Chasing the Northern Lights (5 - 7, 10 January).

Mission accomplished! We saw the Northern Lights. It was truly an iconic, magical and a spiritual experience.

We sailed on Hurtigruten's M.S. Nordnorge on the 12 night classic voyage from Bergen - Kirkenes - Bergen, which includes 6 nights above the Arctic Circle. We were only two nights in and hadn't even reached the Arctic Circle yet when the lights appeared. On the night of the 5th we were tucked up in bed and fast asleep. Before dinner, we had discussed the likelihood of seeing the lights with the crew who had said: "It will be cold and clear so possible but not probable. We are not above the Arctic Circle yet." So we had gone to bed without expectations.

At 1:30am the call came through on the intercom. We were so asleep we confused the Norwegian call with the announcement about crossing the Arctic Circle planned for about 7:00 am. Then the English announcement came through. We have never got dressed so quickly in our lives! Three layers required, it's -10 outside.

Onto the rear deck and the lights are immediately visible, arcing from horizon to horizon across the sky. At first viewing the lights are a grey-silver colour. After our eyes adjusted a little more we started to see tinges of green in the lights.

 

The longer we looked, the more we noticed about how the lights shift and move. It's hard to fully describe but it's like watching those sudden rainstorms on a summer's day - the one where the sun illuminates the sheets of rain as it falls and you can see it twisting, turning and rolling. Tonight the lights are concentrated into narrow, wispy bands like long hair blowing in the breeze. As we look, individual tresses of light flash on and off as if they were a neon illumination.

 

The photos do more justice than what can be seen with the naked eye. Certainly the intensity of green and tinges of red are only visible in the photos. We were treated to an hour of the lights before they became less intense and gradually faded away into the night.

The next night (6 January) there was some talk of having seen the lights before dinner at 7pm. The forecast for solar activity was high. After dinner at 9pm we were docked in Solvaer and about to go onshore for a walk when the call came through. Up on deck again and tonight the display lit up the night sky with different shades and patterns than the night before. This time the lights were more widespread over the sky and with less of the bands we saw the night before. The photos showed the lights as all green and with little of the other colours from the night before.

 

The movement of the lights continues and at one point we saw them materialising over the snow covered mountain, much like cloud forms over mountains. The display lasts for over four hours as we left Solvaer and headed north to the Trollfjord. At the fjord we were served fish cakes as well as a secret mix of hot dark rum and spiced tea as the ship lit up the entrance to the fjord with its searchlight. Even this was not enough to dull out the northern lights, nor the shooting stars which fly across the sky. 

 

As we left the fjord, the lights continued to zoom across the sky and the captain announced them again. We spent another hour outside, which despite it being -10 degrees was manageable with three layers of clothing (the Navigatrix had five). We spoke with one of the Expedition staff who said displays this long are not unusual. Eventually we realised we were the only ones left on deck and so headed indoors.

We see the lights again the next night (7 January) as we left Tromso, after an afternoon of dog sledding. Although it was colder (-16 degrees) we are still comfortable with the correct layers. There are more clouds out tonight, so photographs are not as clear. They initially show a column cloud of green, much like smoke from a chimney, which eventually contracts to a single band which looks like a curtain as it sways and drifts across the sky. Tonight the lights are more green to the naked eye.

 

The next three nights we have snow as we cross over N071 degrees, pass the North Cape and then turn around at Kirkenes and follow our path home. As we approach Tromso again the skies clear and the temperature drops. We now have a band of fellow photographers clustered in the ship's bar. Every ten minutes or so one of us braved the cold to check the skies. Sometimes the only way to make sure was to take a test photograph. Eventually the lights came out again. Our Dutch friends gave us the thumbs up and we all rush out. 

If it's possible, the display was even larger and more intense in colour. They were clearly green to the naked eye. On one side of the sky the lights were thick like cloud, swirling and boiling along their edge. Yet on the other side the lights were as painted in the sky with a brush of the finest bristles. At other times they hang in the sky in wispy bands, billowing like sheer curtains. Alas, the photographs of tonight are blurry - in the rush I had not set the manual focus correctly.  


Unfortunately, snow and cloud prevent viewings on any other nights despite a strong forecast (index 4) for lights. We were truly blessed to have seen them for four nights out of twelve. People who have witnessed the lights are right when they say the northern lights are an amazing experience. The colours do get more intense the further north you can get. We didn't get the really vibrant red or even white display but even locals say that happens rarely. Things could have been worse - the lovely Sigrun from behind the ship's bar told a story of an unfortunate German man who did the voyage five times and still did not see anything. Perhaps the experience may be better from land where there is no movement of the ship in the photos. Then again, you could be stuck in a blizzard for a week and see nothing.

According to Norse legend, when the goddess Freya and her Valkeries ride on their missions their armour creates the eerie, flickering and flashing lights. We were awestruck by their display and count our lucky stars we got to see such an amazing display on so many nights. If you get the chance to come above the Arctic Circle you should do so. The lights are not to be missed.