Snorkelling with Orca (Killer Whales) above the Arctic Circle, Norway...
We zipped around the rough waters, through snow, through clear air, and then through snow again. But alas, there were no orcas to be seen. I was getting thoroughly cold by now as the wind chill cut through me - it was -20 degrees in the air alone, never mind the wind-chill factor. My fingers and toes were hurting with the cold, and I was given an extra pair of outer gloves to go over my two pairs.
There was no shelter on the zodiac so I tried to think of warm things: hot fires, tropical beaches - but it didn't work. My toes were like painful, numb blocks of ice, and I had strong words with the skipper who'd promised me one pair of socks would be enough... the thought of my Norwegian fishing socks back at the hotel made me insane!
We cut the engine in the middle of a snowstorm so thick I could hardly see a few feet away from my face. The skipper put on Queen's 'We Will Rock You' - loud - and we all did hand-dancing in an attempt to warm up. I put my feet up on the edge of the dingy and laid back, looking at snow falling on my feet, in the middle of Arctic waters, bobbing about in a blizzard miles from land, listening to Queen, and thinking that this is one of the most bizarre experiences of my life!
The captain said we'd head back to shore as we wouldn't find the whales, and somebody needed the loo. But as we turned I saw excited pointing from the front of the zodiac, and there they were.....a pod of about 30 orcas swimming so beautifully in the thick snow. I could not believe my eyes - this was a long-awaited dream come true.
I was feeling so cold I was even contemplating not getting in the water with the whales, but it was so exciting seeing them that I found myself slipping down easily into the water, feet first, and found it was actually warmer underwater. Three orcas swam right underneath me!
Orcas don't look the brilliant black and white normally seen in plastic turquoise pools of captivity or in the movies. In the wild, snowy setting containing every shade of grey, they looked a beautiful soft charcoal and their creamy white areas subdued as they came up to breathe - the most beautiful sound on earth. I heard them loudly clicking underwater in their language, unique to that pod. This is how they should be experienced I thought to myself.
This pod was the "Anna" pod that we'd learnt about the night before. There were all ages of orcas there, young and old and a few tiny babies, travelling through the sea with ease, with mostly herring on their minds.
We stayed with the pod for quite a while. I had no fear for these giant 9-metre long creatures with their metre and a half dorsal fins. At one point I was sitting on the back of the zodiac on my own, when two orcas came up out of the water right in front of me, their heads facing me, mouths open, maybe a metre away - looking at me, working me out. I looked at all their impressive, sharp teeth and powerful jaws. I will never, ever forget this moment. Two species, equally curious. I am lucky in life to experience this.
Back in the sea again, feeling like a cork bobbing in the water, unable to go in any direction at all I found it really hard to swim anywhere I wanted. After a while I managed to roll onto my back, just laying there, and look up into the snowy sky and contemplate the experience of just being in the orcas habitat - I was in their world with them around me and that was wonderful. It was a massive effort to roll back over, and even more of an effort to get back into the zodiac. I could see the step ladder, I could see my legs, but neither would join up!
2pm and it was quickly getting darker and darker and harder and harder to see the whales, and when the pod finally left us, we headed back to shore - to so-called civilisation, and the loo. It was a blistering ride back, the wind cutting my face - incredibly bracing and exhilarating. Steaming hot chowder in a mug, yes.