The eye that fixes on me is a shiny black bead, like a piece of jet. It is like no animal’s eye I have ever seen. Shark’s eyes quiver, covering themselves with a white protective sheath as the animal approaches its prey. Lion’s eyes glow amber. I have met many sharks and many lions and both made my blood freeze. But now I am in the water with a killer whale, as orcas are widely known. Like sharks and lions, it is designed to hunt and kill. But it is also bigger, stronger and brainier.
Wild orcas have never, as far as we know, attacked human beings. Only captive orcas – kept in cramped artificial tanks and forced to perform tricks – have done that. But that knowledge doesn’t still my fears. For two days I have been in northern Norway, watching orcas from the safety of a fishing boat as they move inshore to follow migrating herring shoals. They swim gracefully and speedily, occasionally pausing to “stand” upright, heads fully out of the water, in order to watch for seals – a behaviour known as “spy-hopping”. When an orca spots a seal on an ice floe, it swims quickly towards it, creating a wave which swooshes the unsuspecting seal into the water.
When the time comes to contort myself into a dry suit, I’m fixated on the darkness of the water. Norway in the depths of winter is totally unlike the rich sunlit reefs of the tropics where I have done most of my diving. Snow is falling against a backdrop of jagged mountains and a biting wind is making my face go numb. I question the wisdom of diving into a predator’s territory, especially when I can see and hear very little.
From the boat, the whales are distant, dark hummocks, barely distinguishable from the chop on the surface of the ocean. Then I see a tall, black dorsal fin cutting through the waves some 500m away. The skipper asks if I am ready; this must be what a first parachute jump feels like.
My desire to see this orca up close fights with my survival instinct. Eventually I slip over the side and, peering into the shadows, try to disguise myself as a piece of flotsam. And then he is there, at eye level, at least three times my length and 40 times my weight. His black-and-white skin is elegant, his body pure muscle.
He is quite still, looking at me and rocking his head from side to side, inspecting me in the way a bird might. I find it hard to breathe. I know that he is sizing me up. And then, in what appears to be an unthreatening way, he swims in a slow circle around me, turning repeatedly in the water to look at me, first with one eye, and then the other. No matter whose idea this encounter had been, I was the one being studied. Never before have I felt so small and so powerless.