The area of northern Norway made famous by the Maelstrom tidal race is home to colossal fish including wolf-eels and giant halibut. JAMIE WATTS has three days in which to locate them
TROND IS THE KIND OF GUY you’d want with you when you dive somewhere like this. He’s
a big, solid, easy-going Norwegian fireman, he exudes competence, and he has more than 700 dives logged in the “Maelstrom” area.
Looking at the swirling, boiling mass of water below, I find myself in the rare position of wanting to be watched out for by a guide and buddy like him – 700 dives here must be equivalent to thousands elsewhere. He’s good company, too.
It’s a challenging environment that’s diveable only on slack water, and even then you can get strong eddy currents. It’s pretty deep, a little dark and cold.
We’re north of the Arctic Circle, a couple of days into midnight-sun season, but not enough for the water to have warmed beyond 5°, or to provide a great deal of light below the murk in the top couple of metres.
Northern Norway – the snow-capped mountain and gorgeous, rugged fjord scenery is peppered with wooden homes and summer lodges.
Moose roam the low, dense Arctic forests, and everywhere seems to be close to both mountains and ocean.
Just south of Bødo, a hub port a little south of the Lofotens, lie the turbulent fjord narrows of Saltstraumen.
Lining the shallows, and peppering the islets in the mile-long strait – which resembles rapids on a river rather than seawater – are dozens of eiders and hundreds of gulls, all well-fed and constantly on the move, diving and picking at morsels in the water.
They hint at just how much food is dragged in and out through here.
Hundreds of anglers line the shore, float-fishing in eddies or drifting with the flow. The gulls take the plankton and the young saithe, while the anglers are after the older saithe – as well as the giant fish I have come looking for.
I am here for wolf-eel and halibut.
The enigmatic wolf-eels, often referred to erroneously as giant blennies, can be seen in a few places around the northern UK, notably St Abbs.
By nature they are a colder-water animal, and this is perhaps the best place to find them anywhere.
Atlantic halibut are the world’s largest flatfish. They can grow to 4m long, and at least 300kg. Overfished elsewhere, there are still monster halibut in this area. Trond and the other regulars see them all the time – I was feeling lucky.
The spring melt and the run-off from a huge area of fjord has clouded the top couple of metres. Once through this gloom, however, you can immediately see a tangible richness of the marine life.
There are dense beds of kelp down to 7m and then, below this, slopes and walls drenched in invertebrates.
Familiar plumose anemones and dead men’s fingers appear alongside a variety of brightly painted coldwater anemones and dendritic cucumbers. Every gap is full of tubeworm clusters holding thousands of brittlestars – billions of arms, tentacles and filters, groping into the flow, grabbing tiny morsels.
The walls near the ends of the strait are as densely packed with life as a coral-reef wall, down to 60m and beyond.
The fish life is impressive, too. The saithe sought by the fishermen shoal by their thousands in the rapids (the divers remove a couple of tons of fishing weights and line each year).
It’s also nice to see metre-long cod here – a fish I’d far rather see while diving than eat.
What really drew me here were the wonderful wolf-eels. We found our first out in the open after five minutes on the check-out dive, and saw from six to more than a dozen on each dive.
Though not eels at all, rather gigantic eel-pouts, wolf-eels are somewhat reminiscent of a coldwater version of the moray eel, right down to their size and build, the soft, wrinkled, slime-covered skin and their face pores.
They have great faces – solemn, almost regal. They’ve been described as “ugly”, but this is rather uncharitable, if you ask me. They’re definitely heavy-featured, with the massive clamp jaw and protruding cone teeth, which are in most cases rather worn by chomping through the shells of whelks, crabs and urchins.
They seem more laid-back than morays, sitting and watching you as long as you approach slowly.
I had a couple scoot away as I got near to them, and two others raised their dorsal fins and chomped their jaws as a warning, but generally they sit and follow you with their eyes.
Their prey is plentiful, and doesn’t run away, and there are few predators large enough to worry them, so why hurry and fuss
The wolf-eels are here to feed, and fatten up for the summer. Only large adult wolf-eels arrive in the shallows in spring, just after spawning in deeper water.
Unusually, the eggs are fertilised internally before being laid in clutches for the males to guard, hatching just before the spring bloom. Youngsters tend to stay rather deeper.
They are long-lived and slow-growing, maturing at five or six, and taking 20 years or more to reach 1m – the size of most of the ones we see.
The maximum recorded, apparently, is 1.5m long, and we see at least half a dozen that look to be around this size.
There seem to be plenty of wolf-eels around, but like many large, slow-maturing fish their numbers have dropped from overfishing.
Trond, who grew up alongside the Maelstrom and definitely has a sense of stewardship for the area, says that 10 years ago they would see around 40 big “stone-biters” on every dive, before the fishermen started hitting them hard.
The flesh is good, but also the skin makes thin, soft and very strong leather – in demand for expensive Italian shoes. Their numbers have been making a bit of a rally in the past few years, however.
On a spring tide, around 400 million tonnes of sea water rushes into the 25-mile-long, 500m-deep Skjerstad fjord over the space of six hours and 13 minutes – then rushes out again.
It squeezes through the Saltstraumen, a channel a little over a mile long and, at its narrowest point, 150m wide by 31m deep.
When the tide goes out, it can’t keep up with the water still rushing in – it seems to get confused – and this is where you get the famous “Maelstrom”.
At maximum flow, just under the elegant bridge over the strait, spinning eruptions of water boil up, spread and slide against the fast outward central flow. You can see the slope against which the inrushing water is climbing. At the peak flow of springs you need a rather powerful boat to navigate the rapids, and you can literally climb a metre in height.
It’s the fastest current on Earth, and has been recorded at more than 22 knots – just a little faster than Usain Bolt’s maximum sprint speed.
I’m here at neaps, so “only” half of that movement is going on. I ask the guides if they have ever dived at full flow, and they say no, though a few of the more experienced have tried diving off slacks.
They describe expending massive effort just keeping juddering masks and regulators in place, being spun head over heels, dragged deep and pinned against walls. At best it’s a washing machine and at worst downright dangerous.
The adventurer in me fancies a fast drift, but I don’t have long here, and after a couple of dives and chats to the guides it seems it wouldbe a waste of a dive. There is certainly plenty else to see.
The halibut proves rather harder to pin down than the wolf-eel. This shouldn’t perhaps be a surprise – Atlantic halibut is one of the tastiest foods on earth, and it aggregates predictably to spawn.
As a result, it has been almost fished to extermination as a species.
I vividly remember eating my first Atlantic halibut – the magnificent 50kg fish was bycatch on a trawler fishing for other prey.
The crew were excited, the chef elated, and we had the most wonderful grilled steaks with butter and lemon sauce. It is still one of the best meals I’ve ever tasted.
Stocks of halibut have crashed, with no signs of recovery, over most of their range. Yet here, local fisheries scientists have been working on restocking, and the richness of the fjord systems provides the growing fish with plenty of food. They seem to be doing OK.
The local divers see them regularly at several sites, and occasionally find giants, human-sized or bigger. Rod-and-line fishermen also still find big animals, and Trond tells of a 300kg catch earlier in the year.
We do find three halibut, among several plaice and lemon flounder, where the wall falls away. We have to go to 30m or so, and they are small – less than 1m – and too skittish to photograph.
Every other flatfish seems built for sand, for camouflage and a life eating crustaceans and molluscs.
Look at a halibut, however, and the “design” is rather different. It has a thick, solid, muscular body, smooth, streamlined contours and a broad wing-like tail – this flatfish is built for chasing quite big fish. The twisted face is nonetheless streamlined, the jaw thick and strong.
And the left eye, unlike that in other members of the family, does not migrate all the way around to the right side of
the face with the metamorphosis of the larvae; it stops on the “bridge of the nose” – that is, at the side of the face.
This gives halibut the unusual ability to flip 90° off the sand and still have a forward-pointing eye, making them able to lie in wait, and then charge off and act as a midwater predator when a school of saithe or cod swims over.
I have only three days’ diving, and I don’t find my monster. The week before, they told me that they had seen human-sized fish.
They’re still out there, and it’s close enough to home. I’ll be back.
|GETTING THERE: SAS, Norwegian and Wideroe to Oslo and on to Bødo.|
DIVING & ACCOMMODATION: Saltstraumen Dive Camp is a PADI dive centre, saltstraumen-dykkecamp.no
WHEN TO GO: Jamie’s visit coincided with the spring/ summer bloom and snow melt; visibility below the surface layer ranged from 5-15m. Best vis is in winter, but halibut and wolf-eels are in shallow water from spring to autumn.
PRICES: The Dive Camp offers a long-weekend package with five guided boat-dives and three nights’ stay in a cabin with kitchen, WC/shower and TV for 2750 kroner (around £295) per person from October to April, and 3300 kroner pp (£355) May-September for a party of at least four.
FURTHER INFORMATION: www.visit norway.com