“No way! A great white would destroy a killer whale!”
“It’s just a dumb fish.”
“You’re a dumb fish.”
Jake didn’t know whether to smile or roll his eyes. After a long wait at Oslo Airport, he’d found himself seated across from two boys for the flight into Tromsø. They seemed intent on comparing animals’ fighting abilities.
He’d dozed off somewhere around Gorilla vs Rhino, but this last scenario had stirred him from slumber. He couldn’t resist – pulling his headphones off, he leaned in and caught the nearest boy’s eye.
“Your friend is right, actually. An orca would win against a great white.”
“Told you so!” the other boy exclaimed, punching his seatmate on the shoulder. “And he’s not my friend; he’s my little brother. And an idiot.”
The younger sibling looked unconvinced.
“It’s true”, Jake continued. “Orcas have killed great whites. They’re bigger, smarter, and hunt in packs. Well, pods. The shark has no chance.”
“What’s an orca?”
“It’s another name for killer whales. Killer whale is a misnomer, anyway – it’s a mistranslation of whale killer. They’re dolphins. And whales. It’s complicated.”
“What’s a misnomer?”
“Never mind. Whatever you call them, I’m going to be swimming with them tomorrow.”
Jake couldn’t help smirking at the shocked looks on their faces. He could barely believe it himself – snorkelling with orcas had been on his bucket list for years, but the price tag had made his eyes water. He’d joined a Facebook group, scrolling through posts with a mixture of awe and jealousy.
Then, last month, he’d received a private message from the captain of Orcinus, a Norwegian fishing boat that doubled as a whale-watching vessel.
One space available. One week swimming with the orcas. Meals and equipment provided: half price. He’d snapped it up without thinking; it wasn’t like he had anyone to run the idea by, anyway.
Jake stirred as he realised the boys were still staring at him.
“Sorry, what was that?” he asked.
“I said, they’re going to bite you in half and toss your mangled corpse around.”
“Firstly, how old are you?” Jake replied. “And secondly, I think I’ll be okay. There are no recorded human deaths caused by wild orcas.”
“I’m almost 12”, said the older boy. “And maybe they’re just good at getting away with it.”
Jake gave a wry smile, but he didn’t push the issue. Within a few minutes, his flight companions were energetically debating T-Rex vs Spinosaurus, and Jake had dozed off again.
A Warm Welcome
“Good job you packed light”, Einar Jensen said, as Jake struggled to heft his luggage into the car.
The captain of the Orcinus was a large, burly middle-aged man with a thick salt-and-pepper beard and close-cropped hair. A slight twinkle in his pale blues eyes belied his otherwise serious countenance.
He’d met Jake at the airport ten minutes earlier and ushered him towards the exit. Jake had thought it a little odd that no one else was there, but he assumed he’d meet the others at the harbour. His attempts at polite conversation were met mainly with grunts, punctuated with the occasional nod.
Now Einar was standing, hands-on-hips, giving Jake an appraising look. Finally, he bent down and lifted a heavy case into the boot as if it were nothing, making a gesture to get a move on and sliding into the driver’s seat.
Jake had barely buckled his seatbelt when Einar set off for the harbour. After a few minutes, he thought he’d try again with the taciturn captain.
“So… I was wondering why you messaged me, specifically, for this trip?”
Einar was quiet for a moment, scratching his chin absent-mindedly. “I saw some of your Facebook posts and you seemed interested. I sent messages to several people from that group.”
“Ah, okay. How many of us are coming on the tour?”
“Well, apart from the crew, there were six others. A family. But they backed out at the last minute. So, looks like you’ve got the orcas to yourself. You and the herring, anyway.”
“Oh. So, it’s still worth running the trip? You can afjord it?”
The captain turned to Jake. If he had heard the joke, he ignored it.
“Well, it’s not ideal. But you’ve come a long way. Maybe we’ll do a little fishing while we’re there.”
Einar parked the car and announced their arrival. Jake gazed across the harbour, breathing in the crisp November air and looking out at the snow-capped mountains in the distance.
It was beautiful. Yet he felt a little… well, he wasn’t sure how he felt.
It’s just your social anxiety. You haven’t spoken to anyone in weeks, and Einar’s not exactly a social butterfly.
“How much does a polar bear weigh?” he blurted out.
The captain stared at him. “Up to 700 kg. Occasionally more.”
“Enough to break the ice…”
“No, certainly not. Even if it had gorged on seal blubber for a week, it would not make the slightest dent in the ice. A bull walrus wouldn’t break the ice.”
This is going to be a long week, Jake thought.
Jake woke up early the next morning. He’d struggled to sleep, excitement and anxiety jostling for position in his head.
The first evening on board Orcinus was uneventful. His room was spartan, but comfortable enough. At dinner, he’d choked down a rather suspect soup made by Olav, the 1st Mate. The rest of the crew were just as large and powerfully built as the captain, with the same piercing gaze.
A knock on the door brought him out of his reverie, followed by Einar’s gravelly voice.
“We’ve found them. Come up and get your suit on.”
Jake waited until the heavy footsteps had receded, then started to layer up. He’d never worn a drysuit before, and the concept of putting on warm clothes before jumping into the water was bizarre.
He finished dressing, tossed his phone into a drawer, and made his way up to the deck. Einar and two other crewmates were waiting for him. He thought it was Jens and Erik. Or was it Espen?
Espen/Erik gave him a cryptic look, grunted, and tossed a suit to him.
Einar walked over as Jake struggled with the garment.
“Just remember – the orcas are here for the herring. They’re resident orcas. Fish eaters. Don’t act like a herring and you’ll have nothing to worry about.”
“Do they only eat herring?”
“Mostly”, Einar replied with a wink, walking off to bark out orders at Espen/Erik.
Jake was busy wondering how not to act like a herring when he saw it – a huge, black dorsal fin cutting through the water. And another!
He cursed himself for leaving his camera below deck. Einar had returned with a mask and fins, gesturing for him to hurry.
Jake put them on, mind racing. “Shouldn’t there be a, err, safety briefing or something?”
“Can you swim?”
“Great. Off you go.”
With the last word, Einar pushed Jake into the water.
He didn’t have time to feel aggrieved – even with the drysuit, the cold was a shock to his system. Struggling back to the surface, he gulped in the frigid air in several short, shallow breaths.
“Are you crazy?!” he shouted to the captain, who was grinning along with the rest of the crew.
“People often take a while to work up the courage. It’s very boring, so I thought I’d save us all a bit of time. And stop splashing about – they might think you’re a herring.”
Oh God – the orcas.
Jake had almost forgotten why he was in the water in the first place. But he soon remembered as a huge dark shape slid by, maybe 10 metres in front of him. He turned and saw another to his left. Closer this time.
They don’t eat humans. They don’t harm humans.
After a few slower, deeper breaths, he stuck his head under the water and swam further out. He could hear the orcas this time, whistling and clicking away to each other and heading towards a shoal of herring. Jake watched, mesmerised, as more orcas appeared out of the gloom.
They were herding the herring into a tighter ball, getting them closer to the surface where they could pick them off more easily.
He lost track of time, entranced by these perfectly engineered predators, and all thoughts of angry TripAdvisor reviews about Einar forgotten. He might have been there ten minutes, or two hours.
Something bumped his leg.
Don’t panic. They eat fish. They don’t see you as prey.
Jake willed himself to stay calm and keep his swimming stroke smooth. He looked back at the boat. Einar was slapping the water and gesturing for him to come in.
Suddenly, he was yanked under with incredible force. Something had him by the ankle! He gasped, taking in a lung full of water.
Whistling sounds invaded his consciousness. They were almost taunting.
As quickly as it had grabbed him, the orca let go, disappearing into the depths in an instant. Jake surfaced, pulling off his mask and spluttering. He could hear voices from the boat, but he didn’t need any encouragement this time. He swam back as fast as he could. Large, powerful hands grasped his shoulders and pulled him back onto the deck.
As one of the crewmen pulled off his suit, blood blossomed from his shin. Someone was talking, but it might as well have been Norwegian.
It probably is Norwegian, he thought.
The deck was spinning.
He couldn’t breathe.
The world went dark.
A Rude Awakening
Jake woke with a splitting headache. He forced his eyes open, taking in the scene.
He was back in his room. His right leg was bandaged up, and there was a twinge of pain as he felt at his shin.
Not broken, at least.
Someone knocked on the door and came in without waiting for a response. It was Einar.
“I told you not to act like a herring”, he said.
He was smiling, but it didn’t reach his eyes.
“I still don’t know what that means. What the hell just happened?”
“You had a panic attack, then you passed out”, Einar replied.
“As for that”, he continued, gesturing to Jake’s leg. “That was a young male. He was just playing around. It’s not serious; we’ll try again later.”
“That’s easy for you to say! And what was with you pushing me in earlier?! No wonder I’m the only guest.”
Einar just stood there.
“Also, what makes you think I want to go in again after that debacle?”
“Oh, you’ll go in again.”
Something in Einar’s tone stopped Jake in his tracks, and his anger dissipated.
The captain’s silhouette took up most of the doorway.
“I know you still enjoyed it”, the captain finished, taking a step closer into the light. “Seeing them hunt on your first morning? Most people would bite your leg off for that opportunity.” He thought about what he’d just said, and grinned.
Jake scrabbled around in the bedside drawer. He had enjoyed it; at least 90% of it. And yet, he needed to tell someone – anyone – what had just happened. The other group members on Facebook could give him some advice. Maybe it wasn’t anything to worry about.
“Looking for this?” Einar asked, producing a phone from his pocket. “You left it on the deck.”
He tossed it onto the bed. Jake looked at it for a moment, then went straight to Whale of a Time: Orca Experiences and typed out a quick message.
Hey, guys. I’m wondering if anyone’s ever had physical contact with the orcas? I had an amazing day but one of them got a little close for comfort.
Einar’s phone buzzed. He mumbled something and walked out.
Jake hardly noticed – after a few moments, he got a response from Jenny, one of the group’s regulars.
They might bump into you if you get too close to the fish. But they’re just big, playful dolphins.
This was different though. It seemed… aggressive?
Maybe you’re reading into it too much. You know there are no cases of wild orcas killing humans. Put that leg up for an hour or two and you’ll be raring to get back out there.
Jake stared at that last sentence, rereading it slowly. His brain was foggy.
His phone vibrated again. Slowly, he picked it up.
No recorded cases, anyway 😉
Footsteps came from outside. Several people. Einar’s was the first head to peek around the doorway.
“Sorry about that. How’s Jenny?”
Jake looked up, the colour draining from his face.
“Never mind; I’ll ask her myself.”
Einar cupped a hand to his mouth, turning around and shouting.
The first mate's heavily stubbled face appeared from the corridor. Olav made a mocking bow.
“Seriously, WHAT is going on?”
Jake wasn’t even attempting to keep the panic out of his voice, now.
“A lot of hassle, that’s what”, Einar replied. He gestured behind him, and two more crewmen appeared. Jens and Erik/Espen.
“You know, up until a few years ago, he was fine with any old hobo. Ply them with cheap booze, offer them a free Northern Lights cruise? Simple. But these days, he’s fussy. Says he needs variety. An Australian here; a Brazilian there. This time he wanted British food. And our master isn’t someone you say no to.”
Jake could scarcely believe what was happening.
“You’re messing with me. This is a sick joke.”
“Unfortunately, not. The only sick joke was the one you made about the polar bear. And that afjord pun.”
“The Facebook group…?”
“That was Olav’s idea. He has a creative writing degree. And Emil here is a web designer, so we made the whole thing look nice and legitimate.” Einar gestured to Erik/Espen as he said this last part, who grinned unpleasantly.
Jake felt a lot better about forgetting his name.
“Great place to collect lonely, bargain-hunting suckers from all over the globe with a hard-on for apex predators. One at a time, of course,” Einar continued. “They don’t tend to post much after their trip. Real once-in-a-lifetime experience.
“That meant we needed some regulars posting on there. Jenny, Paul, Taylor. All Olav. Real way with words, that one.”
“Stop, you’re making me blush”, the first mate replied.
“YOU’RE ALL FUCKING INSANE!” Jake shouted. “What is the payoff for catfishing me and dragging me here?”
“I thought you were brighter than that,” Einar replied. “As I was saying, we’re feeding you to him.”
“Whom”, Olav added, helpfully.
Einar gave him a stern look, and rounded on Jake.
“To an orca, of course. Well, not just any orca. The orca.”
“THEY EAT HERRING.”
“Most of the time. Our arrangement keeps him sated, so he keeps them in line. Usually. That one this morning was a little over-eager.”
Jake grabbed his phone again.
“I’m done with this. If you don’t admit this is a joke, I’m calling the police.”
“What’s the Norwegian emergency number?”
Shit. He’d have to try someone else.
He scrolled through, but his contacts were gone.
“I didn’t have to delete many”, Einar said. “You don’t have many friends, do you, Jake? No one to notice you’ve gone missing.”
The captain sighed.
“Well, this has been fun, but our master is impatient, and we can’t keep him waiting.”
Einar turned to leave. Two large pairs of hands grabbed Jake roughly and dragged him after the captain’s retreating back.
The crewmen had marched Jake back up to the deck and were holding onto an arm each.
Einar was looking at his watch, then to the sea, and back again. They’d been there for 10 minutes.
“Here we are”, he said, as an enormous dark shape breached the surface. It was at least twice as long as the orcas Jake had seen that morning, and completely black. Its eyes burned red.
“You’re a know-it-all, so I’m sure you know what Orcinus means, Jake?”
“Of the kingdom of the dead”, Jake whispered, as hands pushed him into the sea.