Northern Lights and Killer Whales – trip diary 2014

Thursday, 6th February 2014

Destination Specialist

Iceland Orcas

Cathy Harlow, one of the expert guides of our Orcas and Aurora escorted holiday, gives us her updates on the 2014 season.

12 March - The perfect end to the day...

iceland aurora blog

Partly clear skies were announced for last night but only a ‘level 1’ aurora forecast. Just before midnight we went out beyond the Hotel Framnes to search for the northern lights. Over the next hour we went from a timid green glow hiding behind the clouds to sheets of rippling light bursting from the night sky above us. This was the perfect end to a day, whose prelude was a fjord full of beautiful orcas.

9 Mar – As spectacular as ever!

iceland orcas and Laki mid

Today was the group’s last chance to see the killer whales from the boat. The wind had dropped, the sea was settling into a gentle swell and conditions looked promising. We only needed the orcas to head out of the inner fjord under the bridge. As we steamed out of Grundarfjordur harbour, word came in from the research team that the whales were doing just that.

We encountered the first fins and blows at the entrance to the fjord and then gently followed alongside the group of twelve orcas as they turned into the open sea. The mountain backdrop was as spectacular as ever and those on board enjoyed great photo opportunities.

3 Mar – A calm sea at last

iceland orca blog

The DTW group headed out of the fjord on board Laki and just 30 minutes into the trip we found a small group of orcas making their way slowly towards Kolgrafafjordur. The light was beautiful and we photographed a majestic male orca silhouetted against Kirkjufell, Grundarfjordur’s signature mountain.

Then the orcas paused to circumnavigate a rocky islet – what had caught their attention there? Later those on Brimrun witnessed one of the group baring teeth to show off a fishy mouthful. Back on shore, the researchers commented that this group of orcas has been witnessed catching seals in Shetland last summer.

27 Feb – A night to remember

iceland aurora blog group

A night to remember for most colourful auroras I’ve ever experienced. Grundarfjordur was overcast but we took a chance on a break in the cloud as we headed to the south side of Snaefellsnes. It was a good move as beyond the watershed we saw the first streaks of light dance in and out of the clouds. We pulled off the road, huddling for shelter in the lee of the coach as the clouds parted to reveal a star-studded sky.

And then the show got going, as beautiful curtains rippled overhead and bursts of light showered down like fireworks in slow-motion. But it was only when we looked at our photos that we saw the true range of amazing colours: pink, deep-red, crimson and many hues of green.

18 Feb – Whalefest are getting spoiled!

iceland aurora water

After a day of gorgeous sunshine on the Golden Circle Tour, the Whalefest group travelled west to Grundarfjordur on Snaefellsnes. Edging along the peninsula, Snaefellsjokull volcano was silhouetted in the fading light of a pink sunset as the first stars appeared overhead.

Then, in the darkness of Kolgrafafjordur, we found the aurora bow arched across the sky. What luck to witness a wonderful display of northern lights before we’d even arrived at our destination.

After dinner we stood outside the Hotel Framnes and watched the aurora dance well into the night.

Next day, we sped out of the fjord in search of an orca pod that had been sighted earlier. They were heading for the next fjord, where 80,000 tons of herring are on the orca menu. We sailed alongside as the pod of ten porpoised in a choppy sea.

The sunlight and silvery mountains were a dreamy backdrop to the orcas’ graceful movements as they surfaced, arched and dived again. But all too soon they were off with a tail slap and a splash, steaming into the inner fjord.

10 Feb – Officially off duty, but…

iceland orca blog2

I am officially off duty during this group, which is one of Alexa’s, but I did go on the boat trip yesterday so here are a couple of photos and a snippet of info…

After a night punctuated with auroras that danced for hours, there were a few bleary eyes on the morning whale watch trip. Heading out of the fjord we passed a dozen or more white-beaked dolphins feeding, but we were keen to press on to the next fjord, where orcas had been spotted gorging on herring.

Typically, we’ve been seeing between ten and fifty whales at a time in this scenic, sheltered fjord. Cruising among the fins and blows, we observed orcas resting, feeding and travelling. In one group we noted a tiny calf, whose white patches were still pink, so this winter’s baby. A cheeky youngster spy-hopped right by the boat, clutching a herring in its teeth – all too quick for the cameras though.

8 Feb – We did it!

After three nights of aurora hunting frustrated by overcast skies, we were ready for a lucky break. Whilst Grundafjordur looked set for another cloudy night, on the south side of Snaefellsnes, a break in the cloud was forecast. Now all we needed was for the solar activity to step up. A solar flare two days before was due in but would it arrive in time?

We took a chance and headed through a snowstorm to the south side of the peninsula. Finding a gap in the clouds, we drew off the road. Within minutes, shafts of green light, edged in crimson, shot across the sky in waves and ripples. We did it! With tripods juddering in the gusty wind, photography was challenging, but hand-holding our cameras, braced against the bus, we captured the magic of the moment.

Next day we ended the tour with a soak in the Blue Lagoon and discovered that yes, the sun does shine in Iceland in winter.

4 Feb – 'Our' orcas are full of surprises

The winds that lashed us overnight had passed by the time we boarded Brimrun. Soon we were sailing for Kolgrafafjordur, where snow-dusted peaks frame a fjord teeming with thousands of tons of plump herring.

We never know which orcas we might encounter in this gourmet fish eatery but today’s ‘clients’ included a trio of young killer whales, who were in the mood for fun. As they entertained us with playful spyhops, rolls and tail-slaps, we replied with a volley of shutter-clicks. While the juveniles cavorted on the surface, the adults in the group were hunting herring, and gulls and gannets dropped from the sky to grab the scraps. What a feast for the eyes.

Later, the research team told us that three of this group had previously been spotted in the Shetland Islands. ‘Our’ orcas are full of surprises!

(The group were also treated to the northern lights over Kirkufjell on the night of Saturday 1st Feb into Sunday morning – this photo of some of the group is from Cathy’s fellow guide Alexa Kershaw)

Pam Forrest, who was on the trip, had this to say about the display: “Aurora hunting is all about being ready so when the knock on the door came just before midnight, I threw on my salapettes over my pyjamas and rushed out the back of the hotel for the start of an aurora display that pretty much lasted over two hours. It really varied in intensity, sometimes disappearing, sometimes dancing, but with the prospect of more to come.

“As the aurora started to build again, we walked away from the hotel to get a view of Kirkufjell with the lights behind – still in PJs! So, basically I ended up lying on a rock at about 2am with the wind whipping around me taking long exposure shots of the NL all the time chuckling cos I was still in my pyjamas! Quite simply the best way to watch the aurora as you’re ready for bed when it’s all over…”

29 Jan – Orcas in every direction

iceland orca group

29th Jan was clear and crisp with a flat-calm sea. We sped out of Grundarfjordur aboard Brimrun, knowing that orcas had already been sighted in the neighbouring fjord. En-route, hundreds of gannets torpedoed, piercing the sea either side of the boat, their splashes reminiscent of orca blows.

Suddenly, Alexa shouted out ‘orcas!’ and there they were, a row of fins lined up on the far shore of the fjord. But these orcas were in no mood for hanging about and were on their way out of the fjord. Soon we had a second group in our sights and before long they had us surrounded – orcas in every direction. A youngster breached and the lucky whale watchers with cameras at the ready captured a magic moment.

23 Jan – What a treat

iceland orca group blog

We encountered our first group of orcas just 10 minutes out of port and cruised with them alongside as they steamed out of Grundarfjordur towards the open sea. Then, inside neighbouring Kolgrafafjordur, we spotted tell-tale blows on the horizon and within minutes we were in the company of two further groups of whales.

A row of dorsal fins broke the surface of a mirror-calm sea. For a while it seemed like they didn’t want us around so we hung back, then suddenly a playful youngster breached, and spy-hopped just 20 yards from the boat. What a treat. All around, flocks of gannets patrolled the skies, diving torpedo-like in pursuit of herring.

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