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Dive Photo Guide


Freediving with Orcas in the Arctic
By Joseph Tepper, May 23, 2017 @ 05:00 AM (EST)

Orcas cut through the waters off of Norway as the sun barely hovers over the horizon

Jacques de Vos is a certified freediving instructor trainer and can easily dive down to 100 feet for several minutes on a single breath. But there is one experience that decimates those statistics: freediving and photographing orcas in the Arctic.

Off the coast of Norway, Jacques spends the winter months in virtual darkness listening for clicks and whistles through a hydrophone. His target is the countless orcas that have traveled into the fjords to chase down their fill in herring. Grabbing his trusty Ikelite camera setup and one last breath, Jacques kicks down in tow of the so-called killer whales.

“Given the excitement most people experience when seeing them underwater—myself included—a higher heart rate means even a 30-second dive can become quite challenging,” confesses de Vos, who braves near-zero temperatures in and out of the water to capture his stunning images of the orcas.

Jacques scans the horizon for any sign of whale activity

The orcas are on the hunt to feast on huge schools of herring

The idea came about from a lifelong fascination with orcas. For Jacques, diving into the frigid fjords is just a means to an end—to photograph one of the top predators in the ocean. A couple of years back, he teamed up with longtime friend, and FirstElement CEO, Jörg Rychen to plan the expedition of his life.

After two weeks on, and in, the water with the orcas, Jacques realized that this encounter was something he needed to share with other hearty underwater photographers. He is currently teamed up with a local yacht charter company, Boreal Yachting, to bring small groups of photographers to the orcas through the company Arctic Freediving.

“The sensation was a surreal mix of euphoric excitement and nervousness,” recalls Jacques of his first encounters with orcas in the Arctic. “When they finally came right towards us, seeing them up close underwater as they cautiously looked us over with their harmless looking eyes was a moment I will remember for the rest of my life.”

Freediving allows more intimate encounters with the whales

Orca and humpback whales in the same image? Yes, please!

Such encounters are enough to make Jacques forget about the surrounding conditions. The water hovers barely above freezing, and the air temperature is often significantly colder. And yet, Jacques prefers the maneuverability offered by an open cell wetsuit, instead of a drysuit.

In terms of camera gear, Jacques matches the lightweight and durable construction of his Arctic freediving wetsuit with that of his Ikelite housing. “Out of the water Ikelite housings are quite light and with the new modular port system, it is also easy to set it up quickly for different lens options,” says Jacques, who currently shoots with a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV. “Their housings are also extremely reliable in the cold climate.”

Jacques gets into position to capture an orca with his trusty Ikelite setup

Apparently, the freezing water becomes a second thought when surrounded by dozens of humpback and orcas

Splash down! The orcas often come within just a few feet as they chase the herring

The challenges of photographing the orcas extend far beyond the conditions themselves. At that time of year, the sun barely comes over the horizon, resulting in a perpetual state of twilight. Strobes are out of the question as they might startle the animals and would add a significant amount of drag while freediving.

Instead, Jacques relies on the high ISO capabilities of the 5D Mark IV to compensate for the low light levels, combined with an open aperture and fast shutter speed to freeze the orcas’ movement. If you’re looking for a high bar to test an underwater camera setup, it doesn’t get much higher than freediving with orcas in the Arctic!

Jacques and his team use a zodiac to get as close as possible to the whales before dropping in the water. Then, all you have is your camera and a single breath

A lone orca comes in for a close inspection

But Jacques’ first images of orcas on the inaugural voyage aren’t perhaps as stunning as the ones presented here. “I still have the very first photo I took from the surface, although it’s very blurry due to shaky hands,” Jacques admits.

Was this caused by the Norwegian chill or the excitement of getting up close and personal with orcas in the ultimate wild? We’ll let you decide.  

Red Bull tells the story of Jacques’ obsession with orcas


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