Splitting the catch by Audun Rikardsen

Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Snorkelling with orcas

Photographer Audun Rikardsen describes his 18-month mission to create this shot of orcas feeding in Norwegian fjords.

Among the cold seas, rivers and mountains of Norway, pods of orcas are on a mission.

They fill fjords during the winter, tracking down and feeding on rich supplies of herring that gather there from the Atlantic Ocean.

For more than 18 months, wildlife photographer and biologist Audun Rikardsen was on a parallel mission of his own: to capture images of the orca's feeding habits.

It took him months of planning and snorkelling to take this picture, Splitting the catch, which earned him a place in the Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition.

Using self-made split-level underwater protection for his camera, he captured the moment a determined whale came up against hungry humans. 

Racing for dinner

Audun took the photograph in the fjords outside Tromsø in northern Norway, an area also popular with fishermen thanks to the large hauls of herring on offer.

The whales are undeterred by the presence of fishing boats, and an uneasy relationship has formed between the two.

Audun explains, 'The whales have started following fishing vessels, feeding on herring that slip out from the net.

'It's not a totally a new phenomenon, because this has been reported in a few other cases elsewhere. Sometimes we've seen humpback whales doing it too.

Audun in the field

Audun grew up in the fishing community in Norway, and says he is fascinated by the underwater world

 

'In one way, it is a win-win situation for both, because the fishermen can look to the whales to find the herring, and the orcas get their leftovers.

'But it can also create a dangerous situation, mostly for the whales but also the fishermen as the orcas might destroy the fishing gear.'

A world below the waves

Audun is also a professor of fish biology at the University of Tromsø. So when he noticed what was going on, he was determined to document it.

Audun says, 'I'm fascinated by the underwater world and the point where the ocean meets the world above. The surface of the water is just a millimeter wide, but it separates two different realms.

'The world the whales live in is mysterious and unknown - and also very difficult to capture using an ordinary camera.'

To get the shot he wanted during the polar winter (with little light available), Audun knew he would have to design his own equipment. The camera protection he developed had a dark filter in front of the lens on its top half, to balance the light levels both above and below the water.

Audun says, 'It is difficult to take split pictures, especially in low-light conditions. It is the light that is the main challenge.

'When the sun is just below the horizon, it makes differences in light intensity even larger than usual. You can easily end up with an overexposed top half of the picture and an underexposed lower half.

Audun's portfolio award

Audun won the Wildlife Photographer of the Year Portfolio Award in 2015, with a series of six underwater images © Audun Rickardsen

 

'In some circumstances, water can also act as a lens, making things underwater seem 25% bigger in the picture. That's why the whale in this photo looks extra large.'

The magic moment

It took Audun a year and a half to go from the idea of photographing whales and fishing boats to an image he was happy with. In that time, he did plenty of test runs and got to know the whales well.

He says, 'I am an experienced snorkeler, and I grew up in the fishing and whaling community.

'The orcas usually ignore you when you are in the water, but sometimes they can get curious and come to check you out.

'In that situation, you have to read their body language. For example, when a mother has a newborn calf she often doesn't like company, so you always back off. But most of the time they are very playful.

'I actually don't see myself as an underwater photographer in particular - I take plenty of images on land too. But being in the water with the whales is one of my favorite things because you can be so close to them and you see into a different world.'

A habitat for the future

Audun says he is unsure what the future holds for orcas and fishermen on the Norwegian coast.

Orcas face a range of threats in the world's oceans, including chemical contamination and noise disturbance from ships, hampering their ability to find food.

He says, 'Most fishermen are quite enthusiastic about the whales, and happy to interact with them, and often spend time looking for them.

'However, the whales can become trapped in nets or accidentally destroy the fishing gear. Of course, some fishermen can also become quite frustrated. In those cases the fishermen may approach the government, calling for action.

'It's a difficult situation because in my opinion both the whales and the fishermen are there in their own right. The fishermen need to make a living and the whales need to eat.

'This is an issue the government may need to address, and it needs scientific study to find methods that reduce the risk for both parties.'

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