Finding the Eye of the Whirlpool

Adventure photographer Peter McBride tells what it was like to shoot whirlpools while hanging from a ship’s radio antenna.

Peter McBride

Enchanted by a symbol for a whirlpool on a nautical chart, best-selling

Near the entrance to Hell, I cling to an icy steel mast high above a fishing vessel, trying to get just the right angle to take a picture.

I'm off the coast of Norway's remote LofotenIslands, my boat captain Oddleif Nilsen's backyard. And Hell, Nilsen's birthplace, is the name of an abandoned port south of the little hamlet known as Å. I'm here on assignment trying to preserve on film the forces of this ocean whirlpool for this month's Smithsonian Journeys feature.

Without warning, the maelstrom we have entered jerks the stern, then the bow, tossing me—and my stomach—about on the mast. The spirited collision of ocean currents plays with our boat, and I wonder when the vessel will give up the fight, leaving us to drown in the icy depths. Even if the boat holds, I wonder when my stomach will yield to seasickness.

Nilsen, a weathered seaman, seems far more concerned with what I am doing on the mast than what is happening in the water.

As somewhat of a landlubber, I, like Nilsen, question my decision to climb the mast. But I've already hopscotched my way through Scotland and Norway to photograph these turbulent wonders, and it has become clear that the best place to observe the maelstroms is from on high. Of course, aircraft can be difficult to rent in remote corners of the world, and only the Saltstraumen, near Bodø, Norway, and one other whirlpool in Japan, so I'm told, are beneath bridges from which they can be conveniently viewed.

So here in the Lofotens, I have but one option: take a boat directly into the eye of the spirited whirls of water. Nilsen's fishing boat proves the best for the job.

When you are near the ocean's surface, many whirlpools appear to be nothing more than confused water with occasional rogue waves. Yet from high in the rigging on a frozen mast, you can see the enormous swirls form.

In Scotland, the famous Corryvreckan forms a fierce standing wave and requires a more adventure-oriented transport. An inflatable boat, courtesy of the tour company Seafari, becomes the photography platform. With a trusting guide, Gus, we maneuver almost directly into the maw of this ocean marvel. Such proximity allows for intimate images of the snarling wave but leaves me soaked with teeth-chattering cold even in spite of the dry suit I wear.

By the time I reach New Brunswick in Canada, I am relieved to find I can photograph the "Old Sow" from the safety of an aircraft. But after I hang out of the door of a single engine plane in the bitter chill of a Maine early November, the frosty mast on Nilsen's ship seemed preferable.

As I write this, my feet are on firm ground and I'm remembering it all: my fears, the bone-rattling cold, the seasickness and the numerous saltwater soakings (cameras included), and I'm thinking, you know, to get the photographs for Smithsonian, I went to Hell and back.

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