Sea Watch: Where to Scuba Dive with Killer Whales

Orcas — aka killer whales — are one of the most recognizable species of marine mammals in the world, thanks to their unfortunate history in captivity at theme parks like SeaWorld. But to understand the sheer power and intelligence of these creatures, there’s no substitute for seeing them in the wild.

Despite the name killer whale, orcas are actually the largest members of the dolphin family, growing up to 30 feet long and weighing nearly 9 tons. In fact, some believe their name is a misreading of the moniker “whale killers,” given by Spanish sailors, which better describes their habit of hunting and killing large whales, though whales aren’t the only prey on the menu for orcas.

Fast Facts About Orca Whales

What they eat depends on which type of orca is doing the hunting. There are three distinct subgroups: residents, transients and open-ocean pods. Resident orcas stay in one area, eating mostly fish; transients migrate over a coastal range, hunting marine mammals such as seals, dolphins and whales. A third population of offshore orcas lives exclusively in the open Pacific Ocean, where they’ve been hard to study, though evidence shows sharks might be part of their diet.

Orcas are found all over the world, from the salmon-rich waters of North America’s Pacific Northwest to the shores of Patagonia, where they chase seals right onto the beaches, sliding across the sand to snatch their prey before wriggling back into the water.

Divers looking to go face to face with orcas in the water should head to northern Norway from November to January, when hundreds of killer whales descend on a vast herring migration. Sven Gust, owner of arctic dive operation Northern Explorers, has led tours to snorkel with orcas in this herring run for more than 15 years.

“We did our first tours in the Tysfjord area, but the herring change their route every 10 to 20 years to get rid of the predators,” Gust says. “Now we see them in the area between Andenes and Tromsø, and we’re also seeing other whales — humpbacks, finbacks, sei whales, pilot whales and minke whales.”

Gust says around 1,000 orcas visit the area every winter; he uses two different techniques to get divers in the water with them. “Most commonly, we use fast RIBs to drop the divers in front of the whales, but you only get a short look and a minimum of interaction,” he says. “The best situation is to find where the feeding whales push the herring into shallow water. Here you get the best action, but it’s also a bit scary.”

That’s because the orcas blast through the school, trying to smack the herring with their tail fins, which gets the school panicked and moving fast. “You might have clear viz one second, and in the next you’re inside a black wall of herring,” Gust says. “I am not scared about the orcas — they’re very in control — but I wouldn’t trust humpbacks when they try to eat a whole shoal of fish at once.”

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SnotBot Drone Used to Collect Whale Data Using “Snot”

SnotBot, a drone that collects whale snot for research

Eliza Muirhead

The SnotBot is on a mission to silently hover over whales while collecting their snot for research.

There’s a new drone in town, and it’s nothing to sneeze at. OK — maybe that’s exactly what it is. Dubbed the SnotBot, this data-collecting drone was created by Ocean Alliance and Olin College of Engineering and is designed to catch the spray emitted from whales’ blowholes.

The mucus-rich “blow” provides scientists with a wealth of information, such as hormone levels (which can indicate if an animal is stressed or pregnant), evidence of infections (from bacteria, viruses or even environmental toxins) and tissue samples that can be used for DNA analysis.

Ocean Alliance is running a Kickstarter to fund SnotBot, with a little help from former Star Trek actor Sir Patrick Stewart, who has given his support to the new technology.

“I’m asking you to support my good friend Capt. Iain Kerr at Ocean Alliance in their quest for better, more effective, less invasive, innovative research that will give us answers to some of the mysteries about the ocean and particularly whales,” Stewart says in the video.

Traditionally the “snot” was obtained by leaning over the railing of a boat with a 10-foot pole while chasing down the whales. This approach to data collection is invasive and can put undue stress on the animals, which could influence the information retrieved. The SnotBot is designed to study these marine mammals without disturbing them.

“Imagine if everything your doctor knew about your health came from chasing you around a room with a large needle while blowing an air horn,” the SnotBot team says on its Kickstarter page.

SnotBot will hover quietly above the whales and passively collect snot, using spongelike pads as the whales go about their business undisturbed — no chasing, prodding or other stress-inducing activities required.

Research projects of this nature require certain permissions, so Ocean Alliance is seeking approval from the Federal Aviation Administration and the National Marine Fisheries Service for its expeditions later this year.

SnotBots will be used to gather data on whales in three locations: Patagonia, the Sea of Cortez and Frederick Sound, Alaska. Researchers hope to collect snot from previously studied individuals in order to compare the SnotBot’s data to older data collected via traditional methods.


Banned in 1986, commercial whaling took a serious toll on whale populations through the years. Although few countries still engage in the activity, its lasting damage has already been done — leaving most whale populations reduced in size by 90 percent or more.

The result of this dramatic loss is that dwindling whale populations were left vulnerable to an ever-increasing throng of anthropogenic threats. Whale fatalities via boat collisions, ingesting plastic pollution, exposure to environmental toxins and entanglement in fishing gear are impacts that a prewhaling population could have shrugged off, but now they can put an entire species as risk.

Ocean Alliance is working to gather new data to better understand how these stressors are affecting whales and what we can do to help them — and SnotBot might help reach that goal.

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Top 100: Diving in French Polynesia

Honeymooners who arrive at the over- water bungalows of Bora Bora and Moorea are convinced they’ve found Eden. But what most of their blissed-out ilk never realize is they’ve hardly scratched the surface when it comes to all there is in fantastique French Polynesia. Divers, of course, are more clued in. Collectively known as the islands of Tahiti, this volcanic archipelago of 118 islands and atolls includes five island groups, and covers a swath of the Pacific as large as Western Europe. From bejeweled reefs to ripping passes blitzed by pelagics, it’s a lot to take in. Here’s a head start on where to get wet.

Shark Central

Many dive destinations can claim sharks, but it’s hard to think of one that delivers them in the insane abundance of the Tuamotu atolls, the largest of the five island groups, where walls of sharks are the norm. During drift dives in Rangiroa’s Tiputa Pass and Fakarava’s Tumakohua Pass, hundreds of gray reef sharks congregate on the atoll’s outer wall like puzzle pieces in a toothy jigsaw, and silvertips and whitetips make appearances too. “My dive buddy wasn’t lying when he said, ‘Ain’t nobody gonna out-shark us,’” remembers San Diego diver Mark Guinto, who traveled to FP for what turned out to be the sharkiest dives of his life (gray sharks, lemon sharks, whitetips, silvertips and more). “Almost everyone was there to dive with sharks, and there were several species of them in great number,” says Guinto. Great hammerheads also are spotted fairly regularly at the passes, and tiger sharks make appearances too — making it easy to see why FP also took top honors for Best Big Animals.

Wide-Angle Wonderland

French Polynesia’s dazzlingly clear seascapes are to wide-angle photography what Lembeh is to a macro lens: the dream destination for clicking the shutter on some of the world’s most singular underwater moments, earning FP the No. 2 spot for Best Underwater Photography in the Pacific and Indian Ocean region. Excellent visibility that consistently surpasses the 100-foot mark enhances your photos, with ambient light a particularly saturated shade of blue. From the plunging walls of the Tuamotu passes and the Opunohu canyons of Moorea to Fitii pass in Huahine in the Society Islands (a calmer version of a Tuamotu-style drift), a wide-angle lens is your best friend for capturing walls of sharks, schooling jacks, mantas, dolphins and the like. “There is nowhere on Earth that compares to the stunning atolls of the Tuamotu chain when it comes to reef shark photography,” says Mike Veitch, an underwater photographer based in Bali. “The clear water and amazing abundance of sharks there is unmatched anywhere.”

Migrating Humpbacks

From mid-July to late October, visitors to Rurutu in the Austral archipelago (the southernmost group in French Polynesia) are treated to one of the ocean’s most awe-inspiring experiences — the chance to snorkel alongside humpback whales and their babies, drawn to the shallow, sheltered waters as a stopover on their migration path to Antarctica. Whaling stopped on this lagoonless island in the 1950s, and whale-watching tourism and snorkeling tours have brought a new livelihood for the people living here. The seas can be rough at this time of year, and visibility can be compromised, but when you find yourself finning alongside one of the gentle giants that come here to reproduce, calve and nurse their young, you’ll be left humbled for life.

Pelagic Paradise

Coastal and open-ocean pelagic species abound in French Polynesia, and therein lies the excitement of diving here — you never know when a great hammerhead, manta ray or tiger shark will go cruising past you. On the pearl-farming coral atoll of Manihi, mantas can sometimes be seen carousel-feeding in about 30 feet of water at the dive site called the Circus. Jacques Cousteau’s explorations in Tikehau in the Tuamotus found a higher concentration of species there than anywhere else in French Polynesia (he called the atoll the richest on Earth). Tikehau remains a pelagic gold mine for shoaling barracuda, manta rays and the usual shark denizens. And on Rangiroa, a veritable underwater Serengeti awaits.

“The concentration of colors and species was a sensory overload,” remembers Katharyne Daughtridge Gabriel, a diver who lives near London. “We saw gray sharks, whitetip sharks, barracudas, manta rays. And on the exit, I remember thinking, ‘I just foated through Jacques Cousteau’s dreams.’”

Ripping Drift Dives

Drift dives are a bit of a misnomer for the experience that awaits when you find yourself aviating through the famed atoll passes of Rangiroa, Fakarava and Tikehau in the Tuamotus. Sites like Tiputa and Avatoru passes in Rangiroa and Fakarava’s famed south pass, Tumakohua, are considered advanced dives due to the strong tidal currents pushing you into the lagoon that range between 3 and 8 knots. (Plan some refresher-level drift dives on Huahine in the Society Islands if you’re out of practice.) “It felt like I was flying next to a mountain-side,” remembers Guinto, a pilot who teaches military parachuting, of a dive at Tiputa Pass. “As a sky diver, I’ve had similar sensations.” Indeed, if any diving experience approaches the sensation of aerial acrobatics underwater, it’s the roaring passes of the Tuamotus — one reason FP was lauded as Best Advanced Diving in its region.

Pearl Farms

One of the pleasures of French Polynesia is shopping for Tahiti’s famed black pearls — which come in many sizes, shapes and colors, from black to shades of green, blue, bronze, aubergine and even pink — at a local pearl farm. At destinations such as Rangiroa and Tikehau, you can borrow a bike from your dive resort and pedal along sandy lanes fringed with palms to inspect the goods, or take a tour at farms such as Gauguin’s Pearl in Rangi or Fakarava’s Pearls of Havaiki.

The Land of Gauguin

The goal is to spend as much time as possible underwater, but some of the planet’s most jaw-dropping tropical landscapes — old volcanoes glinting with rainbows and emerald slopes lapped by perfectly peeling waves — make any time spent topside a treat too. From the mist-carpeted mountains of the Marquesas, where the French artist Paul Gauguin spent his final years, to Moorea’s lush Route d’Ananas (Pine- apple Route), best explored by scooter, and the iconic extinct volcanic peaks of Mount Pahia and Mount Otemanu on Bora Bora, you’ll need extra memory cards. Add to all that lushness the barren beauty of the atolls — sandy rings lapped by turquoise water and dotted with tiny motus (islets) that materialize as you descend toward the Tuamotus — and it’s visual overload in the very best sense, making it clear why readers named French Polynesia Best Overall Destination. “Everything feels exaggerated in its beauty,” remembers Janet Malin of time spent snorkeling with sharks and rays in Moorea’s lagoons. “The electric green of the land, fuchsia flowers, water this crazy royal blue, even the locals’ tattoos.”

French Style Crepes



For dining on the (relatively) cheap, alongside locals in Papeete, look for food trucks called roulottes. Skirted with picnic tables, they serve things like grilled mahimahi and French-style crepes and steaks. Can’t decide which? Look for the most crowded.

Le Cocos restaurant in French Polynesia



One of the best wine lists in French Polynesia — heavily French, of course — awaits at the new Moorea outpost of Le Coco’s, opened in March 2015 in Haapiti (lecocostahiti.com). Try the three-course sampler option to get a wider range of tastes.

Bungalow in Ninamu Resort

Courtesy Ninamu Resort


Mingle with big-wave surfers and kite surfers who also enjoy diving at Ninamu Resort (motuninamu.com) on Tikehau. The property has six bungalows and is completely of the grid, producing its own solar power and filtering its drinking water.


When To Go You can dive year-round in French Polynesia, but it’s rainier during the Southern Hemisphere summer, from November to March.

Travel Tip If you’re coming from the East Coast, consider staying a night in Los Angeles on your way to Tahiti. That way, you will arrive refreshed and ready to dive.

Dive Conditions Visibility in French Polynesia can reach up to 150 feet, and the water temperature averages 80 degrees.

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Blue Water Series: The Dive Behind the Photo – Part 1

Humpback Whale and Diver by David Valencia “Humpback whales arrive each winter in the waters of Baja and southern Mexico. At the isolated dive site of Roca Partida, an oceanic pinnacle of the Socorro Islands, humpback whale interactions have increased over the past few years. At the beginning of one […]

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Faroe Islands Slaughter Caught on Sea Shepherd Cameras

Video of Graphic Video and Images of Pilot Whale Slaughter in the Faroe Islands

Residents of the Faroe Islands have slaughtered about 250 pilot whales in the last 24 hours, according to reports from Sea Shepherd and global media that are following the breaking story.

Britain’s Guardian newspaper reported that whale pods — which migrate past these North Atlantic islands in mid-summer — were herded onto two beaches. Graphic Sea Shepherd video footage shows villagers in knee-deep water killing the whales by hand with lances among geysers of blood from the dying whales.

Pilot Whale Slaughter Faroe Islands Sea Shepherd

Sea Shepherd

Pilot Whale Slaughter in the Faroe Islands via Sea Shepherd

Seven protesters have been arrested for trying to interfere in what Faroe Islanders call the “grindadráp,” or annual traditional hunts. It appeared that the hunts were being conducted under the protection of the Danish Navy (Denmark rules the Faroes).

“It was perfectly clear that the Danish navy ships Triton and Knud Rasmussen were present to guard one grindadráp, and that the slaughter [only] proceeded with the full consent of the Danish navy,” Capt. Wyanda Lublink of Sea Shepherd told the Guardian. “How Denmark — an anti-whaling member nation of the European Union, subject to laws prohibiting the slaughter of cetaceans — can attempt to justify its collaboration in this slaughter is incomprehensible.”

Video of Mass Slaughter Of Pilot Whales In The Faroe Islands. WARNING. GRAPHIC.

Sea Shepherd footage puts the count of slaughtered whales at more than 250 on the two beaches.

According to Sea Shepherd releases, arrested protesters could face up to
two years imprisonment if they are found guilty of breaching the Faroese Pilot Whaling Act.

Read more about Sea Shepherd’s account of the last few days here.

Our sister site Sport Diver, is also reporting on this event here.

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