Black and White in Color: Freediving Photographer Uses Garmin Products to Help Safely Dive with Orca Whales
Linus Svensson traveled to the northern fjords of Norway to fulfill a lifelong dream of seeing orca whales in their natural habitats — and he captured the whole experience for us to enjoy too.
Linus Svensson’s deep respect for orca whales began somewhere around the age of 7. After noticing his fascination with a pop-up book centered around whales and dolphins, his mother brought him to the natural history museum in Gothenburg, a city on the west coast of Sweden with deep roots in the commercial fishing industry. At the time, the museum had an exhibit featuring full-scale orca whales.
“I was so fascinated,” Svensson says. “Later she told me that I was more or less quiet the whole time we were at the museum, and I would just walk around looking at those whales. She told me that one day we could go and see those whales in Norway, because they live there — she’d read the sign.”
For a 7-year-old, it felt like a lofty goal. One can travel from Sweden to Norway in less than an hour’s time on a plane, but to travel and then to time it perfectly to just catch a glimpse of a great black dorsal fin cutting a path through the water — it felt big. But with each passing year, Svensson’s dream seemed more and more attainable.
When he started swim school, he quickly realized he preferred swimming fully submerged in water. Contrary to rules most parents must set when swim lessons begin, Svensson’s father had to bargain to get his son to swim with his head above the surface. Around age 13 or 14, he began freediving classes, and here is where Svensson’s original ambition to see an orca whale from above the surface began to morph into something else. Fast forward a few decades from a boy with an affinity for killer whales to a man with that same passion plus a burgeoning photography career and some competitive freediving experience, and Svensson felt ready to not only seek out but also to document the animal he’d dreamed of for so long.
In the fall 2019, Svensson, along with his father and a few friends, took a scouting trip to the deep, dark fjords on the north coast of Norway. It needed to be in the October-November timeframe because that’s the sweet spot in the calendar year where herring are spawning, orcas are gathering to hunt them, and there’s still enough daylight left above the Arctic Circle to be able to see it all happen.
The weather conditions in 2019 were hard, says Svensson, making it difficult for many underwater photos, but it served as the perfect scouting trip.
“It’s really about getting to know their behavior, to be able to sneak into the water without disturbing their activities,” he says. The group planned a three-week trip in the fall of 2020, knowing they’d need to stay for a while to ensure at least a few days with good conditions for getting in the water with the orcas. Before they left, Svensson contacted Garmin to gauge interest in imagery captured on the expedition. Soon after, his team set off on the long, wintry journey from the southern part of Sweden to the northern tip of Norway, hauling with them a full range of Garmin-supplied products to support the mission — and leaving in their wake a creative team very eager to see the resulting footage.
It didn’t take long for Svensson and team to feel they were onto something.
“We had just got the boat into the water, and we were ready to go out in the ocean. It just took a few minutes, and we saw the first humpback whales,” Svensson says. “The feeling when we saw a pod of humpback whales — it was four of them basically blowing air from their blowholes, a lot of air, and it felt like some kind of fireworks in the horizon giving us a welcome.”
It took a few more days of scouting the fjords, monitoring fishing reports, and checking them against the sonar and navigation data on their Garmin GPSMAP® 8612xsv before the group was able to locate the telltale pods of fish.
“We actually were able to find some big schools of herring, so we realized that the orcas might be in the surroundings or somewhere close by,” Svensson says. “And then it just took a couple of minutes before we saw the first fins in the horizon.”
As is wise with most wildlife in their natural habitat, an observation period was necessary before diving right in.
“We spent maybe a few days just watching them in the distance to see how they behave and not to rush anything, but the first time when I slid into the water and I was able to see the pod of orcas in the further distance moving in our direction — to slide into the water and see those big fins getting closer and closer to you and then dive down into these more or less bottomless fjords, with almost dark water, and then you see them underneath, that heart feeling you get when they are swimming towards you is just … it’s hard to describe, but it was a magic feeling.”
He estimates that at one point he was only 3 or 4 meters away from the closest whale.
“A couple of times they came up very, very close and just had a quick look,” he says, although most of the time spent underwater was devoted to watching the orcas hunt herring.
“They just slide through the water,” he says. “When you see small fish, you see them use their fins. They move very, very quickly, but on the other hand you see the fin moving very, very quickly. But those huge whales — [the fins] move quite slowly, but they move so fast. Their swimming technique is absolutely something else.”
It took a bit of trial and error to determine how to get the best photos. “And you better pay respect to the animals as well,” Svensson says. “So we kind of noticed that when they are moving and swimming, it makes no sense to go in the water, because they are swimming so much faster than us. Our opportunity to get into the water was more or less close to feeding, because then they are too occupied doing something else, and they don’t really care about us. They just have a look at us — what is he doing here? — and then they’ll swim and move on. So that was the key to success — to let them behave and just wait for those moments.”
Patience was also critical.
“I can’t really say how many dives I did down in those black fjords seeing absolutely nothing,” he says. “I didn’t see any herring, and I didn’t see anything else — just pure black water.”
To help ensure he was diving safely, Svensson wore a Garmin Descent™ Mk2 dive watch.
“When you’re diving in those kinds of conditions — I’ve always used a dive watch, but I’ve never used something similar to this,” he says. “— it’s really a game changer in terms of the way I work with a diving wearable. When you dive in more or less complete darkness, me as an underwater photographer, I want to focus on my camera and my surroundings. Because first of all, I want to find orcas and then I want to be able to capture the images on my camera. And doing that when you’re working in an environment where you have absolutely no visible things to look at — I mean you’re standing down in pitch black, and you don’t know if you’re in 10 meters, 20 meters, 25 meters — that really could be a safety issue.”
Svensson is trained to dive comfortably to depths of 25-30 meters and then up again, so knowing exactly how deep he is at all times is critical.
“During this expedition, I put different kinds of depth alarms, so as soon as I reached 15 meters it started to vibrate, because then I know ‘Oh, I have a few meters down,’ and then I had another one to really say, ‘Don’t go further down than this.’ And it vibrated so I didn’t really have to look at my computer and then I could concentrate on other things. So it’s a really nice feature in terms of a diving watch, and a feature that maybe not a lot of people think about, but I really enjoyed it.”
The GPS on the Descent MK2 also allowed him to track exactly where the whales were hunting.
“I’ve seen those kinds of moments on National Geographic where orca hunt around herring pods,” Svensson says. “I’ve seen that kind of thing, and that’s something that I started to think, ‘Wow, could I possibly experience that myself?’ When that actually happened, I was on the surface. I couldn’t see anything; it was just pitch black watching down. It was probably 150 meters-deep water, and it was pitch black down there, but I heard them, and I saw some activity in the air. There were a lot of birds flying around, so I knew there was something going on underneath me.”
He wasted no time diving in.
“I started to swim down, and I swam down to maybe 20-25 meters of depth, and then I saw those white spots on the orcas, because that’s the first thing you see underwater. I saw that and then I saw a huge, absolutely huge school of herring, pulling them tighter and tighter together, bringing them to the surface to be able to grab some of them. It was so amazing to see their teamwork and how they work together to pick out herring one by one.”
As one might expect, there are a few safety components to consider when one travels to remote parts of Norway in freezing temperatures to free dive with killer whales as they’re in the process of catching their dinner.
“I’m the kind of guy that I want to do expeditions, but I want to be prepared,” Svensson says. “I want to have been thinking through, ‘Well, if that happens, I want to be able to do that, and if that happens, I want to be able to do that.’” It’s that preparedness aspect that he loves about the Garmin inReach® satellite commuicator1. While he noted the benefit of redundancy in case something were to happen with the GPSMAP 8612xsv and navigational help was needed, what he really liked about inReach was the peace of mind.
“The captain had one always strapped into his life jacket, and the deck hand had one too, so we always knew that we had communication opportunities, and we were able to contact authorities if something bad happened,” he says. “To me, this kind of thing is as essential as a life jacket and a life raft in a boat. I mean, it’s necessary.”
“Another safety thing we had on board was the AIS™ 800 transceiver system together with the VHF 115 marine radio. When you are working or if you are on the ocean above the Arctic Circle in November, you realize that you have maybe not even hours of daylight. You hardly even see the sun. It’s hardly over the horizon at all,” he says.
“We already know that we have to be able to be out on the ocean in more or less complete darkness, and in this area there are not only orcas that love herring — a lot of fishing vessels do that too. There’s a lot of activity on the fjords. So really it’s for safety, because then we can see other vessels, and we can see what they are doing, and we can also communicate with them.”
Reflecting on the trip now that he’s safely returned home to Sweden, Svensson isn’t sure if this kind of expedition would’ve been possible without the advancements in technology. Underwater camera abilities aside, it’s the safety aspect of the Garmin technology that helped him to feel equipped for an undertaking such as this.
“Even if it’s harsh conditions, to add on all those kinds of technologies, it gives you a feeling that you have control,” he says. “I need that control to be able to work as a photographer in this kind of environment and to be able to relax and to be creative. If I’m stressed out about navigation and working on the boat and so on, I wouldn’t be able to concentrate on creating images. I would be focusing on doing a lot of other stuff. In this case, the technology really helped me as a photographer.”
So what’s next for Svensson — what does one do when a lifelong childhood dream has been achieved, and far beyond what his 7-year-old self could have imagined at that? Next up, he says, is a trip out to the wilds of Sweden’s mountains to catch the autumn colors with his four-legged best friend. But beyond that, you’ll have to follow along to find out.
1Some jurisdictions regulate or prohibit the use of satellite communication devices. It is the responsibility of the user to know and follow all applicable laws in the jurisdictions where the device is intended to be used.