Orcas. An Arctic fairytale of whales (which are actually big dolphins)

By Tommy Simonsen – Northern Norway, January 2017.

The air is crisp and cold, and the light is about to break as we speed through the strait, heading north. We freeze a little in our yellow safety suits; we are after all in an open boat hurtling through the winter darkness at 69”N. The 12 meter long black R.I.B. (rigid inflatable boat) is perfect for these arctic waters, and the feeling of cold doesn’t bother us too much on our way to a great annual adventure: the Arctic Orca Safari!

The dark season is about to come to an end at these latitudes. The region has been engulfed in darkness and passing winter storms since the end of November, when the sun broke above the horizon for the last time. The further north you get, the longer the darkness lasts. Today we got a vague sort of daylight between 11.00 and 13:30.

I have been tracking the weather forecast, and noted that the clouds are supposed to clear around this time. As the sun is about to make a return, that is an extra reward, whether or not we find any orcas. At this time of the year, sky at the top of the world turns a special shade of pastel pink.

Orcas and other whales arrive in the northern coast of Troms county from the end of October to February. They follow the large shoals of herring that come from the open waters into the fjords. Herring is food, so where there is herring, there are whales.


After an hour the R.I.B. suddenly slows down. It lies quietly in the water, with snow covered mountains rising in the distance. The light has turned an intense yellow in the southern sky, and in the north, deep blue has given way to pastel pink.

P-Tchhh!  I look around; it’s close.

 

P-TCHHH!!!

 

It’s really close!

 

An orca pops up right next to our R.I.B., exhaling explosively, filling the air with the smell of digested fish.

There’s nothing like the smell of herring in the morning!

As the light gets stronger, we realize that it is a large family group we have found. A shoal of herring is present, and the family is in hunt mode, ignoring us completely. They work like a wolf pack, confusing the fish by blowing bubbles, working to keep the panicked herring close to the surface and then barrel through them, filling their great mouths with stunned prey. It is clamour and carnage on the surface, with seagulls and sea eagles swooping in to join the feeding frenzy. Pods of orcas zigzag, coming right towards the R.I.B., dorsal fins slicing the water.

P-Tchhh!
Orcas are everywhere. They dive under us, emerging on the other side of the boat. Close by us. Far away from us. Everywhere. It’s intense. I remind myself to breathe, to not forget why I am here.

To get extraordinary pictures.


How I create my orca pictures from a boat

Type of boat

I prefer to work from a small boat, so I can shoot from lower angles. But remember: salt water is certain death to your expensive electronic camera. It is extremely important to pack your gear in a waterproof Ortlieb, Lowepro or similar bag of another brand. And I mean really waterproof! If you’re not used to shooting from a small boat, keep the bag properly closed during transport. Learn to read the waves and how the boat responds to them. The waves might not splash you from the front, but come at you from the sides, or elsewhere unexpected.

When you use your camera, keep the bag closed. And NEVER leave the bag unattended on the boat deck. When I need to, I cover the camera under my arm or in a plastic bag when I wait for something to happen. Don’t put the camera against your body under the jacket. Remember it’s cold outside, and you are warm. When you take your camera out again, the lens and viewfinder will fog up.

Keep your gear cold. Only spare batteries should be kept warm in your inner pockets. On a trip like this, you should bring several batteries.


Position in the boat

Where you sit on an R.I.B. during a tour is important. If you occupy a front seat in the bow, you get a wide, panoramic view with no obstructions. But the bow gets the worst beating from the chop, and is also the one position where you are almost guaranteed to get wet if the sea is anything but calm.

On an R.I.B. during a whale safari, I prefer a seat at the rear, as close to the pilot / guide as possible. It makes communication easier, and is also the place where the boat’s rail is at its lowest, so I can lean over the side in calmer conditions, to get the lowest angle possible. Capturing whales high above the horizon line adds to the drama of my images.


Cameras and settings

I have two FUJIFILM X-T2 camera bodies with two 32 or 64GB SD cards in each. One with the XF50-140mmF2.8 WR on it, and the other with the XF16-55mmF2.8 WR.

Both bodies and lenses are weather sealed, which is necessary because you get a little wet working around waves and whales, and this equipment can take some some sea water without damage. And I always have the ever important, absorbent microfiber lens cloth. I have a couple of them in different pockets, so I can switch when one of them gets too wet.

The X-T2’s tilt screen is one of the reasons it is my preferred field camera. It’s perfect for shots at lower angles, especially with the vertical tilt for portrait oriented images.

Shutter speed and reaction time are vital to shooting whales. I prefer 1/2000 sec. If the sea is rough, shutter speed has to come up. All of these shots were made under lower lighting conditions, so my shutter speed varied from 1/500 to 1/1000 sec at ISO 1600 to 2500 in all of them. Imagine how the colors would have turned out at ISO 200? Fast lenses are certainly critical in these conditions.

Responsive auto focus is also important. I often use “single point” or “Zone” AF mode, normally on Single or Continuous tracking focus. Typically, I use “CL” or “CH” burst modes for whales. The AF point joystick is most important to me for quick composing and shooting.

 


Don’t forget to have fun

Remember to put your camera down once in a while. These Arctic orca safaris have a special place in my heart. I work very hard on these trips, but remind myself to put my cameras away sometimes, to fully enjoy the spectacle of these magnificent creatures in action.

Thanks for coming along on this Arctic journey with me.

Tommy


Arctic Orca facts

  • The Orca is the largest of whales in the dolphin family, and like most other dolphin species, they live in social groups.
  • There are about 3000 orcas in the Norwegian and Barents Seas.
  • Females can be up to 7.7 meters, and weigh 3.8 tons, with an average life expectancy of 50 years, and a maximum of 80-90 years. After being pregnant for 15-18 months, a female gives birth in the late autumn to a 2.3 meter long calf that weights about 200Kg.
  • Males can be up to 9 meters, and weigh 5.5 tons, with an average life expectancy of 30 years, and a maximum of 50-60 years. The dorsal fin is much larger on males.
  • They live in family groups of females and calves, with only one or few adult males.
  • Each group seems to have their own dialect for communicating.
  • Orcas often collaborate to capture prey, which can be small fish like herring, or the large species like other whales. They have been observed herding fish into tight corrals, while other members of the group swim into its midst, stunning the fish with their tails to make feeding more efficient.

Facts source: Norwegian Polar Institute.


 

Extreme field test of the Fujifilm X-Pro2 and X-T2

By Tommy Simonsen – Harstad, northern Norway

I am a documentary photographer who works with animals in the natural world, and my environments are often extreme. If not remote Arctic regions, I’m in expeditions in tropical jungles or high elevations. Being able to pack light is crucial. When working on a mountain top, skiing alongside dogsleds, or walking for days, my tent and everything else I need for living in the field goes into the big pack on my back. So my camera equipment, by necessity, is in a small bag around my neck. You simply don’t get good shots from your backpack!

Equipment size and weight are critical considerations for my work – when I first packed the X-Pro2 for a three week field trip to Svalbard in March 2016, it was true love.


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X-Pro2 and X-T2 in the Arctic

These are both highly anticipated sequels of already very popular cameras.

The X-Pro2 was made for street photography and similar, the X-T2 as a good all rounder. I have used the former since March 2016, and participated in the testing of the latter when Fujifilm released the pre-production models to some photographers in April 2016.

Much has been said about these cameras, through lab tests and personal tests, but most users are photographers who shoot in urban environments. I use these cameras in somewhat different surroundings: in northern Norway, with its peculiar, capricious climate, and spectacular light. Polar night and midnight sun. Here, weathersealing is tested to the max!

I am particularly impressed with the X-T2 and X-Pro2 in several dog sledding and snowmobile expeditions in the high Arctic: Spitsbergen, Svalbard, 78 degrees north. The reference temperatures from Fujifilm’s test lab don’t exactly apply here!

Here is what I’ve experienced with Fujifilm cameras in the deep freeze.

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Weathersealing

Both these cameras are impeccable in all types of weather. Last week I worked with the Nordic Lynx (mountain cats) in heavy rain, without any plastic covers. All I needed handy was a dry microfiber cloth for the lens front: Wipe and shoot, wipe and shoot!

Handling

I LOVE that all the cameras’ basic adjustments are easily accessible on the top plate and with the aperture ring on the lens. No small nonsense buttons or menus to mess around with – this is crucial when working in the Arctic with thick gloves or mittens. Everything I need for the immediacy of making images is on the body: aperture, shutter, ISO and exposure compensation.

However, I did find that with the X-Pro2 turned on, I would occasionally bump the buttons on the back, especially in the cold where I wear a lot of clothing. I have unwittingly changed settings while moving around with the camera over my shoulder, which can be rather confusing when taking it up to use afterwards!

On the X-Pro2, there’s a simple solution to this: Hold the menu button down for three seconds, and you lock both the menu and buttons. Hold for three seconds to unlock. Ingenious!

On the X-T2, Fujifilm has added lockable dials which keeps my settings securely in place.

I find the top dials a bit low on the X-Pro2. Fujifilm fixed this with the X-T2 though – its dials are higher and easier to grip. This is particularly important to Arctic freaks like me who shoot with thick gloves on. Fujifilm has also put the movie, metering and other functions into a lower ring under one of the top dials.

On both cameras the focus and metering are absolutely insane! I have never experienced anything like it before. It focuses even in heavy blizzards, and works the same way when using the 1.4x converter.

Battery life

Some camera systems “shut down” in extreme cold, or are reduced functionally.

This has not happened with the X-series cameras.

The challenge however, is battery capacity. Driving at a good speed on snowmobile increases chill factor, turning minus 20 degrees C to minus 60 degrees C – THAT eats batteries!

In fully electronic cameras like these two, batteries are a challenge. Sometimes, solar charging stations are an option, but I often have to work for several days without being able to charge my batteries.

So I have batteries, many batteries. And I use them with care. Batteries to be used must be kept warm. The batteries I think I’m going to use during the day, I keep in the pockets close to my body. My winter pants are high with braces and additional pockets on the stomach, which is kept warm close to my stomach, well hidden and isolated by the sweater and jacket. This is where the rest of the expected day’s consumption of batteries are kept warm.

The batteries that I don’t intend to use that day, I keep frozen in my big backpack.

When batteries are not in use, they keep their charge when frozen. If a battery is empty in the cold, I replace it with a new one. But the used one I put in my left pocket to ‘reheat’ it. When it is heated, I can put it in the camera again, and get decent amount of power out of it. This may well be repeated two to three times before it is completely empty.

Moisture challenges in cold climates

Cold traps moisture in camera bodies and lenses. Once I leave civilization on a winter expedition, the camera bag NEVER comes into my tent or cabin. Bringing cold camera gear into warmth means that condensation will immediately cover surfaces and particularly, lens elements. Moisture that builds up inside lenses does not evaporate easily. Once the camera is back out in the cold, this moisture freezes and optics turn into ice blocks, and are unusable for the rest of the trip.

The cold is dry, and both cameras tolerate it exceptionally well. So I often put my camera bag in a waterproof sack outside the tent – securing it to something solid so it won’t blow away if there is a storm during the night – in the cold outer corridor of the cabin, cargo crates on the snowmobile or dog sled. But NEVER into the warm room.

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Dust challenges

You can´t get away from this topic with a mirrorless system. And it is a challenge in the field. I’ve learned to shelter the camera from the wind when I change lenses, so it doesn’t blow straight in. I keep the housing close to my body, back against the wind with the lens down, and change fast to limit any dust entering. The best is of course to have two bodies.

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Threeway tilt screen on the X-T2

Love it! Absolutely invaluable for landscape and documentary. Never has it been easier to go so low with super wide angles in the terrain!

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Wifi

JPEG files that come straight out of the camera are of very high quality. Of course I shoot in RAW, but it’s okay to save JPEG simultaneously for quick use on social media when there is internet connection. The Fujifilm Camera Remote app for smartphones and the cameras’ built-in wifi is brilliantly simple to use, allowing me to post photos instantly, rather than wait weeks to get home and edit the raw files.

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Lenses

When it comes to lenses, I mostly use these:

XF 10-24mm F4 (hoping for an F:2.8 option),

XF 16-55mm F2.8,

XF 50-140mm F2.8, and

XF 100-400mm F4.5-5.6.

In addition, I sometimes use a 1.4x converter.

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Thoughts on the XF 100-400mm F4.5-5.6

Polar bears and landscapes are at the top my of list, so I had high expectations for the XF100-400mm. With the 1.4x converter, it gives me 600-800mm full frame equivalent focal length, something I never had previously. It was so small and light that it went in standard bag.

But what a fulfillment of expectations! The autofocus surpassed them all. I have never experienced such accurate AF before. The rapid location of the focal point with the rear thumb joystick was a pleasure, and especially important when working with animals that move and change direction quickly. The long focal length allowed me to be far enough away from the animals that they were aware of me without being disturbed.

This was especially important in the period where ring seals were born on the ice. The newborn seals can´t swim, so they are very vulnerable if the mother is scared away. I came across several that could only have been a few hours old. They were aware of my presence, but I was far enough away to not be considered a threat. A few minutes after I arrived, the seal pup lay down to drink the milk of the mother. They had accepted me, and I got close-up images from a good distance away.

Final result, print

I print a lot of my work, so I was excited to see how it the crop factor files from the X-series would compare with my older full frame files in print. I typically make prints around 50x60cm to 60x90cm, and could not see any difference between the old and new.

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Build quality

Both cameras are sturdy, good looking workhorses which can withstand rough treatment in the field. One of the more serious incidents I experienced was a solid dogsled turnover going downhill on glacial moraine, where I was dragged several meters after the sled, with cameras underneath me. I thought there would be some serious damage to the cameras, but they were fine! I have slipped on ice and fallen with the cameras several times, but they tolerate A LOT of beating.

I bought my first SLR system back in 1991, and have used it continually since. But a change has come. At this point, I have had X-series equipment for a while, and have been able to test the gear under different conditions and all types of shooting.

 

Am I going to go back to the heavy and old-fashioned system?

Not a chance!

I know what I will bring with me on the many exciting adventures to come: Of course Fujifilm will continue with me on these journeys! ☺


To see more of Tommy Simonsen’s work, click here.

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