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The terror and joy of swimming with killer whales

Two days before I travel to Norway to go snorkelling with killer whales, a friend sends a YouTube clip that makes me want to fling my flight ticket into the North Sea. Filmed at SeaWorld in California, it shows a woman getting tossed about the pool by a 500-stone killer whale named Shamu. All’s well that ends well – give or take 100-odd stitches and blood stains on the side of the pool – but let’s just say it’s not the confidence booster I was hoping for.

The good news is that this is the 10th year they’ve run orca-snorkelling safaris in Tysford, close to the Lofoten Islands in northern Norway, and nearly 2,500 people have lived to tell the tale. Killer whales have attacked elk off this coast, and of course, there’s that notorious footage of them plucking seals off the beach in Patagonia, but there’s not even been a nibble of a tourist up here in Tysford – or if there has, no one’s owning up to it. They’re here at this time of year for herring, not seals – and not seal-lookalikes. That, at least, is what I tell myself as I climb aboard the Zodiac.

We set off in suspiciously high spirits, disproportionately tickled by the comic discomfort of our dry suits. Alison from Hull rues the rollmops she’s had for breakfast. Pete from Basingstoke waddles about, barking like a seal. Unhinged gallows humour abounds.

We speed out into the fjord and look for our first fin. It is an astonishingly beautiful place, a leaden, watery wilderness framed by icy peaks now pink against an unseen sun, a place you could happily love if your thoughts weren’t filled with images of Patagonian seal pups and Californian marine park disasters.

Suddenly, they are there, forty, fifty yards from the boat, a silent army of six-foot fins knifing slowly along the fjord. I turn to Pete, the Basingstoke joker, ostensibly to flash a thumbs-up, but really just because I need a smile. Our eyes meet, but somehow, he is gone, absent, the perennial light of his banter snuffed out by a deep, primordial fear. The boat moves into position 20 yards ahead of the whales, then the signals goes up for us to jump.

No one moves. Everyone waits, lemmings clinging to the cliff. Suddenly someone is in, and instinctively, sheepishly, desperate not to be separated from the herd, I topple in behind the first brave jumper and peer wide-eyed into the murky depths. Nothing. With mounting panic, I peer frantically above the water, and there, maybe 20ft away, bearing down with horrifying intent, are seven or eight giant fins.

It is a seriously lonely moment: ears wrapped in neoprene, peripheral vision cut-off by the mask, there is no way of seeing or hearing anyone around me. I am utterly alone. In 2,600ft of water. In an Arctic fjord in Norway. Waiting. I look back down into the sea. And see one.

Orca facts

  • Killer whales are actually not whales, but dolphins - the largest member of the Delphinus family, living for up to 80 years, capable of speeds of up to 30mph.
  • The average adult male is about 23ft long and weighs about 6 tons, although the largest recorded individual, a male from Washington State, measured 31.5ft. An adult killer whale's dorsal fin is 6ft from base to tip.
  • Killer whales were so named by Spanish sailors who observed them killing grey whales. Found in all the world's oceans, from the Arctic and Antarctic to the tropics, killer whales divide into three subspecies that do not intermingle. Resident whales navigate along coastal passages feeding exclusively on fish; transient whales inhabit the same waters but are markedly less social and more aggressive; offshore whales live in large groups of 30-60 or more.

It is horrible. They are silent, vast, beautiful, perfect. The first one glides directly below, much, much closer than I’d ever imagined, close enough that if I weren’t pulling my elbows in, tucking my knees up, and generally trying to deny my own existence, I could actually reach down and touch a fin. Two, three more glide silently below, then another, but this time, instead of swimming past, the killer whale angles up, as if about to charge, tilts to one side and stops, a single, disembodied eye staring straight at my face, probably no more than six feet from my frozen being. I actually cannot look into its eye, and gaze meekly instead somewhere around its fin. And then it goes. I am not sorry.

So why put yourself through it? There’s no simple answer. Three more times we get back in with the killer whales, and each time there is that same slightly horrifying moment of truth. And yet, there’s also something intoxicating, delicious – it’s like teetering atop the world’s highest rollercoaster, surrendered, delirious, alive.

On our last encounter, the sky now charcoal grey, all but two of us have got back into the boat when a pair of killer whales swims back round for a second look. It is just me, the vet, and 10 tonnes of smiling assassin. They come close, tilting for that better look, and somewhere deep and silent within, I am screaming again. But by now it’s not just fear – it’s amazement, and maybe even something close to joy. Killer whales are actually not whales, but dolphins - the largest member of the Delphinus family, living for up to 80 years, capable of speeds of up to 30mph.

The average adult male is about 23ft long and weighs about 6 tons, although the largest recorded individual, a male from Washington State, measured 31.5ft. An adult killer whale's dorsal fin is 6ft from base to tip.

Killer whales were so named by Spanish sailors who observed them killing grey whales. Found in all the world's oceans, from the Arctic and Antarctic to the tropics, killer whales divide into three subspecies that do not intermingle. Resident whales navigate along coastal passages feeding exclusively on fish; transient whales inhabit the same waters but are markedly less social and more aggressive; offshore whales live in large groups of 30-60 or more.

Jeremey Lazell traveled with Explore Worldwide to Norway. A 4 day trip in November and December 2007 costs £855 including flights from London, plus 600 Norwegian kroner payable on arrival in Norway.