In the Arctic Circle accompanied by Whales and the Aurora

November 2016

This was the third time I crossed the Arctic Circle. This time, we spent a week at a Norwegian city named Tromso. The mission of this trip was to look for whales that come to the winter feeding ground in northern Norway and the majestic “Green Lady” – the Northern Lights. Basically, two types of whales can be found in waters near Tromso from November to January. They are the Humpback Whales and the Orcas.

As the weather in winter are changeable and tours may get cancelled, we had reserved six days for whale watching. Apart from the first day which was gusty out there, we were able to go whale watching for five days. Every day we went out, the whales gave us different gifts. A highlight of our whale watching experience here was the adventurous ride on the RIB boat. It was a sunny day with relatively calm weather and a temperature of around 3-5˚C. A few Orcas were spotted off the pier at the beginning of the trip. After venturing further out to the fjord, a large family of Orcas started to show up, followed by 3-4 Humpback Whales. It was an intimate encounter as they just swam right next to the RIB!

Orca and the Super Moon

Humpback whales next to small boats


While I was searching through my camera hoping to see the humpback whales lunge feeding, two of them were so kind and lunge feed right in front of my camera! It was an awe-inspiring thing to see. They did that for quite a few times, lunging upward and forward. And indeed, this was the first time of the season for the whale watching company to encounter this. We were so blessed! While I had travelled to many places for whale watching, this place was special as we could see Humpback Whales and Orcas at the same time, under the golden light of the rising and setting sun, with snowy mountains in the background. We could also see baby Orcas (with yellowish eye patch) learning how to hunt herrings from their mother. Some of them even got curious and came over to check us out. It was a wonderful experience that will stay with me for life.

Humpback whales lunge feeding

Orcas here are fond of spyhopping

Baby Orca (yellowish eye patch)

We spent other days on the sailing boat, which was warmer and more comfortable. Whether it’s better on the sailing boat or the RIB depends very much on the weather. On calmer and warmer days, the RIB can get you closer to the whales faster. But on windy and choppy days, the bigger sailing boat is a much more comfortable experience. And whales did swim over to the sailing boat as well on most days. They must have got accustomed to the boat, as the captain had been very careful while whales were around. They stopped the boat further away and waited for the whales to come over.

Whales coming for a Feast
In summer, herrings congregate at the cold and nutritious Barents Sea to feed under 24 hours’ daylight. In winter, herrings migrate southward from the open ocean to the fjords in northern Norway for shelter and to avoid predators. As intelligent beings, Orcas follow the herrings all year round. They adopt cooperative hunting method by circling the herrings into a herring ball, splash their tail at them and feed on the fainting fish.

For Humpback Whales, they feed on the herrings at the Barents Sea in summer too. Yet, in autumn or early winter, the breeding females will migrate to the Caribbean to give birth to the young as the young ones can’t survive the cold. Leaving behind are the non-breeding whales. They follow the Orcas and the herrings to the fjords in winter. This is why two different cetacean species can be found in the same waters at the same time. Indeed, this is a new phenomenon that started to occur in the past five years. In the past, the herrings used to move further south. It is expected that the presence of whales, especially Humpback Whales, will depend very much on the migration pattern of herrings.

(Please click to view Orcas having a feast)

(Please click to view Orcas and Humpback Whales feeding together)

Be a whale-friendly tourist
Norway is another whaling country that I am visiting. So, before the trip, I had expected that I would again be seeing whale meat being served at restaurants or sold at supermarkets. Unlike Iceland, there is no such thing as “whale-friendly” label at the door of local restaurants. I’ve read an article which said that anti-whaling is not on the agenda of the Norwegian conservationists.

According to the local marine biologist, only Minke Whales are hunted in Norwegian waters and they consider the hunting sustainable. The hunting of other whales is banned. Poor Minke Whales! They are hunted in other places including Iceland and Japan, as whalers claim that they are numerous and the hunt is sustainable. Minke Whales are usually hunted in the open ocean off Norway. I can’t quite agree with the claim about sustainability as one cannot say so unless a comprehensive study has been carried out about the population. Even if such practice is so-called “sustainable”, I still can’t agree with eating whale meat, as whales are my beloved friends.

To be a whale-friendly tourist in Norway, restaurants to be avoided in general are those that serve traditional Norwegian cuisine which put whales, reindeer, seals, etc. on the menu. Apart from the demand from Japan and some local people, tourists contribute to the demand for whale meat in Norway. Some people would think that the whale is dead already, there is no harm trying even though they don’t feel right about the idea and regret about it. Some intentionally look for whale meat to try. While traditional Norwegian restaurants are good to avoid, do take note of what the words “whale meat” are in the Norwegian language – hvalbiff and double check the menu before going in. No demand, no hunting.

The Mysterious Green Lady

As we did not manage to see Northern Lights dancing last time in Iceland, this time, we planned to do some crazy Northern Lights chase. Clouds are the biggest “enemy” for Northern Lights chase. As Tromso is right beneath the Northern Lights Oval, the “Green Lady” can still be visible on low activity nights. Our trip coincided with the appearance of the Super Moon, so the Moon appeared like the sun in some of our photos. ;)

Scenic Fjords
We had also spared a day for fjord excursion. We were lucky to see some reindeers by the road side. Although they are domesticated animals, they are allowed to run around Kvaloya (Whale Island).


Village at one of the fjords

Mountains around the fjord 

A beach 

I think, the unsuccessful trip to Iceland in 2015 was well compensated this time. Mission accomplished! :)

Tours we joined:
Whale watching:
Tromso Friluftsenter (
Sailing boat of 22 passengers or RIB boats. They transport people from the city centre to the Whale Island (Kvaloya) where whales are nearby.

Northern Lights:
Tromso Friluftsenter (base camp with traditional Sami huts or chase for clear sky somewhere else) (
Creative Vacations (with photography workshop) (

Fjord Excursion:
Creative Vacations (

Other references:
The Tourist Information Centre – handle the bookings of most tour operators