Beats me why anyone would want to snorkel in the deep, dark ice-cold waters off Northern Norway at this time of year. Even the prospect of encountering orcas - my all-time favourite whale or dolphin species - would not be enough to tempt me, even in a dry suit! At Whale and Dolphin Conservation, we have a long-standing policy of recommending that you don’t enter the water with whales and dolphins, for their safety and welfare, as well as yours. It strikes me that nowhere in the world is this advice more apt than these Arctic waters, where the sun barely rises for half the year.
And yet, just a few seconds on Google throws up a dozen companies offering ‘snorkel with orcas’ tours alongside the whale watching and Northern Lights trips you’d expect to see on a holiday itinerary in the Arctic North.
So I’m giving a moderate whoop of joy at the news that the Norwegian Fisheries Directorate has finally issued whale watch regulations as this is certainly progress. Until now, Norway has lacked any formal regulations governing whale watching and snorkelling with whales. Whilst the better operators have been observing the excellent local guidelines endorsed by Visit Tromsø which strongly discourage any in-water activities (snorkelling, swimming or diving) with whales, other operators have exploited the lack of legal sanctions and dropped people in the water with impunity.
It is important to note too, that outside the Tromsø region, guidelines relate solely to snorkelling with orcas and only in certain locations or times of year. They strongly discourage swimming, diving or free-diving with orcas or any other whale species, such as humpbacks: yet this advice is routinely ignored. Only last week, I saw social media posts of a diver with a humpback calf off Skjervøy, northeast of Tromsø.
But let’s hope that this free-for-all is coming to an end. Last spring, the Norwegian Fisheries Directorate declared its intention to put regulations in place and invited input from a number of stakeholders - including us - following what they described as a series of conflicts and potentially dangerous situations.
The problem is that orcas, the focal species for most snorkellers, are naturally attracted to fishing boats, in the hope of snatching herring from the nets. Snorkellers follow the orcas, but may find themselves dangerously close to the fishing boats. A spokesperson recently commented: ‘The Directorate of Fisheries, the coast guard and the fishing fleet have observed people swimming just metres from moving vessels. This poses a major risk to safety.’ There have been calls too, for any vessels putting people in the water to be clearly flagged, so that fishing boats and other vessels are aware of people in the water.
Last month, Rolf Harald Jensen, Director of the Maritime Service of the Northern Fisheries Directorate, blasted ‘dive with orca’ tours after further dangerous incidents around fishing boats, saying: ‘We have a clear strategy that we do not go in the water with these animals because of safety. There should be no people in the water. We believe it is not justifiable, and there are a number of countries that already follow such regulations… we are genuinely worried that things will go wrong. It also makes the work situation difficult for crews on fishing boats. They need to shift their focus away from what they are actually doing and spend energy watching people who cannot take care of their own safety. Ultimately, there is a danger to life.’
He cited a recent video taken by one of his inspectors, which shows the crew of a fishing vessel turning on the vessel’s powerful vacuum pump system. Fortunately, the inspector spotted two divers swimming in pitch black conditions, perilously close to the pump. His cries alerted crew members and the pump was turned off, but this was a close call for the divers. Jensen commented: ‘The pump is designed to suck the catch into the boat, along with water and it operates under high pressure. What comes in the immediate vicinity will be sucked up - including a diver if they get too close. In this case, they were too close. They could have gone in the pump and risked perishing.’
It is good to see that whale watch boats are now legally required to remain at least 370m from fishing vessels or fixed fishing gear, with double that distance for people in the water. This will hopefully end those high-risk interactions around fishing boats, but the regulations are otherwise disappointingly brief and lacking in detail – they appear to be focussed on protecting fishing activities rather than providing comprehensive guidance to the whale watch and dive-with-orcas industry.
Getting into the water remains risky - many trips state that no experience is necessary yet, even in dry suits, the icy Arctic waters off Norway are dangerous. The combination of deep, dark or freezing waters and strong waves may soon tire an inexperienced swimmer or trigger a pre-existing medical condition.
Norway is a great place to go whale watching but having visited the region during the winter months, I can honestly recommend staying topside and enjoying the spectacular marine life from the comfort and safety of a boat!
- Last June, we worked with in-country experts to provide advice to the government consultation and urged the prompt enactment of official regulations. We are delighted that these are now in place, but the detail is disappointing and it’s clearly a missed opportunity. We need detailed guidance relating to vessel behaviour, and we need adequate monitoring and enforcement of the regulations.
- We welcome the Norwegian government’s acknowledgement that there is a problem, but they need to do far more to address the dangers around dropping people into dark, Arctic waters alongside huge orcas and humpback whales.
- We are actively participating in CMS (the Convention on Migratory Species, the body that works to protect species that cross national borders) and IWC (International Whaling Commission, the body that regulates whale hunting) Working Groups on marine mammal watching, including in-water activities.
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