Whale-safari Norway: hunting humpbacks in Tromso

Tromso in northern Norway is not a place you go to by accident: even with the best intentions it’s hard to get there.

Heavy fog had delayed the plane from Paris, and the next from Oslo. And let me just say, holidays are always made more relaxing by watching the minutes tick over during a four-hour layover as you helplessly wait to miss your non-refundable connection.

We had booked to sail a catamaran under the northern lights and eat breakfast among the whalesIf travelling really is about the journey, not the destination, then this was the exception to prove the rule.

Miraculously we made it, and shortly before 10pm stepped cautiously onto the twin-hulled boat in Tromso harbour, taking care to kick off our shoes before entering to bring a minimum of snow into the cosy kitchenette.

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And it was cosy: we were 8 in total, but we quickly bonded, especially the two of us there for our love of Orca YouTube porn, enticed by the chance to see an apex predator in the wild, (even if only hunting tiny fish, it was still better than hunting Sea World trainers).

We  would be spending the next 20 hours together, and I hoped we would get along because there was not much room for quiet-alone time. And speaking of room, and quietness – or lack thereof – ours was a lush double bed with the snuggest of doonas, located to the rear of the hull just above one of the engines.

It was well after 2am by the time we snuck out of the harbour; silent to everyone except those of us sleeping on top of an engine. 

The “Sail to Whale” boat trip promised a chance to recline on the trapeze and gaze up at the brilliant northern lights, sailing through the night before waking for breakfast among pods of humpbacks and orcas in a remote Norwegian archipelago.
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Our experience would more aptly be described as “Sail to whale in a gale”, the strong winds chopping up the open sections of water so that you were not so much gently rocked to sleep, as violently forced to submit.

(Yet the real risk of night sailing was not the waves or the wind, but the chance of hitting a fishing or cargo ship. Some unscrupulous captains turn off their transponders to mask their location if fishing in prohibited areas, which means they don’t show up on the radar.)

Even so in days leading up the approaching storm had threatened to cancel the trip altogether, so we were lucky to be going at all.

The whales used to congregate around Tromso itself, but in recent years, warmer waters have pushed the herring they feed on further north, necessitating the sea voyage of several hours to Skjervoy.

We weren’t the only ones to make the voyage. A small flotilla of fishing boats and a semi-inflatables was also there, though in our sleek, white catamaran, we were by far the classiest, and probably the warmest. 

Speeding for 6 hours on open water in the Arctic circle in an inflatable did not look enjoyable, especially for those who paid extra to snorkel with the whales, and presumably have to sit in their wet-suit all the way back. 

But when we saw that first pod of whales, about 15 humpbacks on the horizon, I knew that even severe wet-suit chafe would be worth it. Within minutes another pod surfaced, and another, probably more than 30 animals, coming closer and closer to our boats.

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By this stage the weather had calmed down, the water relatively flat, and the sun was as high as it was going to get, given that a few days thereafter it would fully disappear for 6 weeks.

Dressed in heaviest-duty rain gear and lifejackets, we gingerly ducked out from the protective plastic canopy at the back of the boat, and made our way to the trapeze at the bow.

Travel broadens the mind (etc etc), but experiences like this also narrow the vocabulary.

A pod was coming straight for us, and the grandeur of being just metres from such magnificent beasts left me dumbly repeating, “Oh My God, Oh My God”. The whales, who limited themselves to splashing, heavy breathing and some vocalising, were far more articulate.

And if it was hard to describe, it was virtually impossibly to capture on an iPhone: that didn’t stop me from trying, though again, the results speak for themselves…

That humpback drive-by was certainly the most majestic part of the day. Shortly after, the sun died down, the wind picked up, and we puttered around the fjords a while longer looking for orcas, in vain, before calling it a day.

The return trip was…probably not something you’d put in the promotional material, the boat lurching from crest to trough with increasing ferocity.

At one point an Englishman was violently ill in the kitchenette sink. I couldn’t linger too much on his misfortune, or ours – as this was where the chef was preparing a delicious, and now even heartier, soup – as I was crawling on all fours as fast as possible hoping to at least get my head outside in time for what we will euphemistically call ‘feeding the whales’.

Against all odds I kept my food down, and decided to thereafter also keep myself down too, tightly locked into bed by a severely tucked-in blanket, until we had crossed the open water.

At one point a motor overheated, necessitating the sails to be raised, and we made part of the crossing powered by the ample wind. It was testament to the crew’s skill and professionalism that, unlike the sail, they remained utterly unflappable.

There is plenty else to see and do around Tromso – dog-sledding, northern lights expeditions (either in a bus or in a Tesla), volcanic massages or icy harbour swimming.

But the rest of the weekend we were happy to spend on dry land, lounging in the spacious Airbnb loft, equipped with one fireplace and two flat-screen TVs, and enough stocks of tinned food to last the apocalypse…or at least those next 6 weeks of total darkness.

Getting there
We flew Norwegian Air from Paris to Oslo, then to Tromso, and toured with Pukka Travels

What to bring
The warmest clothes you own, slippers for inside the boat, warm boots (gumboots are excellent) that resist water and snow, and your bravest face in case of a storm.

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