Aurora Borealis

It’s 1.30pm and, after about 3 hours ‘daylight’ it’s now dark again. This is winter in Hamnnes, northern Norway, about 50 nautical miles east of Tromso and overlooked by the Lyngen mountains. Few residents of this small hamlet are stirring today. The shop and museum open for an hour for our benefit, a couple of boy racers show off their skills with their snowmobiles, and a more sensible rider hauls back a tall, freshly cut, Christmas tree from the forest. Our group of 30 from Oceanwide Expedition’s 1924 built 3 mast schooner, ‘Rembrandt van Rijn’, disturb an otherwise very quiet Hamnnes Sunday as we walk with our snowshoes out of the village and along the mountain trails. There is evidence of wildlife only in the shape of mountain hare and fox tracks but no sign of those that made them. In the evening, we check for the northern lights but it’s cloudy, only a few stars peeking through the dark skies and not much hope for tonight.

Tomorrow might be a different matter. Then we sail to the area around Skjveroy where the herring should be and with the herring should be predators.

The morning sees us on deck well before 10am, greeted by the moon and waiting for daylight! ‘Daylight’ here is a sort of twilight, neither light nor dark. Robert Goddard in his novel, ‘Into the Blue’, describes twilight as ‘that interval between day and night when nothing can be relied upon’. He’s spot on. Even with a fast lens, it will need a cooperative subject and an element of creativity to get a decent picture. Whether those two come together remains to be seen. There is a keen wind which, together with temperatures around zero, calls for many layers. The mountain scenery is spectacular, if a little monochromatic. There’s a sense of urgency on the ship because we know that we have no more than 3 hours of daylight. By around 1.30pm it will be dark again. Before too long we see humpback blows, a few dark shapes and the occasional fluke as the animals dive. A couple of white-tailed eagles make an appearance but there’s no colour. If you’ve seen whales and eagles before, you’ve probably had experiences far exceeding this and my long lens is silent. Fishermen report that there are fewer than normal herring and, of course, their numbers will dictate whale activity. We move out of the wind into a sheltered fjord where the weather is kinder and where we find seven or eight smaller boats also watching for whales. Nothing more exciting than we have already seen and by lunchtime it’s dark. Later, on deck, we can hear a humpback blowing tantalisingly close to the ship. Through the snow and darkness we can’t see her. But, it’s still an adventure and one we’ve never experienced before. We’ve been to the polar regions several times but never in the winter. This is different. Obviously, it’s darker and colder. There is no sun even in ‘daylight’. So there’s an atmosphere which is alien to our normal life and we’re, once again, experiencing wilderness in its rawest beauty. If you enjoy Tenerife, this place is not for you.

It’s Tuesday although the day of the week has no relevance here. We’re underway heading back to the area we saw the whales yesterday and looking out for any action on the way. There’s a night vision camera on the front of the ship which might help. When we arrive there are a couple of humpbacks resting and we spend more time than we should, watching them. A pair of female orcas pass by and eventually we move off in search of other whales. We spot a pair of male orcas who entertain us for some time, spy hopping and tail slapping. My camera plays up just when the orcas are at their closest but they’re great to see. All too quickly, it’s dark again and time for lunch. We’re heading for Skorpa and, if the weather holds, a walk.

We moor at Skorpa on an old wooden pier. This is a deserted hamlet, complete with church and a few houses and is very picturesque. By 4.30pm, we’ve snow-shoed up the hillside to a frozen lake, we turn off our lamps and stop to look and listen. It is so quiet and in the sky, despite the weather forecast, there are stars and with clear skies, a good chance of northern lights. There are a few nice photo opportunities of the ship, the buildings, and the small graveyard. The lights from the ship highlight the blue of the sea but we have to wait a few more hours to see if the northern lights appear. There’s also the sound of whales from somewhere behind the ship. The duty officer picks them up on the infra-red camera and there are five. That’s a good sign for tomorrow. There’s a rota for volunteers for the night shift so that not everyone has to stay up to watch for the lights. The youngsters get in first and I end up with the 3-4am slot. How did that happen?

So at 2.50am I leave my bed to relieve the young French honeymoon couple and spend an hour alone on the island with just a few ship’s lights for company. It is cloudy and the lights do not appear so, a little after 4.10am, I’m back in bed.

It’s -6c and we’re out on the fjords looking for whales. Although it’s still dark, there’s some moonlight. It isn’t even daylight when we spot, probably, the five whales we heard last night. In Kvaenangen fjord we have another two groups of humpbacks, totalling around 15 in all and quite active. I’m hoping that, despite the twilight, there will be some photos. We then move off to look for orca and before long we find a female with its calf, a lone male and then several others passing by. I spend time chatting with the second officer who is steering the ship from the aft deck and when she goes to the bridge to make up her log, I take over the steering! She’s obviously happy with my progress, so I keep the wheel for around 45 minutes. As we approach lunchtime, the temperature has moved up to -3c but four hours on deck is beginning to take its toll on the extremities. By 1.30pm it’s dark, time for a warm and some food. In the meantime, the ship is heading for Burfjord where we will look again for the lights.

But when we arrive, it is snowing and our expedition leader has an aurora watch map which says we might see the lights from England or Scotland – but not from here because the sky is filled with the white stuff. Nevertheless we have a nice walk in the snow and find some reflections to photograph. When we get back to the ship, I borrow a friend’s book entitled, ‘Linear Operators for Quantum Mechanics’ but I don’t even understand the title. Chapter one is gobbledegook (to me) and I wonder what inspired Thomas F Jordan to write about such things.

Another day dawns. We are delayed leaving our berth because of high winds. Eventually we get under way and we have a swell which is tossing the old ship around a bit. It’s dark and there are snow showers so there’s little chance to see whales today. We have a long way to go to Finnkroken. In the afternoon we set the sails and let the wind help us along. We have an excellent lecture on understanding the northern lights because tonight is forecast to be clear and with a KP factor of 3, our best chance yet of a sighting.

We arrive in Finnkroken to a royal welcome from a few of the 11 villagers (or 14, depending on who told you). We then follow a trail into the mountains but even before we arrive at our destination, there are white shadows in the starlit sky. These are the northern lights but to the human eye, they are unremarkable. The sensor on the camera has a completely different interpretation and the screen is alight with deep green hues. On our last night in the fjords, we finally get to photograph one of the sights we are here for and the results are fascinating.

On Friday, we head back to Tromso for our final night on the ship, and will moor in the city.

I know that there are some who are waiting to hear from me about this trip so they can decide whether it might be for them also. I hope I have given you a sense of the adventure. Although we saw humpback and killer whales, and white-tailed eagles, I had hoped for more action. Whether this was due to a scarcity of herring or our inability to find the feeding locations, I don’t know.

The light is a serious hindrance to good photography and the weather plays an important part in the quality of such light as there is. We were fortunate to see the northern lights on our final night but it might have been a different story. Because it is dark for much of the time, you need to entertain yourself or be entertained during those hours on the ship. Remember, you may not have the opportunity to borrow ‘Linear Operators for Quantum Mechanics’. However, the expedition staff gave illustrated talks which were interesting, informative, and relevant to the region and its wildlife. The scenery is magnificent and the landings are worthwhile. So, as an expedition to the Norwegian Arctic, it is a fascinating taste of that country’s winter wilderness and some of its people. As a wildlife photographic journey, it is likely to be less successful. But there is still ample opportunity to occupy any photographer who is willing to be flexible in their choice of subject.

Rembrandt van Rijn is a nice ship but, as is often the case with old expedition ships, fairly basic in its amenities. However, unless you insist on 5 star creature comforts for your trips, it is perfectly adequate and has a great crew who do what they can to make your trip memorable.

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