What’s one of the world’s best places to see whales? Norway, naturally

WhalesPhoto: Bart van Meele / Unsplash
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When it comes to the best places on Earth to see whales, Norway is definitely at the top of the list. Norway’s whales, depending on the kind, inhabit the seas surrounding the country all year long. Read on for our complete guide to the whales – and cetaceans in general – of Norway.

Along with rugged nature, northern lights, unique cultures, and midnight sun, among Norway’s amazing – and endless – draws is its wildlife. 

Norway is home to some of the rarest animals on the planet. Think the polar bear, Arctic fox, reindeer, many migratory birds, various types of seal, and multiple species of whale. 

That said, visiting Norway means taking on an extra degree of respect and responsibility toward its wildlife. Visitors are exactly that – visitors, or rather guests, in these animals’ homes. Caution must be taken, too. As cute and attractive as they may seem, the animals that make Norway their home are untamed – and some are predatory.

For example, Norway has outlawed any kind of polar bear safari for this reason. Though we might be enchanted by polar bears, we must remember that they’re wild and aggressive animals. 

Whale safaris and whale watching, however, do exist in Norway. We’ll explore whale watching in Norway through mini-biographies of these mega-mammals of the sea that inhabit the waters of Norway.

Meet Norway’s whales and other cetaceans

All whales belong to the animal kingdom’s Mammalia class and Cetacea order. There are over 80 living species of cetaceans, which are aquatic mammals.

The main whale and cetacean species that inhabit Norway (at various times throughout the year) are:

  • Dolphins
  • Humpback whales 
  • Minke whales
  • Narwhals
  • Orca whales
  • Pilot whales
  • Sperm whales 

Let’s get to know each of the awesome cetaceans you can see in Norway on a whale watching trip (more or less luck needed).

Dolphins

Dolphins (Odontoceti) are small-toothed cetaceans found in all of the world’s oceans. There are 36 species of dolphins, most of which live in salty waters (though there are a few freshwater dolphins).

Dolphins inhabit waters ranging from under 0 degrees Celsius to 30 degrees Celsius.

Fish and squid are dolphins’ main sources of sustenance. Dolphins track their prey using built-in echolocation skills; their inner sonar allows them to use sound waves to discover their prey’s location and size. 

Extremely social animals, dolphins usually live in pods of at least ten. Over the course of their lifetime, dolphins take multiple mates and usually have one offspring that stays with its mother for up to six years.

The animals also have a system of communication through clicking, squeaking, and whistling. A contested topic among scientists is whether dolphins have their own language.

In general, dolphins are very playful and curious mammals.

Dolphin in the sea
A dolphin delighting in the sea. Photo: Flavio Gasperini / Unsplash

These cetaceans are listed less threatened – though they certainly have challenges. They were hunted in the past and today, they face:

  • Entanglement in fishing nets – this is a high risk to dolphins, specifically
  • Warming ocean temperatures 
  • Degrading habitats
  • Ocean pollution and contamination

Dolphins can range in length from 1.5 meters to 10 meters and weigh up to six tons. The Maui dolphin is the smallest, being 1.5 meters long.

The largest dolphin is actually the Orca whale (aka the killer whale) – which we’ll cover separately.

Humpback whales

Humpback whales get their name from the small hump they have on their dorsal fin.

Their Latin name Megaptera novaeangliae translates to “big wing of New England” – due to their up-to-five-meters-in-size pectoral fins and the fact that European whalers first encountered them off the coast of New England.

Humpback whales range from 14 to 19 meters in length – that’s about the size of a bus. They can weigh up to 40 tons.

Humpback whale
An awe-inspiring humpback whale. Source: Todd Cravens / Unsplash

Humpback whales live – and sing across – all of the world’s oceans. Their songs, which include calls, groans, and howls can be carried across thousands of kilometers of water – and last for hours on end.

The exact meaning and function of whale songs remain unknown to humans; though some guesses are communication and attraction of mates.

Feeding on fish, krill, and plankton, humpback whales are often found in more shallow waters. They spend their summers near the poles and migrate closer to the Equator to breed during the winter, like many other whale species.

Calves nurse for over a year and stop growing around ten years of age. Mother and baby humpback calves often touch bodies to display (what scientists believe to be) signs of affection.

Humpback whales are listed at a “least concern” threat level today, after they recovered from centuries of being hunted. They still face: 

  • Entanglement in fishing gear
  • Warming ocean temperatures 
  • Degrading habitats
  • Collisions with ships (because of their curious nature, they often approach ships)
  • Ocean pollution and contamination

Humpback whales (and whales in general) often leap out of the water. Scientists aren’t sure if this serves a specific function, like cleaning themselves, if they do it for fun – or both.

Minke whales

Minke whales (Balaenoptera acutorostrata) reach around eight meters in length and five to ten tons in weight as adults.

Living throughout the world’s oceans, Minke whales migrate from polar waters in the summer to warm, tropical waters in the winter.

They usually travel solo or with up to two companions. 

Minke whale
A marvelous minke whale. Photo: Ronile / Unsplash

Minke whales have a varied diet which largely depends on which area in the world they live in.

Their prey includes fish (of various species; salmon, mackerel, cod, haddock…), krill, and eel. Minke whales are preyed on by Orca whales.

Giving birth about every year, Minke whales feed their young for around ten months. Minke whales are thought to live four to five decades.

Minke whales are considered less threatened, but they face a number of challenges: 

  • Whaling
  • Entanglement in fishing gear
  • Warming ocean temperatures 
  • Degrading habitats
  • Ocean pollution and contamination

Narwhals

Narwhals (Monodon monoceros) are – quite appropriately – known as the unicorns of the sea.

Narwhal
A depiction of the narwhal; the unicorn of the sea. Photo: OpenClipart-Vectors / Pixabay

Adult narwhals range in size from four to six meters in length and weigh up to 1.5 tons. These unique animals live in Arctic waters.

What about narwhals’ horns? They aren’t actually horns: these tusks are actually teeth, of which narwhals have two. The larger spirals out of their upper lip and can be up to three meters long! 

Scientists aren’t sure what the tusk’s purpose actually is – but theories include it being a way to attract mates. Usually, only male narwhals have tusks.

Narwhals often travel in groups of 15 to 20 – but much larger gatherings of hundreds, maybe thousands, of narwhals have been spotted. 

Narwhals are currently listed as “near threatened”, meaning they’re likely to become vulnerable in the near future. Threats they currently face are:

  • Hunting
  • Entanglement in fishing gear
  • Warming ocean temperatures 
  • Degrading habitats
  • Ocean pollution and contamination

As for narwhal watching, Norway has such options but they require trips quite far north, as the animals enjoy close proximity to the North Pole.

Orca whales

Orcas, aka killer whales, (Orcinus orca) are the largest species of dolphins and are one of the world’s most powerful predators.

Adult orcas can reach seven to ten meters in length and weigh up to six tons. The species’ average life span is 50 to 80 years.

Orcas are very intelligent and social animals and have a system of communication. Each orca pod uses distinctive noises to communicate, which group members can recognize from far away. 

Orca killer whale
Orcas whales swimming off the coast of Norway. Photo: Bart Van Meele / Unsplash

Orcas occupy the very top of the food chain, living and hunting across the polar regions to the Equator. Their diverse diets include fish, penguins, seals, seabirds, and even whales. Orcas hunt in pods, using team techniques likened by some to those of wolf packs.

Mother orcas usually have a baby every three to ten years, with pregnancies lasting 17 months and nursing up to two years. Adolescent female orcas often help mothers care for babies.

Orcas range in threat level by region. An entire southern region of orca whales is listed as endangered, meaning that they’re seriously facing extinction. Threats for orcas are:

  • Entanglement in fishing gear
  • Warming ocean temperatures 
  • Degrading habitats
  • Ocean pollution and contamination
  • Being kept in captivity for entertainment purposes – which causes the animals high stress and damaging changes in behavior (including aggressiveness toward other orcas and even self-mutilation)

Pilot whales

Pilot whales encompass two species: the long-finned Globicephala melas and the short-finned Globicephala macrorhynchus. Like orcas, pilot whales are actually dolphins.

Pilot whales are found throughout oceans worldwide, but the short-finned variety tends towards warmer waters, while those with long fins are more common in temperate waters.

The species reaches between five and six meters long in adulthood and weighs between one and three tons. 

Pilot whale
A friendly pilot whale. Photo: Noaa / Unsplash

Pilot whales most often feed on fish and squid. They hunt individually or in groups using vocal communication. Pilot whale pods can range in size from 20 to 90.

Female pilot whales give birth around every three to five years and nurse for just over a year. The species can live in the wild for over 50 years in age

Pilot whales are not considered endangered, but the threats they face include:

  • Hunting
  • Entanglement in fishing gear
  • Warming ocean temperatures 
  • Degrading habitats
  • Ocean pollution and contamination
  • Being kept in captivity for entertainment purposes
  • Being kept in captivity for military purposes
  • Beachings, the cause of which isn’t fully known

Sperm whales

Sperm whales (Physeter macrocephalus) can reach 15 to 18 meters in length, and 35 to 45 tons, as adults.

Fun fact: the sperm whale’s brain is the largest of any known animal that has ever lived on Earth. Inside their heads is a substance called spermaceti, after which they’re named.

The substance was wrongly identified as sperm by European whalers and its exact function remains unknown today.

Another fun fact: Moby Dick (1851) by Herman Melville made the sperm whale world-famous.

Sperm whales eat mainly fish and squid and live in pods of between 15 and 20. Female and young sperm whales live in tropical waters year-round, while males migrate towards the north pole during the summer.

So, if you’re whale watching in Norway and are lucky enough to spot an elusive sperm whale, you’ll know that it’s a male.

Sperm whales are very social animals. They practice communal childcare and communicate vocally. 

Sperm whale
A happily swimming sperm whale. Photo: Imbault / Pixabay

This species is currently listed as vulnerable, meaning it’s likely to become endangered unless threats to its survival decrease. These threats include:

  • Whaling
  • Entanglement in fishing gear
  • Warming ocean temperatures 
  • Degrading habitats
  • Ocean pollution and contamination

Laws associated with whales

The International Whaling Commission voted in an international moratorium on whaling in 1982, effective as of 1986. The commission allowed for whale hunting to continue exclusively by native groups like Eskimos, for whom whales traditionally provide key nutrients.

For example, Greenland natives rely on whale meat for sustenance, as well as Inuit people, who have hunted the narwhal for centuries as a crucial source of vitamin C. It ruled against commercial whaling.

All countries but three officially comply with the commission’s voting tally.

Norway and Iceland authorize commercial whaling on bounds of objection to the ruling, joined only by Japan which allows whale hunting for scientific purposes. 

Japan has research permits to hunt hundreds of whales per year. Norway has a commercial whale hunting quota set by the government which targets minke whales in particular.

Hunts are commonly subsidized by the government. Whale meat in Norway is marketed to citizens and tourists, and it’s exported to Iceland, Japan, and the Faroe Islands. 

Source: Norway Today

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