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Ambassadors Programme

Explorer

Franco Banfi

Jan28

A huge black and white dolphin

By Franco Banfi, Thursday January 28, 2016
A killer whale (Orcinus orca) in Andenes, Norway. Taken on a Canon EOS 5DS R with an EF15mm f/2.8 Fisheye lens inside a Seacam underwater housing, no strobes; the exposure was 1/25sec at f/4, ISO 1600.

A killer whale (Orcinus orca) in Andenes, Norway. Taken on a Canon EOS 5DS R with an EF15mm f/2.8 Fisheye lens inside a Seacam underwater housing, no strobes; the exposure was 1/25sec at f/4, ISO 1600. © Franco Banfi

Today my target destination is considerably further north, at a latitude of 69° north, well above the Arctic Circle along the west coast of Norway: the land of fjords, cod, herring and - during the cold northern winter - even killer whales. Orcas are efficient hunters and predators so specialised that they have been called "killer" by northern fishermen.

During the short winter days, the arrival of the sun does not heat the cold air. Instead it gives a wonderful light and colour saturation: the surface of the ocean along the coast is painted cobalt blue. During windy days with overcast skies, the ocean turns into a deep black pool where we lose everything, even the white snowflakes falling from the sky. Even if the winter temperature is tempered by the Gulf Stream, the wind whips our bodies which are huddled in layers of thermal clothing. We go out to sea by boat looking for pods of killer whales near the coast.

"Killer whales on the port side!" screams Sven, blocked by the loud wind. 100 metres beyond the bow I see a huge dorsal fin and in the same moment it disappears behind a wave. Some females – recognisable because the dorsal fin is shorter and curved back – have reached the big male, and they are feasting on herring; it seems to be a food orgy. They swim around the fish at about 20 metres depth and push them to the surface through a curtain of exhaled air bubbles, which surround the fish like a fishing net. The herring go crazy and start to swim in circles, on a carousel increasingly tightening, forming compact masses, where the fish move in unison. While some orcas are committed to emit bubbles from the blowholes, other species give tremendous back-flukes to stun the dense core of herring: the result is that many fish float belly up.

A flock of sea birds takes advantage of the situation, diving headlong into the chaos and emerge just in time to avoid being bitten by the teeth of whales. Killer whales do not feed greedily; they don’t pierce the core of the herring. Their supple bodies bite into the side of the fish mass and they swim close to the edge with their white bellies, creating panic among herring; they swallow the stunned fish one by one, as if they were choosing the most delicious morsel. There is plenty of food; nevertheless, all the action takes place rapidly, with an impressive frenzy.

Due to the type of conditions and the technical equipment involved, photographing killer whales requires has different challenges. You are dealing with a dark animal, in dark water, often moving fast – everything a photographer does not want. In the film era it was a nightmare. Luckily, today with digital cameras, it is much better.

A killer whale (Orcinus orca) in Andenes, Norway. Taken on a Canon EOS 5DS R with an EF15mm f/2.8 Fisheye lens inside a Seacam underwater housing, no strobes; the exposure was 1/25sec at f/4, ISO 1600.

A killer whale (Orcinus orca) in Andenes, Norway. Taken on a Canon EOS 5DS R with an EF15mm f/2.8 Fisheye lens inside a Seacam underwater housing, no strobes; the exposure was 1/25sec at f/4, ISO 1600. © Franco Banfi

A killer whale (Orcinus orca) at 2:24 PM, Andenes, Norway. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III with an EF300mm f/2.8L IS USM lens the exposure was 1/500sec at f/5.6, ISO 3200, Speedlite 600EX-RT flash used to add detail in the shadows.

A killer whale (Orcinus orca) at 2:24 PM, Andenes, Norway. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III with an EF300mm f/2.8L IS USM lens the exposure was 1/500sec at f/5.6, ISO 3200, Speedlite 600EX-RT flash used to add detail in the shadows. © Franco Banfi