Experiences in kayak
in Scandinavia

In kayak among Killer Whales
november 2005

Suddenly around ten killer whales appeared swimming close together full steam ahead straight at me. Their heavy bodies, weighing several tons, jumped up easily out of the water. As I sat in my kayak I felt like a Hobbit that has skated by mistake onto the ice during a hockey match. I did everything in my power to get out of their way.

Some ideas and challenges stick in your mind more than others. The thought of travelling by kayak in a Norwegian fjord and getting a close look at killer whales was one I just couldn't let go of. The herrings which were earlier found off Iceland have moved over to the coast of Norway. This has meant that the group of killer whales around Narvik has become one of the world's largest, and it comprises 1000 animals. They swim in the deeper fjords from October to January. This proved to be not such a simple plan to carry out.

 • the kayak hire shop in Narvik had closed down
 • it cost 7.000 kronor return to transport a kayak between Stockholm and Narvik .
 • the hours of daylight were from 10.00 to 15.00 only.
 • most people who heard of my plans shook their heads and thought it sounded like suicide.

I remember the feeling when I stepped out of a taxi outside a tatty backpacker hotel in Quito, the capital of Ecuador. My wife and I made this the first stop of our six month trip through South America. We were absolutely terrified by tales of the different and brutal ways to rob tourists. They cut pockets with razor blades taped to their hands. They snatched watches and jewellery from your person. If they couldn't get your gold ring off your finger they may just cut off the whole finger. I had one thought in my head - ouch, it's going to really hurt when they pull off my ear-ring. But, nothing happened. OK, a camera disappeared once but we never felt threatened.

I had the same feeling now. Help, it was going to be awful when the rough sea and the hurricane winds tipped the kayak over and the strong currents of the tide pulled me down into the icy cold water.

Well, of course you must have respect for the forces of nature but there are in fact people living up there so you would think a tourist could survive a week at least.

The solution to the problem of transport was a collapsible kayak. A bargain at 9.500 kronor. This was an ingenious pile of sticks that a German inventor fellow called Klepper had put together and whose design was unchanged since the 50th It was an incredibly simple way of transporting the packing and the kayak without being dependent on expensive transport costs or the opening times of some distributor. Simple - well. I'm not sure that is the word my teenage daughters would have used if they could have seen me staggering through the hall at Central station in Stockholm with the large cumbersome packing that I was pushing on the squeaky wheels I had managed to attach.

After one night on the train the world was transformed. We were in albino cowboy land and all of a sudden here they were. Unshaven fat men telling scooter stories in the restaurant car as twilight was falling outside. The place was Björkliden, the time 12:25.

As we descended towards Narvik the view was breathtakingly beautiful.

A man called Kettil who I met in Narvik talked excitedly about paddling a kayak among the killer whales and he assured me it was absolutely the best way to see them. It was an incredible feeling since you were so close to them. You may have spotted them at a distance of 500 metres and then suddenly in a flash they popped up right beside you, he said. They moved extremely fast and they roamed over huge areas so you could never quite predict their whereabouts.

The herring, he told me, swam into Tysfjorden so they could hide in the deep holes - which could be up to 700 metres deep. The killer whales that eat around 100 kg herring a day frightened them into swimming to the surface where they could then be eaten.

He told me that a wet suit was a good idea so that you could jump in and swim with them. When I asked about the dangers of paddling among them in a kayak he replied that the most dangerous things in Tysfjorden are probably the speedy rib-boats. It's particularly dangerous at weekends, when people are out on the water after they have been drinking heavily. I didn't know whether to be relieved or not.

I took the bus out to Skarberget at the mouth of Tysfjorden. I pieced together the kayak and set off. It was a good feeling to be transformed into an easily manoeuvrable means of transport that succeeded in getting to places that others failed to reach.

I paddled out to Boskapsön where some sea-eagles were circling round and after only half an hour I spotted the first killer whales. A flock of around ten of them were swimming in to Tysfjorden. They were moving fast. They made some contact with the surface and I saw their pointed back fins and the tops of their backs sticking up and then they disappeared again for some minutes, only to reappear in new places, which was not often where I expected to see them. You needed a measure of luck to get close to them in a kayak unless you could calculate where they were going and get there before they did.

 As usual when you decide to do something it was something unexpected which was the biggest surprise. Skarberget's sheer drop of a cliff that went straight down into the water was very impressive.

This was made even better by the sea-eagles with their heavy wing beats that threw themselves off the cliff to look for a better look-out spot.

The water was very clear and the thick seaweed growth made it easier to drag the kayak up onto land.

I saw them again at twilight. I was a bit closer that time.

Was looking for killer whales a good idea? Where there are killer whales there are fish. Where there are fish there are fishing boats and a group of rib-boats with killer whale spotters aboard. I'm not sure what I expected but it was beginning to feel a bit crowded there. Something that was just as attractive was a trip to the mountains. I went off on a side track into Stefjorden to check them out

One or two beautiful jelly-fish appeared.

Stetinden with its 1391 metre drop right down into the water. There is usually a fair wind round tall buildings. Around mountains like these the winds are to say the least temperamental. The fall winds, as they are called, spring up without warning and just as suddenly change direction.

A bus driver later told me that this cliff had been voted Norway's most beautiful mountain

Water poured down from the cliff in many places.

Morning.

The rain was beating against the tent canvas. It was pitch black outside but in order to take advantage of the daylight hours I had set my alarm. With a bit of luck it would be possible to paddle between the hours of 08.00 and 16.00. When I turned south in order to round Huløya there was a gusty headwind. Leaden clouds tinted the snow-clad mountain peaks. In between there was a shiny strip of light. Here and there I saw small cottages. Most of them were closed up for the winter. At the south point the rain stopped, the sun appeared and the wind changed to a tail wind. I couldn't stop gazing at this enormous mountain. Further into the fjords there was more snow on the tops.

An old man who was standing fishing for a red fish which he called Uer told me that the killer whales usually came in here at Christmas but he said they were probably at the ferry right then.

The Norwegians who shared my sleeping car on the train back to Stockholm told me that Uer was their favourite fish. Apparently it should be salted and left for 24 hours in the fridge. Then you boil it and eat it with boiled potatoes - with no sauce.

Out in the middle of Tysfjorden I caught sight of a gang of killer whales coming from the direction of Haukøy fjord and heading west. I tried to intercept them. After a while some more of them showed up. Close to land north of Drag I saw a large flock of seagulls. Then everything happened at top speed. It became a herring party. Killer whales appeared from several different directions. They worked together at herding the herring to one spot. Then they swam in and beat the water hard with their tail fins, which probably stunned the herring. Next they swam backwards and forwards and enjoyed the feast. The killer whales made a lot of noise when they exhaled and pillars of steam shot up into the air. I jumped when I heard the noise behind me or when they popped up near the kayak. There was a smell of fish mingled with metal and the water glittered with fish scales.

There must have been at least a thousand gulls and the odd sea-eagle which could fly around without being pursued by the gulls. They were all focussed on the herring. Over at Lill-Huløya there was another herring party. There must have been altogether 50-100 killer whales on the go. I went closer so as to get better pictures. Suddenly about ten killer whales swimming close together were coming right at me. Their bodies, weighing several tons jumped easily out of the water. As I sat in my kayak I felt like a Hobbit that has skated by mistake onto the ice during a hockey match. I did my best to get out of their way. My efforts were probably quite unnecessary. One of the most widespread mammals in the world with the precision to eat herring one by one would probably never crash with a kayak by mistake and beside it seemed as though they deliberately kept their distance. It's probably much more dangerous to cycle in a capital city.

They herded together another round of herring, beat with their tails fins and ate. The pattern was repeated. The bountiful supply of fodder made them eager and excited. The gang at Lill-Huløya came over at top speed since there seemed to be more herring here. They could obviously communicate with one another at a distance of just over two Swedish miles using an advanced language on a frequency from 0.5-100 kHz which we humans experience as whistling and clicking noises.

When the herring party had been going for a while some of the killer whales stuck their heads out of the water as if to say - good catch - others lay almost completely still with their fins on one side digesting their meal. Some jumped for joy right up in the air and landed on their sides. It was fascinating, and beautiful to see how they radiated harmony. And the best thing of all was that there wasn't a soul in sight. Well, in fact the ferry drifted past. The old boy was right.

 

It was dusk and before it got completely dark I pitched camp on the nearest island. Since I'm a wannabee-adventurer I got out a bag that said "Real expedition food". The jaunty slogan "welcome to our restaurant" didn't however fool my stomach. The colourful porridge with a flavour that reminded me of shrimps was just awful. I decided to go for herring the next day.

I just managed to get into the kayak again when the first steam fountains rose up. Yet another group joined the party. They swam slowly and when they dived they stayed down for a long time before they popped up again. Today they were hunting in quite a different way.

I continued north and in the middle of Tysfjorden a large flock of gulls revealed that some killer whales had found a huge shoal of herring. The alert was sounded and the killer whales I had just left came jumping along at full speed. Another herring feast began. Several gulls and eagles joined in.

Very satisfied with all my experiences I settled down to one last overnight stay.

A woman at the bus stop told me that the area around Tysfjorden was without a doubt the most beautiful part of Norway. She also spoke lyrically of Svalbard and told me you could get cheap last minute tickets from Tromsø. Why not? A summer trip from Narvik to Tromsø and then on to Svalbard would be something. More adventures lay around the corner.......

Bye for now

Matte

Brief notes on killer whales

The killer whales are the largest of the dolphin species. There are two different kinds of killer whale. There are those that roam over a large area and live off marine mammals e.g. seals, and those that are more stationary and have specialised in eating a certain type of fish. The Norwegian whales live off herring. During autumn and winter they stay in the inner part of Vestfjorden, Ofotsfjorden and Tysfjorden. Otherwise they are out at sea. They stay with the same flock all their lives and they have a sophisticated social life. They navigate mainly by a kind of echo sounder which creates clear sound pictures.

They can store oxygen in their muscles and the lungs are probably pressed together by the sophisticated deep dives - anything up to 300 metres deep.

They weigh 3-4 tons, are 6-7 metres long, can swim at 50 km/hr and live for 30-40 years.

There is no known case of killer whales attacking humans.

Brief notes on Tysfjorden

Inside Tysfjorden you notice there are no tidal currents. On the other hand the difference in depth is two metres. It is relatively sheltered from the wind and if a wind should spring up it's quite easy to find a place to go ashore. The most dangerous manoeuvre is probably when you try to balance the kayak on the extremely slippery rocks in order to get above the high water mark. Experience in handling a paddle and good judgement as with other types of winter paddling is quite sufficient. I think one can completely ignore all those helpful tips from know-alls concerning emergency flares and wet suits.

When I was there in the middle of November it was unusually warm. You should normally expect a temperature of couple of degrees below zero.

I've found a place where you can hire kayaks at Tysfjorden, typical. Go to www.orca-tysfjord.no  There are also food shops, a hotel and a place that organises killer whale safaris from boats.

Klepper notes

Klepper Aerius 1, which is considered a bit peculiar in Sweden but something of a cult boat in Germany, is as stable as a flat iron. Unfortunately it's as stable upside down but with lots of practise it's possible to do an Eskimo roll.
The wooden frame and cover are examples of very high quality workmanship. It moves well in the water although a higher prow would have been preferable. Unfortunately the back support and the steering are just a joke. I had to re-construct the lot to get it to function.