Liveaboards in the Arctic offer the opportunity to experience the unique scenery, iceberg-filled waters and cold water diving in destinations such as Spitsbergen, Greenland, and Norway. If diving in ice-cold water isn’t enough of an adventure on its own, wildlife enthusiasts can venture to Norway to experience the thrill of arctic freediving with orca in the middle of the polar winter.
Orcas are one of the most easily-recognized cetaceans, are found in all of the world’s oceans, and are the largest member of the dolphin family. This top predator of the oceans grows up to 8 meters (26 feet) long and can weigh an impressive 6 to 9 tonnes. They are toothed whales, with teeth up to 4 inches long, and they work in pods to hunt their prey. Once thought to be one species, there are in fact several subspecies of orcas with distinct populations, diet, and behaviors.
The orcas of Patagonia’s Peninsula Valdés are known for ‘intentional stranding’; chasing seal pups onto the beaches to catch them before slipping back into the water. By contrast, the orcas of South Africa hunt dolphins and occasional great white sharks.
In the northern hemisphere, orcas are found throughout the year, including off the coast of northern Norway. They peak in numbers during October to January when Norwegian spring-spawning herring over-winter in the coastal waters. Orcas gather to feed on the herring and use specialized feeding techniques to herd the herring into tight bait balls at the surface before immobilizing them with underwater tail slaps.
Divers who want to get in the water with orcas should head to and join an orca freediving safari. The M/S Sula liveaboard is the main operator of orca safaris and operates out of Tromsø, Norway. A former fishing vessel turned liveaboard expedition ship, the Sula caters for just 12 guests at any one time and offers freediving with up to 60 orcas a day, plus the opportunity to watch the northern lights at night. There are daily orca lectures for guests and the on-deck hot tub is a popular choice for divers after a day on the water.
Whilst the safaris are focussed on orcas, there is also the possibility of seeing and freediving with a number of other whale species; including humpback, sei, minke, fin and pilot whales. There are also local scuba diving opportunities available for experienced dry suit and cold water divers.
No prior diving experience is needed to spend time in the water with the orcas. Those wishing to get in the water need to be strong swimmers and comfortable with cold diving conditions though. Dry suits and diving gear are provided, though divers wishing to freedive to any depth might prefer to bring their own suitable wetsuits for ease of diving.