I am always curious about how people in the subarctic areas live through the cold dark winter. For new experiences, I decide to join a week-long sailing trip ‘Whales and Aurora Borealis Expedition to Senja‘ on board Noorderlicht from November 20-27 and stay on for a couple of weeks in Lofoten, Norway and Abisko, Sweden, both of which are close to the Arctic Circle.
November 19 Friday: London, UK (GMT) – Oslo, Norway (GMT+1)– Harstad: Travel Day
I had a long travel day when leaving my god-mother’s house at 6:20am. My flight departed for Oslo at 3:35pm and I had to go through customs before checking in again for my connected flight to Harstad-Narvik at 8:20pm. The zip of the new bag I brought in Taunton was broken!
The flight was delayed till 9 pm and I arrived at my destination after 11 pm. The airport bus (220kr) took another 40 minutes. I finally at Harstad bus station after midnight. It was snowing and the ground was so slippery that I fell as soon as I stepped off the bus. Fortunately, I was not hurt. I stayed at Scandic Hotel, close to the bus station and had a good sleep.
November 20 Saturday: Onboard Noorderlicht – Harstad
I did not get up till 9:30 am, just in time for breakfast. As usual, the Scandinavian breakfast is wholesome with nice bread, biscuits, fresh fruit, yogurt, salmon, eggs, cheese, meat etc. It is a full meal.
The weather was not good snowing and sleeting the whole day. After checking out of the hotel, I walked to the pier to look for Noorderlicht, my floating home for the next seven nights. I was surprised it was not there yet!
I walked around the tiny town centre to look for a new suitcase/bag. Luckily I found a suitable carry-on light suitcase on sale for 300kr. I grabbed it and managed to put in all the stuff. When I went to the pier again around 2 pm, I had my first sight of Noorderlicht which was covered with snow. To my surprise, I saw Jan, the cheerful and competent expedition leader of the Atlantic Odyssey. I am glad to have him as the leader for this journey to explore Senja, Norway’s second largest archipelago which is a popular spot for whale watching.
Noorderlicht is a small vessel with ten cabins for a maximum of 20 passengers. Boarding began at 5pm and I arrived at 6 pm. By 7 pm, all 17 passenagers (seven men and ten ladies) from nine countries were on board. We met Captain Gert, First Mate Geron, Chef Menthe and Expedition Leader Jan. Karla from Antwerp, a nice and quiet lady, is my cabin mate.
The boat is small but neat, cozy and compact. The usual meal time is 8 am for breakfast, 1 pm for lunch and 7 pm for dinner. There are three tables in the upper and lower galleries. All of us move around meeting our fellow passengers. Menthe is an excellent cook and we had most wonderful food and freshly baked bread and cakes for the entire journey. We had to go through the normal routine drills and safety lectures. I went to bed early and had a good sleep.
November 21 Sunday: Harstad – Grylleford, SenjaI slept so deeply that I did not wake up till the breakfast bell rang at 8am. This’s the boat’s first exploratory journey in the Senja area which has become a good spot for watching Orca and Humpback whales.
Captain Gert’s original plan to sail to Andenes before crossing the Andfjorden to overnight in Senja. There was not much wind but we had 4-5 metre-high swell. Many passengers including myself, were sick. I vomitted several times and lay in bed in the morning. So the captain changed course and headed to Gryllefjord in Torskefjoden to look for a fishing village with a harbour for the night. On the way to Gryllefjord, we spotted three Orca which came and disappeared within a second and not to be seen again.
It was already dark when we arrived at the pier. Jan checked his map and found a walking trail which leads to a mine which is no longer in operation. The village has about 400 inhabitants with small houses and summer cabins spreading along the road. Many of the houses are empty though the door light is always on. In a way, it is like a pretty ghost village.
We returned to the boat for dinner. Shortly afterward, someone shouted ‘Northern Lights’! Everyone rushed out. I was the last one to leave the boat after putting on warm clothes and picking up my camera. By the time I reached the viewpoint some 200m away, the lights had almost gone! Anyway, we could not complaint: we had seen three Orca and faint Northern Lights on our first sailing day.
The snow came and stopped. Jan suggested us draw up a watch list. I volunteered to be on watch from 11 pm to midnight. As expected, nothing happened. At midnight, I went to Cabin 8 to call Lorraine, an American lady to take over. But the voice replied that ‘I had not signed up’. It’s strange. I thought she might be forgetful. So I stayed on for another hour and I called Anja in Cabin 2 at 1 am. She thought she had signed up for the 2 am watch. Anyway, realising that I had been on watch for two hours, she got up to take over. I was tired when I went to bed after 1 am.
November 22 Monday: Grylleford – Hamn, Senja
I got up at 7 am. The sky was still dark as sunrise was around 10 am. At the breakfast table, Marcel told me that I had knocked at his door last night. It turned out that Lorraine had put down the wrong cabin and I did not recognised it was a male voice that answered me. Anyway, we had a good laugh for the rest of the journey.
Today, the captain and Jan decided to return to the area where we spotted our first Orca. But after spending two hours cruising around, they gave up. It started to sleet. The snow on the boat was almost gone by the time we arrived at Hamn at the entrance of Borgsfjoden around 3:30pm.
We set off for a long walk. The moon shone brillantly over the harbour and we were hopeful for Northern Lights. Jan tried to find good locations for photography. But owing to low level of solar activities and an overcast sky, we did not see any lights tonight. We had delicious lamb stew for dinner and I was in bed 10pm.
My first sleepless night on this trip: I got up around 4am and sat in the gallery sorting photos. By 7 am, I was tired enough to return to bed. I skipped breakfast till the bell rang around 9 am. Karla rushed in to tell me to get up for whale watching.
The crew made enquiries from the locals and were told to look for whales in Ersenfjorden. We spent the whole morning here whale watching. Visibility was poor as it was snowing and sleeting. The fjord covered by low lying dark clouds, looked cool and atmospheric. We must have seen a few dozens of Orca and 20-40 Humpback whales.
Today I did not bother to take my new Sony camera out to take photos: rain and sleet can damage it. My handy Leica automatic and Nikon SLR had been damaged by sleet and rain during the Antarctic Odyssey journey. Hence I brought a new model of Sony which is lighter than my 5-year old Nikon. Whales were everywhere: I could see big blows and tails of Humpback whales and countless upright dorsal fins of Orca in all directions. As this fjord is the best place for whale watching, Jan decided to spend another day here.
The captain tried to find a calm village with a pier nearby to overnight. We sailed to a fishing village but the pier is not long enough for our boat. Then we sailed to a larger village with about 100 inhabitants. Several big fishing boats were at the jetty.
We had our village walk again. The ground was icy and I had to walk slowly and carefully. On the way back, I met a fishman who came with a fishing vessel from Bergen. He normally spends a few months cathcing herrings in this area before the vessel moves north to North Cape for cod. He finds life in this small village boring!
During dinner, Jan told us that our boat had to leave as it was obstructing the way of the fishing boats which would be getting out very early in the morning. The captain was advised to anchor in Lyfjord nearby. No problem. Everything went smoothly.
Tonight, Bjorn, a Norwegian who was born in the area, gave us a talk on his childhood in a small fishing village and the life of a fishman. His grandfather and father were fishermen. Life was hard in those days and fishing was dangerous without the aid of modern equipments and reliable weather forecast. He came from a big family with ten children. In those days, Norway was not rich and life in a small fishing village was simple and tough. His family later moved to Oslo. He is a teacher and none of his siblings has followed his father’s footstep to become a fisherman. The sea was calm but the sky was cloudy. As there was no chance for Northern Lights, I went to bed and had a good sleep.
November 24 Wednesday: Whale Watching in Ersenfjorden – Finnsnes
We had breakfast at 7 am so that we could return to the fjord early for whale watching. The weather was cooperating today: we had a warm clear day. When the sun was rising at one end of the fjord, I could see more than a dozen of Humpback whales arching, sprouting and flipping their tails. It looked most enchanting and beautiful with the fjord glowing in orange and goldern colours as the backdrop..
Orca are cute, clever and curious. Several of them swam close to our boat staring at us! Anja who works for a world organisation for whale and dolphine conservation was so excited that she jumped with joy trying to communicate with them. I have watched whales on many occasions. But this is my first time watching dozens of Orca in such close distance. I even took a few photos with them jumping out of water or flipped their tiny tails!
In the small fjord today, there must be a dozen of tourist boats of all sizes. One boat had a dozen of divers and snorkellers on board and moved non-stop to follow them. It is irritating: I firmly believe wildlife should be left alone. This feeding ground should be protected and tourists should not disturb the whales. Will the Norwegian authority regulate the way tourist boats operate before it is too late? I was sad to leave but we still had a long way to go. We did not have lunch till 2 pm. We sailed four hours before arriving at Finnsnes. It is the biggest city we visited on this trip.
In the evening, Jan showed us a movie ‘Land of Northern Lights’ about a lady from the UK coming to northern part of Norway on the Polar Light Express. She stayed at Å, a fishing village at the end of Lofoten archipelago before going to Lapland to visit a Sammi community, watch reindeer and spent a night in an ice-hotel. She ended her dream journey in Tromso where she finally saw the magical Northern Lights.
By 1 am, I was still widely awake. I got up and worked on my travel notes. We had a full moon and a clear sky. I popped out every now and then hoping to find Northern Lights. No luck! I returned to my cabin almost at 4 am.
November 26 Friday: Finnsnes – Harstad
I got up around 7 am still feeling drowsy. It was dark and rainy. After breakfast, I returned to bed till 11 am. The captain and Jan had been trying to look for a harbour/pier for us to get off for a walk before returning to Harstad. Finally, they found a pier at Engenes on Snøtinden. We disembarked before 12 noon and had free time till 1:45 pm.
The weather improved slightly and I could see the snow-clad mountain tops on both side of the sea. I followed Jan on the walk. First, we went to the church and graveyard. Then we took a 3.5 km-long scenic trail. We saw many bunkers built by the German during the WWII. At the viewpoint, we had a nice panoramic view of the whole village and the fjord.
We had our lunch on board at 2 pm. I spent the whole afternoon trying to finish a book called ‘The Expedition – True Story of the First Human – Powered circumnavigation of the Earth‘ Part 1 by Jason Lewis. Jason and his mate Steve got this big idea and set off from Greenwich on July 12, 1994, paddled on Moksha across the Channel and landed in France. Then they cycled across France and Spain before continuing their journey across the Atlantic Ocean in 111 days. They set off in Lagos, Portugal, stopped in Madeira and Providenciales and finally arrived in Miami on Fedrurary 17, 1995. He intended to skate across the States. The book ends when he was hit by a vehicle in Colorado and lost both lower limbs. How terrible! Fortunately Jason survived. I want to find and read Part 2 to see how and when he completed his expedition. I have to wait till I can get the book in London.
By 5:30 pm, we were back in Harstad ending our sailing trip in Senja! Menthe prepared a sumptuous dinner with a four-course dinner. We had a starter, a soup, beef and dessert. We had candles everywhere. It’s atmospheric and warm. It was the best farewell dinner I ever had on a boat.
Around 11pm, most people had gone to bed. Anja, Sophie and I were still up in the gallery. The sky was clear and we were hoping to see Northern Lights on the last night. Our wish came true: our captain called out ‘Northern Lights’. Three of us rushed on deck. I then rang the bell and knocked on all doors to get everyone out on deck.
The colours were mainly green. The lights moved fast, forming an arch and then a circle above our head. Several columns shot up in the far end and then disappeared. There were also lots of fast movements in the form of curtain and ribbon. The lights were vivid, visible and beautiful. What an excellent ending of our Whale Safari and Aurora Borealis Sailing Trip!
Remarks (to add)