is a magical experience that you will never forget. We offer dry suits and snorkelling equipment, but you are also welcome to bring your own," says Bril.
Bril emphasizes that due to changing weather conditions at sea, it can sometimes only be possible to embark on an ordinary whale watching safari and not to go snorkelling. The minimum age for snorkelling is 14. Before joining a snorkelling trip, one must sign a medical wavier showing that one is physically fit and comfortable in the water.
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