I took part in a whale Watching Safari on Lofoten Islands, mid-February. We saw many whales, some were close, others further away, but it was when I spotted a “baby” sperm whale approaching, curiously looking at us on board, that I felt an extremely strong emotion.
Whale safari from Andenes
We started off from Andenes, at the very northern end of Lofoten Islands. We left from the Whale Safari Centre (Hvalsafari), located in a strategic position. Between end of November and beginning of December herrings swim into Andfjorden, east Andenes, and whales chase after them. Big sperm whales are concentrated right in a specific area north-east of this place.
A very nice guy called Daniele Zanoni, originally from Emilia-Romagna (a region in the centre of Italy) but who’s been living in Norway for many years took us on the safari. Daniele knows a lot about the subject and he also speaks English and Norwegian; not only is he one of the qualified tour guides in the Whale Safari Centre, but he is also responsible for Sales&Distribution.
Before we set off, Daniele showed us around the Centre, which has been carrying out researches and studies for 25 years.
Here they study whales through fluke ID photographs, which differs from type to type. Up to now they created the biggest sperm whale ID photograph time catalogue in the world, every year they identify 55 different types. Furthermore, the Centre relies on NGO Marefa, a non-profit organisation that aims at increasing and spreading knowledge of sea life (in particular of cetaceans) in the society, especially in the Norwegian one. In the Centre we also saw a multimedia museum that explains the seaworld food chain, the whales’ biology, their ecosystem and research developments. Everything I know about whales, I learned it here. There is also a restaurant/pub and a souvenir shop where honestly I wanted to buy every single item!
The Whale Safari Centre organises excursions at sea all year round: in the summer from May to September and in the winter from October to April
Sperm whales and humpback whales
Sperm whale live in a kind of very dark canyon, they are very elusive and in order to understand where they are and where to find preys they give off ultrasounds by emitting carbon dioxide. Here in Norway the sperm whale lives on halibut, monkfish and Norwegian scorpionfish. It’s called sperm whale because of the semi-liquid, waxy substance found within the whale’s head. This species presents sexual dimorphism, that is to say a difference in appearance according to its gender: males can reach 60 years of life and get to 18/20 metres, whereas females are smaller.
Sperm whales that reach Norway were born in the area between the Canary Islands and Madeira, breastfed with a kind of milk that contains 50% to 70% fat and they drink freshwater, which they obtain from digesting fats that decompose from water molecules. Killer whales prey on sperm whales, they bewilder them and draw them away from their mum so they can attack them and kill them. A baby sperm whale grows up to around 200 kg every day and when it reaches 26/28 years of age it swims back to the Azores and Canary Islands. Here it fights against other males and only if it wins, can it enter the female are and reproduce.
Humpback whales don’t have teeth, they have baleen plates with a multitude of bristles that help them catch their prey.
In order to catch small fish they use the so-called “bubble net feeding”: they swim in circle blowing air bubbles underneath and around the school of fish. In this way they force the fish to swim upwards – and there they are, waiting for them with their mouth wide open! Other whales with baleen plates, that is to say baleen whales, filter water and spit it out from two blowholes, creating a gush that can reach up to 12 metres.
Unlike them, sperm whales have only one blowhole on the left, so the gush can be recognised, as it’s 45° forward. They keep underwater even for 2 hours, then when they come to surface, they pop out of the water with 25% of their body, so it’s easy to take a picture. Killer whales are much quicker.
What kind of whales can you spot at the Lofoten Islands?
Here is a list of whales you can see there:
- Sperm whale: all year round. Those you can see are only males.
- Pilot whale: all year round, but especially in the summer.
- Dolphin (lagenorhynchus acutus species) and porpoise: all year round.
- Fin whale: all year round.
- Northern minke whale: in the summer only.
- Humpback whale: especially in the winter.
- Killer whale: especially in the winter.
There are no blue whales around Lofoten Islands, if you want to see them you should head north. Narwhals can be seen close to Greenland.
How Whale Safari works and how was the one I took part in
The journey at sea lasts between 2 and 4 hours. It’s better to book it in advance and take into consideration than in case of strong wind the excursion can be put off to the following days. I think it’s better to plan this excursion at the beginning of your travel, so you can actually do it another day in case plans change. You leave from Andenes on a boat driven by professionals and you are accompanied by expert guides, mainly students and researchers from different parts of the world. Once on board, thermal suits are put at your disposal and you can wear them over your clothes. If it’s winter, then do it, you won’t regret it!
As you head towards the open sea you can start spotting. The guides, with their binoculars and zooms, look for whales and communicate to passengers what way they need to look. At the beginning we only spotted some gushes far away, but then things slowly changed. Sperm whales and humpback whales showed up closer and closer and started to swim not far from us. That’s when the show began! Many Sperm Whales approached the boat and one in particular surfaced right in front of us, then dived in again and waved at us with its fluke.
The best bit came when two Sperm Whales approached us very close, swam next to our boat for a few minutes, showing us their bodies (huge!) and turning out to be very docile and curious. I was incredibly moved, also because they appeared as clearly vulnerable and naïve animals, if you can say that. If they spontaneously approached that much our boat, then unfortunately they might do the same with fishermen’s boats. Yeah, because in Norway they eat whale meat: it goes without saying that after this experience I wonder how that can be even possible.
It was very exciting to see those black and shiny backs, moving quietly next to us.
I definitely didn’t have the suitable reflex camera lens on me, but it would be great if you could perceive how close these whales where by looking at these pics, and how touching it was to see them there, silent, accompanying us at sea. Our excursion went very well: we totally spotted 6 Sperm Whales and 4 Humpback Whales, as well as a couple of puffins, those funny birds you usually see in the summer. There were 3°C and not such strong wind (10m/s). The boat slightly swayed (gently) and two people who were seasick had to stay in the centre of the boat to feel better, but I wasn’t, so I stayed the whole time at the bow. Being so exposed to the wind for many hours, though, I did start feeling cold. Luckily, at the end of the excursion they served a hot vegetable soup that helped me forget about the cold. My impartial advice about winter safari, anyway, is – do wear the warmest clothes and shoes you have, don’t be afraid of exaggerating!
How much does the Whale Safari cost?
The excursion that includes whales spotting with the Safari Whale Center of Andenes costs 890 NOK per person (adults), which is around 98€ (82£/104$). Discounts are granted to families, students and children. Whale spotting guaranteed or money refunded (you will be given the whole amount back or in alternative a free ticket you can use another time). As someone who experienced this, I can say it’s worth every penny and it’s unforgettable, a repeat is unlikely.