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Every winter, thousands of whales gather near Tromsø in the northern part of Norway. Tromsø is rich in herring, which is why the whales are drawn to this area. Especially killer whales, also known as orcas, can be found here in great numbers and they are very easy to spot on one of the many whale watching trips departing from Tromsø every day.
Whale watching in Norway has been on my bucket list for years and now it has finally happened. In November 2019, I spent two days together with the whales and it was just as stunning as I expected it to be. Getting close to wildlife and being surrounded by the Norwegian mountains was an overwhelming and beautiful experience that has stayed with me as one of the best travel experiences ever.
Whale watching in Tromsø
Tromsø is located further north than Iceland and Nuuk in Greenland. During summer, the sun never sets, and during winter, daylight is sparse. I have dreamt of experiencing winter in this area ever since I went on my cruise with Hurtigruten through the midnight sun period.
My whale watching trip starts early in the morning and I walk through the streets of Tromsø to reach the habour, where the Arctic Expedition boat awaits. Tromsø is the largest city in northern Norway, but seems more like a provincial town with snow-covered streets and wooden houses. It is 9 AM and still dark outside. In the middle of November, there is only 4 hours of daylight.
The boat is a catamaran with room for 145 people. But we are only 20 people on board that day, and the boat is luckily spacious, comfortable and warm. Included are also coffee and tea ad libitum. I am more than excited about the adventure that lies ahead!
The whale watching trip begins
Soon, we are on our way towards Skjervøy – an island located 150 kilometers east of Tromsø, which has been the whale’s most popular hang out spot for the past years. It takes a few hours to sail from Tromsø til Skjervøy, so there is plenty of time to slowly wake up and enjoy a cup of coffee, while the day breaks.
From the top of the boat I can watch Norway’s snow-covered mountains float by. The snowy mountains light up agains the grey sky, and the air is fresh and smells like ocean and frost.
Even on a grey day, the light is soft and magical unlike anything I have experienced before.
Orcas all around us
After the boat arrives at Skjervøy, we get dressed in survival suits and crawl on board the small RIB boat that lies next to the catamaran.
The little RIB boat takes off with great speed and before we know it there are orcas all around us. The glistening black dorsal fins that cuts through the surface and the charactistic white eyespots that appears every time the orcas come up for air. If we don’t see them we hear them – the hissing sound from their blowholes.
The orcas keep circulating around the boat the next 1,5 hour – in fact, not many minutes goes by without seeing them. What a joy!
Humpback whales as a bonus
We have left the RIB boat and are back on the catamaran heading towards Tromsø again. It is 2 PM and the sun is on its way down, so we do not expect seeing any more whales today. The days here in Tromsø are short!
All of a sudden, the speakers proclaim that humpback whales are in front of the boat.
We hurry up on top of the boat to get a glimpse of the humpback whales. We stare into the golden sunset and there they are. 4-5 humpback whales break surface with their huge grooved heads, while they loudly blow out air and water through their blowholes.
They circulate around the boat for several minutes and more than once, they swish their tales before diving into the deep again. A moment of silence follows. But the show is not over yet. 10 meters away from the boat, their giant heads once again break the surface and we are as close that we almost make eye contact with them. Our guide tells us that they probably are curious about who we are. A thought hits me – maybe we are whale watching, while they are human watching?
We are speechless. A random group of tourists from all over the world who do not know each other have just shared a magnificent wow-moment together. We look at each other and the fascination shines from our eyes.
Whale watching – day 2
It is probably not the most common thing to do, but I decided to book the same whale watching trip two days in a row. And I can highly recommend it! Both weather and animals are two unpredictable factors and I would not risk one of the trips being cancelled.
By departure, I already know that this trip will be completely different from the one yesterday. The reason is the incredibly beautiful light, which follows us throughout the whole trip. It is like a sunrise that stays all day unnoticeable turning into a sunset.
Contrary to yesterday, a lot of time goes by before we spot the first whales. A few orcas swim beside the boat for a couple of minutes, before they dive and disappear. Later on, we spot a few humpback whales, which however are not as playful as they were yesterday. But on our way back to the catamaran, we notice a whole family of orcas including males, females and young ones. They swim beside us in the beautiful afternoon light and then disappear as quickly as they emerged.
But it does not matter. Just to sit in the RIB boat in the beautiful landscape is an experience in itself. The snow-covered mountains floating by and the stunning light is enough to form a big smile on my face. It has been another unforgettable day.
Practical information about whale watching with Arctic Expedition
Arctic Expedition’s whale watching boat departs every day at 9 AM from the harbour in Tromsø just outside Kystens Hus. The trip takes 7 hours. The boat is a comfortable catamaran with room for 145 people and there is free coffee and tea and a small shop with snacks on board.
There are a lot of different tourist agencies, which offer whale watching trips in Tromsø. Compared to the others, Arctic Expedition provides the most comfortable trip.
If you find out that you did not bring warm enough clothes, it is possible to lend one-piece suits, gloves and hats. Before going on the RIB boat, you get dressed in survival suits to make sure that you stay warm and safe during the sail.
The boat sails from Tromsø to Skjervøy – an island which has been the whales favourite feasting place for the past few years. The trip to Skjervøy takes 2 hours. After arriving at the island, you can choose to stay on the catamaran and watch the whales from the deck or roof. You can also choose to get on board the RIB boat, which enables you to get closer to the whales. I would recomend the RIP boat trip to anyone who wants to photograph the orcas. You get much closer to the surface which makes better photos. The little boat can sail and maneuver much faster so you will most likely see more whales in the RIB boat.
The price is 1,395 NOK / 130 EUR per person. This price covers the catamaran trip and does not involve going on the RIB boat. If you want to go on the RIP boat, the price increases to 1,9900 NOK / 186 EUR per person.
There is no minimum age for going on the catamaran, but you have to be at least 14 years old to go on the RIB boat.
Book your whale watching trip
When is the best time to go on a whale watching trip?
The whales stay in the area around Skjervøy every year from late October till the end of January. When it comes to wild animals, it is not possible to rely 100% on a schedule but for the last few years, the whales have been following the described pattern. My recommendation is to go on your whale watching trip in November or January, since December has very little daylight. I used this schedule to get an overview of when the sun rises and sets in Tromsø. My trip was in late November.
Staying in Tromsø
Tromsø offers a lot of opportunities for overnight stays, even though most of the options are quite expensive. I prioritized staying in the middle of Tromsø to make it easy to reach the whale watching boat by foot. It is very easy to take the bus from the airport to the city center, so you do not need to rent a car.
I had booked 4 nights at Enter Backpack Hotel which cost me 270 EUR for all 4 nights. The bathroom was placed in the hallway and there was a shared kitchen. I had my own small refrigerator in the room. With a supermarket around the corner, it was easy and cheap to cook my own food. Norway is expensive when being a tourist, so it was nice to be able to save a bit of money in this way.
A couple of tips to photograph whales
It is definitely not an easy task to photograph whales! They only appear at the sea surface for a few seconds before they are gone, so you have to work quickly.
– Try to predict where the whale will appear next time and focus on that spot
– I used my 100-400 objective, but I think it is easier to catch the whales with a focal length of 100-200 mm. In this way, you encompass the stunning mountains in the background.
– There is not much light at this time of year. Use as high an aperture number as possible and a closing time of minimum 1/500 – otherwise your pictures might get blurry due to the movement of the boat and whales. Set the ISO according to the light. In this situation, it is nice to have a camera which works well with a high ISO.