Arctic Norway: 6th – 11th March 2015   Leave a comment

The Phoenix organisation, to which Margaret and I are members, advertised a charter flight from Bournemouth to Tromsø in arctic Norway that joined a three night trip on board one of Hurtigruten’s cruise ships. Although I had been to arctic regions four times before and seen most of its wildlife it had always been in summer with its 24 hour daylight and so had never seen the aurora borealis or northern lights as it is generally known now. The Gulf Stream keeps the waters off northern Norway ice-free throughout the winter and indeed makes this area about 20c warmer than it should be for this latitude.


IMG_1677 snow at Tromso

We arrived at Tromsø to very mild conditions. It was raining and 6c. Not what you would expect at nearly 70N in March. The heavy snow seen in this photo was taken on our return five days later.

IMG_2644 nr Tromso

The following day most of the group opted to try dog sledding at a centre some 30 minutes out-of-town.

IMG_1660 huskies

Quite contrary to my belief, these huskies were mild-tempered and docile.

IMG_1631 Husky puppy

And the puppies were quite adorable (and obviously were excused sled pulling activities).

IMG_1656 dog sledding

I have never seen dogs so eager to perform as these. They would strain at the leads whenever the brake was on and leap forwards the moment it was released. A few of the sleds got caught up in small trees or overturned so there was a bit of delay. We were out for an hour and it was pretty exhilarating.

IMG_1667 post dog sledding

Most of the rest of the Phoenix group. Only Davril and Margaret stayed behind. Yes, I did go on holiday with nine women.

IMG_3273 Midnatsol

In the afternoon we boarded the MS Midnatsol which sailed at 1800.

IMG_2678 Aurora borealis

Of course the main reason for coming on this trip was to see the aurora. It runs on an 11 year cycle with this year being at or just after the peak. Even so, the display wasn’t as good as some published photos would have you believe, however those photographers can chose the best nights and best locations for their stunning panoramas.

IMG_2713 aurora (best)

The problem I encountered was that my bridge camera wouldn’t give an exposure longer than one second. As a result I had to set it on 6400 ISO hence the grainy images. Also of course the photos were taken from a moving ship, further blurring the image.

IMG_2724 morning

Dawn the next day saw us steaming north through the many fjords.

IMG_2729 distant mountains

Conditions were a bit colder here and snow came down to the foreshore. Very few birds were seen except the ubiquitous Herring Gull and Kittiwake.

IMG_2763 Honningvag

Late morning we called into the pretty village of Honningsvåg on the northernmost island of Magerøya.

IMG_2783 North Cape

We transferred to the North Cape, generally considered at 71 10′ 21”N to be the most northerly point of Europe, although the next peninsula is 1.5km further north and of course Svalbard is nearly 1000km further still.

IMG_2798 North Cape in the wind

It was windy when we arrived but it soon got much worse. Even standing up to get your picture taken at the globe was a trial.

IMG_2841 North Cape

Things deteriorated rapidly when a hail shower driven by force 8 winds struck and caused everyone to run for the visitor centre.

IMG_2905 Fin Church

Later we cruised eastwards towards Mehamn. Here we passed a rock formation that bore a strange resemblance to a Finnish church.

IMG_3160 silver sea

It was relatively sheltered with calmer seas in the fjords.

IMG_2950 dawn at Varanger

We arrived in Varangfjord at dawn the next day. We were now as far east as Istanbul or Durban in the southern Indian Ocean.

IMG_3057 LT Duck better

Varangerfjord is famous for its wintering seaducks. Hardy species from arctic Siberia don’t need to travel to the Atlantic coast for winter which they consider to be just for wusses. They prefer the harsher conditions of the eastward facing Vrangerfjord. The best views were in Vadsø harbour where I photographed these Long-tailed Ducks ….

IMG_3003 Common Eiders

…. this raft of Common Eider ….

IMG_3035 male & female King Eider

…. and the wonderful King Eider, here on the sea ….

IMG_3072 male & female King Eider

…. and here in flight ….

IMG_2980 Stellar's Eider

Best of all was the much scarcer Steller’s Eider named after Georg Wilhelm Steller, the naturalist on board Bering’s 1725 expedition across Russian searching for an eastern route to the New World. Indeed Steller became the first westerner to reach Alaska from the east.

edredone-di-steller- M Ravasini

The Steller’s Eiders stayed at the back of the flock, just a bit too distant for photography, so I have copied this stunning image of a drake by M Ravasini from the Internet Bird Collection.

IMG_3145 Black Guillemot

We saw few birds as we crossed Varangerfjord on our way to Kirkenes on the southern shore. The best that Kirkenes harbour could offer was this Black Guillemot moulting from its mainly white winter to it mainly black summer plumage.

IMG_3126 Pasvik Valley

For an excursion we took a bus trip to the Russian border, mainly so we could get out of the town and see if there were any birds around. Here we are crossing the Pasvik river, proposed in the mid 19th century as the border between Russia and Norway, but Russia wanted some territory on the west bank so it could access an ancient Russian Orthodox Church. Norway managed to trade a few square km on the west bank for over a hundred on the east bank.

IMG_3114 Russian border

I have Russian visa for my trip in May but didn’t push my luck and try to cross. I’d have certainly missed the boat back to Tromsø.

IMG_3102 Pasvik Valley

We glimpsed a few birds in the Pasvik valley, a Fieldfare, a few Redpolls and a Great Tit and briefly saw flocks of Waxwings in Kirkenes, but from a birding perspective it was rather frustrating, but I was glad to visit this famous birding area as time did not permit this on my trip to Varanger in June 1987.

IMG_3167 Julie's birthday

Today was Julie’s birthday and the others had arranged a cake. Bottom row L-R Sue, Julie, Linda. Top row L-R Di, me, Rosemary, Davril, Helen, Von and Margaret.

IMG_3171 WB Dolphins

We crossed back to the north shore of Varangerfjord and sailed around the eastern side to the town of Vardø,  situated on an island connected by a tunnel to the mainland. The wind increased markedly and so did the bird activity as we passed the seabird breeding cliffs of Hornøya. Identification of the many (thousands) of auks in poor light and in flight was tricky, but I thought the majority were Brunnich’s Guillemots with smaller numbers of Razorbills and even fewer Common Guillemots. King and Common Eiders abounded and I saw at least 15 Glaucous Gulls, some Gannets and a White-billed Diver. Pride of place however goes to this large pod of White-beaked Dolphins, a species I have never seen before in spite of going on dedicated boat trips to look for it.

IMG_3190 on way back

The overnight passage was quite horrendous, the wind increased to force 10 and we were sailing straight into it. That said, the boat remained remarkably stable but we had a pretty bad night’s sleep as something came loose in the roof space above us and crashed and banged with every lurch of the ship. In the late evening we went up to the top deck to see the aurora, sheltering behind the funnel from the wind and ambient light.Very dramatic, with back-lit spray billowing around and above us whilst the green fingers of the northern lights danced in the background. The following morning things had calmed considerably as this photo shows.

IMG_3201 on coming blizzard

Our first stop that day was at Havøysund where this black cloud ….

IMG_3203 blizzard

…. dumped a whole load of snow on us.

IMG_3244 Hammerfest

We had a couple of hours to look around Hammerfest, which at over 70N is claimed to be the northernmost town in the world (but again they seem to have forgotten about Longyearbyen, the capital of Svarlbard).

IMG_3237 House Sparrow

Perhaps Hammerfest’s claim to fame is being home to the most northerly House Sparrows in the world (unless of course you know otherwise)

IMG_3228 Common Eiders

A flock of Common Eider in the harbour gave better views than was possible from the ship.

IMG_3253 on way back to Tromso

So the rest of the day was taken up with the journey back to Tromsø, again there was wonderful scenery at every turn.

IMG_3278 on way to tromso

Our final stop in daylight was the little town of Øksfjord just before it got dark.

IMG_3288 Tromso Cathederal

We arrived at Tromsø at 2345 but instead of going straight to our hotel we transferred to Tromsø’s Arctic Cathedral for a wonderful musical recital in a church with the most perfect acoustics I have ever heard. A beautiful end to a beautiful trip.



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