Rays of hope for Lofoten / Uniting against oil drilling in Norway’s fjords

Cristina Mittermeier

The cold fjords surrounding Lofoten in Norway display an orca ballet, and a remarkable feeding behavior that few have ever seen. In 2019, the courage of young people protected this area of natural beauty from oil drilling.

Image © Paul Nicklen

Cristina Mittermeier

Image © Paul Nicklen

The inky predawn blackness stubbornly clings to the northern fjords of Norway.

Large, triangular fins of orcas slice the water’s surface alongside our small boat. The first shy rays of spring sunshine will not be visible for a few more days, so I strain to discern the shapes as they surface. I can barely make out their bullet-like bodies when they break through the water, but I hear the crisp whisper of their breath, expelled in a white mist every time the whales emerge.

Orcas come to the fjords surrounding Lofoten in Norway, to feed on the abundant herring · Paul Nicklen

I have done this many times before, but a primeval fear takes hold of me as the boat buckles on the choppy sea. I try to stop myself from thinking, “There is absolutely no way I can dive into this freezing black water with a pod of wild orcas,” but before I can gather my wits, my partner, National Geographic photographer Paul Nicklen, quietly slips overboard. There is no choice: I grab my camera, steel myself against the cold, and tip over the edge, following him beneath the thin blue line.

It is that line, where the arching horizon meets the sea, that separates what we know and understand about the planet’s ocean from what we cannot see: the dark, unknown depths of these vast waters, teeming with the mysteries of life. Above the horizon are beautiful beaches, rugged shorelines, and seemingly endless expanses of blue. To the casual observer, it might appear that all is well — that life in the ocean is flourishing. Beneath the waves, however, lies a growing storm of concern and trouble, and for those who dare to look, the news is not good. 

Almost everywhere, the pace of degradation is frightening. Intense overfishing is punctuated by what has become the norm: pollution, industrial expansion, and careless development.

But this is not the case in the Norwegian fjords: the herring is so abundant, we can hardly see where the massive schools of fish begin or end. This is why the orcas are here. That is why we are here.

Orcas hunt for herring in Norway’s Andfjorden. Members of the pod coordinate their moves, herding a mass of herring into a manageable ball. They then whip their tails against the ball, stunning or killing the fish · Paul Nicklen

Sea of change

From the ancient tales of the first mariners to the fearmongering of modern journalism and social media outlets, we are trained from an early age to be apprehensive about the watery wilderness of the ocean — and orcas heighten that fear. Sharks, giant squid, leopard seals, and sperm whales are all characters in a dramatic narrative that teaches us to fear the unknown. As photographers, our job is to recast these wondrous animals not as mindless killers, ferocious and dangerous, but as curious, intelligent, and almost always misjudged.

Paul and I have been lucky enough to document these fjords in the Norwegian archipelago of Lofoten before, but this time we have returned in answer to the summons of local environmental groups and the Workers' Youth League, an organization led by Norwegian activist Ina Libak. They want to stop the government from opening these majestic fjords to oil drilling. Ina’s mission is clear: “We cannot drill here because, in this area, nature has to come first.”

Traditionally, most political parties in Norway have been supporters of the oil and gas industry, but as climate change ravages the planet, a sea of change is rising when it comes to political views. In seven out of nine parliamentary parties in Norway, the youth wings are calling to either restrict or completely phase out all petroleum activities. It is the spring of 2019 and this matter is up for a vote in just a few short months. Building on the incredible work of Ina and her fellow campaigners, our job is to use the power of storytelling and social media to bring this issue to the attention of an international audience — with the goal of influencing the outcome of the vote.

Herring in abundance

Underwater, I immediately forget about being cold. It is dark and gloomy in the fjords of Lofoten, but I am no longer afraid. I watch in awe as the orcas work together, performing a highly coordinated exercise to herd the fish. Enormous schools of herring, larger than any others I have ever seen, are compacted together into a tight ball. Before me is an orca ballet, and a remarkable feeding behavior that few people have ever witnessed.

As orcas get in place around a school of herring, they stay in close contact with calls, whistles, and echolocation clicks · Paul Nicklen

A mere five feet under the ocean’s surface, the immense sphere buckles and sways as the herring try to escape, but the orcas swim relentlessly around the ball, making it tighter and tighter. In this sophisticated team effort, every orca plays a role and every member of the pod gets a turn to feed. Young calves flank their mothers and mimic their every move to hone their herring-herding skills. We hear the constant high-pitched sound of echolocation all around us as they call out to one another.

It is a thrill to see so many herring. Elsewhere in the world, fish that once swam in abundant schools — anchovies, sardines, pollock, cod — have already been decimated, not to quench the hunger of those who need it most, but to make pet food, feed farm animals, and serve as exported luxury items for wealthy diners in faraway places. Norway’s ocean has been a breadbasket for thousands of years, but with the advent of modern fishing technology in the 1970s, the herring in the fjords became so overexploited that the system collapsed.

The government recognized the vital role that herring play in providing jobs and nourishment to so many, as well as the iconic cultural status that the species holds for the Norse people, and so invested in protecting the fish.

Norway’s herring fishery is one of the best managed in the world, and the amount of fish we see here is a testament to its success. Elsewhere in the ocean, entire stocks of top predators such as sharks, swordfish, and tuna have been wiped out to make soup and sandwiches. Unless we follow the example of Norway’s herring fishery, our generation will likely bear witness to the extinction of entire species that, in addition to being a food source, are key components of a healthy global ecosystem. And yet with the threat of oil exploration looming, these vital fjords are under threat again.

After herring at the edge have been stunned, orcas feed, not taking big gulps of the fish, but picking them off one by one · Paul Nicklen

The fish thieves

By the sheer volume of water they displace, Paul and I can feel the presence of the humpbacks before they arrive. I peer across the tumultuous surface of the water and spot Paul, several feet away. He has also seen the larger whales and is signaling desperately, trying to warn me to get out of the way. The humpbacks are approaching fast from beneath the herring ball. Through the dark pulsating water, I can barely make out the humpback whales’ white pectoral fins. Like enormous ghosts moving through the night, they are coming straight at us from the depths of the fjord.

Unlike orcas, humpbacks do not use echolocation, so they are unable to sense us. Unless we swim rapidly, we risk injury from the snap of their massive jaws, or worse, a head-on collision. Their tremendous power is evident when a humpback rises in a corkscrew upsurge that drives its immense body out of the water. Hanging briefly in the air as if held by an invisible thread, fish spilling out of its open mouth, it whirls the tip of its flukes and then turns and crashes back down into the water. It only just misses hitting us as we kick back, colliding with each other instead. I look underwater again after I catch my breath, but the humpbacks are gone. The herring ball has dispersed, and the orcas, deprived of their meal, are also swimming away.

A humpback whale fin surfaces in the northern fjords of Norway · Paul Nicklen

Until Paul snapped the first images of this remarkable event, the assumption was that the humpbacks were teaming up with the orcas as they herded the fish in what is known as carousel feeding behavior. Now, we know that the orcas are doing all of the work while the newcomers to these fjords, the humpbacks, are being opportunistic fish thieves.

Even as we strive to understand the ocean better, we still have so much to learn. Intelligent, sensitive creatures like these humpback whales, capable of orchestrating mysterious global symphonies and traveling thousands of miles in epic migrations to find new feeding grounds, are the same creatures we once hunted to the verge of extinction—and they continue to surprise us.

Coming out of the dark

Time is running out to protect the ocean, and in these remote Norwegian fjords, it is the menace of oil exploration that has come calling. All over the globe, the ocean is telling us its urgent story, evident not only in the effects of pollution and overfishing but also in the growing signs of climate change. On reefs, corals are dying as they endure warmer water. Tiny planktonic creatures that make up the foundation of the ocean food chain are quite literally melting as the rich, cool waters where they thrive become more acidic with every new infusion of carbon dioxide, fueled by the billions of tons of greenhouse gases emitted by the fossil fuel industry.

The seabed beneath the Arctic, once protected by thick ice, is now at risk of being plundered in an unprecedented grab for minerals, fossil fuels, and fish. Large, industrialized nations are rapidly exploiting, slaughtering, polluting, and profiting from these once-pristine ecosystems. As one of the world’s top oil producers, Norway has already begun petroleum development in the Arctic. The global concern is that unless things change, it will not be long before the oil footprint becomes a permanent fixture in these northern landscapes, and yet another wild sanctuary is converted into an industrial environment.

Humpback whales rise from the depths of Norway’s fjords with power and grace · Paul Nicklen
Progress must continue, but not at the cost of life on Earth. What we do or fail to do in the next ten years to preserve the ocean’s ability to provide vital ecological services — like releasing oxygen, absorbing carbon, and supplying food — may be the most important thing we do for the next 10,000 years.

We must realize that Earth is an ocean planet. We are all ocean creatures, and if we lose the ocean, we will lose ourselves, which is quickly becoming a terrifying reality.

On a personal level, it is far simpler than that for Paul and me. We look for solace in nature so that we may find it in ourselves: through the profound aspiration to understand our place in the world; the deep yearning to feel connected at a primordial level with the wildness of the ocean and its creatures; the humbling acceptance of our insignificant presence in the universe. These beliefs steep our souls in purpose and fuel our determination to fight for a planet that can provide for the generations yet to come.

As we head back to our sailboat on our last day in Lofoten, I soak in the first rays of the sunrise as they push their way out of the darkness, the golden orb hovering over the horizon for a few short minutes. It feels prophetic — a bit like we, too, are coming out of the dark, with brighter days to come.

A huge male orca surges out of the dark water at magic hour in the fjords of northern Norway · Paul Nicklen

The path ahead

Back home in Vancouver, it is late on the night of April 6, 2019 when Ina writes to let us know that Lofoten and the youth movement have won the vote. This landmark decision by the opposition Arbeiderpartiet, Norway’s Labour Party, has effectively ended any chance of drilling for the foreseeable future, despite energy executives shortsightedly maintaining that the future of the country’s oil production depends on exploiting this area of natural beauty.

I take a deep breath, relieved that this campaign has won thanks to younger generations harnessing their collective voice. For our part, by helping to bring this story to light, we gathered over 55,000 signatures from concerned individuals around the world. Thousands more sent tweets to Norway’s prime minister, pleading for the future of the fjords. This vote to prevent drilling was a stark example of how priorities are changing in a country that has become one of the world’s richest on the back of big oil. Young people are pushing to curb exploration, with many hoping for the seemingly unthinkable: shutting down the oil industry altogether.

This movement cannot come too soon. Victory in Lofoten, though sweet, was short-lived. Little over a year later, on June 18, 2020, the Norwegian government voted again, in stark contrast to all scientific advice, this time to allow oil drilling in the Arctic within the iskant — the marginal ice zone — to continue. Like a belt that stretches around the Arctic, this region is home to polar bears, beluga whales, narwhals, walruses, and countless other species that rely on this fragile habitat for their survival. Already under threat from climate change, increased oil and gas development will only add further pressure on this vulnerable area.

The path ahead is not an easy one. In the fjords of Lofoten, the courage of young people has changed the future. In the “iskant,” the government has bowed to the oil industry.

But the times when we lose can be just as powerful as when we win. It is only a matter of time before we will have the opportunity to overcome this same struggle once again. And like the first rays of sun in Lofoten in spring, sweeping boldly over the horizon, we will rise again. We are ready.

An adult male orca in the deep waters of the Andfjorden. Their tall dorsal fins distinguish them from females · Cristina Mittermeier

Cristina Mittermeier

Co-founder, SeaLegacy & Only One

Born in Mexico, Cristina Mittermeier is a marine biologist, photographer, and writer known for her use of powerful and emotive imagery to propel conservation efforts. For the past 25 years, her work has centered on the delicate balance between human well-being and healthy ecosystems. Cristina is the co-founder of SeaLegacy, a nonprofit invested in the health and sustainability of the ocean, and of Only One.

Paul Nicklen

Co-founder, SeaLegacy & Only One

Co-founder of SeaLegacy and Only One, Paul Nicklen is a Canadian-born photographer, filmmaker, and marine biologist specializing in polar ecosystems. He has documented the beauty and the plight of our planet for over 30 years, creating an emotional connection with wild subjects in extreme conditions. For 20 years, Paul has been an assignment photographer for National Geographic.

Ina Libak

Norweigan politician

Ina Libak is a politician and activist who leads Norway’s largest political youth organization, Workers' Youth League (AUF). Over a period of 10 years, Ina contributed to the successful campaign to stop oil drilling and exploration in the Norwegian fjords of Lofoten.

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