To the Arctic

The Saga Pearl II left Dover to the tune of beautiful evening sunshine, calm seas and even a couple of Harbour Porpoise. Its ultimate destination was Svalbard in the Arctic and there were four additional passengers who were highly excited about the prospect of the trip ahead. Since 2007 the marine charity ORCA has been working in association with the cruise company Saga in order to place survey teams onboard trips making their way around the European Atlantic, from the Mediterranean to the high Arctic and Iceland. In this way the charity’s collection of sightings data from various ferry routes from the UK has been complemented in areas where ferries do not regularly venture. In addition the trips are a perfect chance to raise awareness about the charity and the plight of whales and dolphins.

For four days the weather is against us, with windy conditions hampering sightings across the North Sea and when continuing up the Norwegian coast. Then in the morning light from a night where the sun never set, and with the team on deck early for the approach to the Lofoten Islands, that magic shout went up ‘Blow!’ Ahead of the ship a Fin Whale surfaced, its breath catching in a million sparkling droplets before it disappears beneath the waves. A short while later and another whale is sighted on the horizon, its blow hanging in the cold air. But to be totally honest it is the feathered wildlife that steals the show on the approach to the beautiful harbour of Leknes. While we are relieved to have our first large cetacean sightings, we are completely delighted by the reams of Puffins that stream past our bow.

Fin whale surfaces in the morning light near the Lofoten Islands

While the Lofotens are located within the Arctic Circle, the climate here is mild what with the influence of the Gulf Stream. The beaches are almost white, the waters of the harbour a clear blue green and teaming with jellyfish. Around us tall mountain peaks, some still capped with snow, rise and from their tops the majestic White-tailed Eagle soars.

 On leaving this little piece of paradise the ship sails in the lea of the Lofoten Islands the ocean is like a mill pond, calm and serene. More Puffins stream by, Arctic and Long-tailed Skua’s chase and harass the Kittiwakes stealing their hard earned food. Balls of fish boil at the surface, disturbing the rippling calm with a silver flash as a Minke Whale surfaces in their midst. Turning the corner of the islands, the ship continues her journey north aiming dead straight for her ultimate destination, Svalbard. With the turn comes the wind, for so long sheltered by the tall mountains the Saga Pearl is now buffeted. She rolls up and down on a moderate swell, white horses dancing in the steely blue waves around her. As with the previous day there will be no sunset tonight but there would come a point where the team would need to go to bed…. It was almost time; the wind was cold in the eyes and the body ached from being continually buffeted. Then amongst the waves, and spray something catches my eye. I look again scanning the deep troughs and peaks with binoculars and something big and dark surfaces in my view. ‘I’ve got Orca!’ the words rip from my dry lips! The sighting is brief but lifts our spirits like only Orca can, and it is with a smile on our faces we retire to bed in anticipation of the next day.

Puffins streaming by

Once again the sun never sets and is still hovering low in the sky the next morning which dawns with much calmer seas and brings a fantastic day of whale watching with nearly 50 encounters. It starts with another four sightings of Orca brushing the horizon, followed by Minke Whales and White-beaked Dolphins. Then mid-morning we cross what seems an invisible line but beneath the gently rolling waves the sea floor had dropped, sloping away to the even darker depths. The way we knew? The whales got bigger! Now we were seeing the tall spouts of Fin Whales, the distinctive sinking surfacing pattern of Sei Whale and the majestic flukes of Sperm Whales the largest of the toothed whales and the inspiration behind Moby Dick. Ahead a magnificent Humpback Whale breaches clear of the water, its body slamming back into the waves with a massive splash; it then lifts its long brilliantly white pectoral fins up and slaps them repeatedly into the ocean. The day draws to an end, still light but none the less sleep beckons, although not before a beautiful Fin Whale surfaces less than 500 m from the ship and just behind it something smaller, a White-beaked Dolphin, an association between two cousins that share the same ancestry but that have taken very different evolutionary path ways. One now huge, with two blow holes and baleen to filter food from gulps of water. One smaller, stockier, one blow hole and teeth for grabbing slippery prey.

Fin Whale and White-beaked Dolphin surface in unison

And so the team retires from deck knowing the next step of the adventure is just a sleep away – The magical island of Spitsbergen.

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