Tuesday, 8 January 2013

Polar Winter

It is perhaps a bit odd to head off to the Land of the Midnight Sun, in December, but that’s what we decided to do, around the time of the winter solstice. I’ve already written of the drive to Gatwick: how I was already in the mood for something marvellous. The trip didn’t disappoint, even though snow held us up. Even the delays were interesting and instructive. It was news to me that planes need de-icing. I half realised that getting the jets clogged with solid water might not be a great idea, but spraying the wings and tail with de-icer? That’s not what I thought I'd see as the snow fell in Oslo.

I’m not sure what I expected of the fishing village of Tromsø well north of the Arctic Circle, but I didn’t expect it to be so beautifully lit or that it would be such a buzzing town. Nor for breakfast to be so colourful.

Fish eggs in traffic lights colours

A statue celebrating whaling
We arrived after dark in the evening, and woke in the dark next morning, wondering whether we'd notice any change in the natural light. There turned out to be just about three hours of rather beautiful twilight between about 10am and 1pm. Then it was back to fairy lights and a suggestion of a lightness reflecting off snowy hills in the distance. Even so we saw otters in the harbour and watched wonderful long-tailed diving ducks zipping around deep in the clear harbour waters, flying underwater like penguins.
Tromsø with, on the left, the fine Rica Ishvashotel where we stayed

Good local beer
And fine cheescake

We plumped for Norway in December because there were good chances of seeing the Northern Lights and on our first evening we headed off to the beach to await the show - expected somewhere on the western horizon at 8pm. Standing around in the cold, sand frozen and unforgiving, a chilling breeze coming off the waters of the fjord, we strained our eyes and wondered if we were imagining a glow on the north-west when our guide shouted, 'It is starting!'
Lights are mostly an eerie green but we saw reds too
The display was amazing but to the unaided eye there was surprisingly little colour. Long-exposure photos are needed to show the Northern Lights in their full glory. They move though, and at one point a swirl of lights, looking like some vast net curtain shifted as if caught in a breeze.

Self-portrait on a 30 second exposure
Then there were rumours of whales to be seen. Generally the winter isn't a good time for whale watching but humpbacks had been sighted and we signed up for a trip in Polar Girl.
Polar Girl is the red and white boat
It was of course dark when we set out and I didn't believe we had any chance seeing anything. But the half-light arrived and we started spotting dark objects in the water.
And blows.
Closer and closer.
And lots of them.
An Australian marine biologist was almost orgasmic with excitement; he'd never seen so many humpbacks together before and with orcas too he couldn't believe his luck. He even gave the captain a bearhug when we disembarked, much to the bewilderment of the Norwegian.


Dark objects up ahead
Then the humpbacks seem to want to play
We were close enough to see the double blowhole, and later to watch orcas hassling a calf
And then a stately dive. Until finally they led us home
We had just three full days in Tromsø with the enormously good fortune to be treated to two of nature's big shows. Norway is an amazing country, though it's a destination where you haemorrhage money. The locals are friendly, helpful, tolerant, great linguists and have the most charming sing-song way of speaking English. I reckon we'll be back there again....
And if you'd like more, take a look at my post of August 2012, to see what Norway looks like in the summer.
The twilight fading at 1pm

No comments:

Post a Comment