Travel: Whale away winter in Norway

Norway
Norway

When British astronaut Tim Peake was recently forced to abandon his first spacewalk, after a life-threatening bubble of water developed in in colleague’s helmet, I’m certain he was appreciative of a competent crew.

Unfortunately, I can’t say the same about the inept individuals in my own space shuttle, who are furiously fiddling with touchscreens as we hurtle into a solar storm.

Northern Lights

Northern Lights

Alarms fire, systems fail and we hit blackout.

“Sorry,” sheepishly whispers our Chief Navigator, a mid-50s woman from Cincinnati who could barely find her way into our mission regulation overalls.

In reality, we haven’t left the Earth’s atmosphere; we haven’t even left the ground. Our intergalactic adventure is part of Spaceship Aurora, a visitor attraction at the Andoya Space Centre in Norway’s Vesteralen archipelago.

Sat directly below the auroral oval, it’s the ideal place to study the northern lights. Since 1962, scientists have been launching rockets to determine how space weather impacts our increasingly digital world.

Eagle

Eagle

Although just south of popular Tromso, Vesteralen attracts a fraction of the visitors who descend on the aurora capital; that’s largely down to journey time (it’s at least two flights from the UK) and lack of awareness.

Yet a stirring landscape of serrated mountain peaks, an abundance of wildlife and - crucially - few people, make this one of Europe’s best kept winter secrets.

Then, of course, there’s the promise of aurora activity. I’m visiting in January when it’s cold (currently minus 16C, although temperatures are normally much milder as a result of the Gulf Stream), skies are clear and the weather is relatively stable.

It takes 18 hours for solar storms to reach Earth, and aurora predictions for the next few nights look good.

But it’s the daylight hours that interest me most.

For many years, whale watching has been a popular activity in Andenes, a small fishing port at the northern tip of Andoya Island. More recently, increasing numbers of orcas have been arriving from mid-December to February to feed on herring.

“We set up a winter programme four years ago, but it only really took off last season,” says Daniele Zanoni, a photographer and marine wildlife expert who helps run Whalesafari Andenes. Acclaimed zoologist Mark Carwardine is chartering the company’s M/S Reine vessel for his new whale watching and northern lights tours.

Originally built in 1949, the 80-capacity boat was adapted for whale watching purposes in the late Nineties. Different level viewing platforms offer flexibility for photographers, and an indoor cabin, toilet facilities and constant supply of tea and biscuits make the two to three hour trips extremely comfortable.

We leave port at 10am as slithers of tangerine light creep across the sky, silhouetting a flock of kittiwakes in flight. In early January, the sun doesn’t even rise above the horizon; instead the heavens glow from explosive reds to chilling blues, as dawn segues into dusk.

“Norwegians call this the dark season,” says Daniele, shaking his head in disbelief. “But I call it the season of colours.”

Within minutes, a pod of 10 orcas has appeared, their large dagger-like dorsal fins mirroring Andoya’s jagged coastline as they porpoise through the Norwegian Sea.

We’re captivated by the display until some new arrivals threaten to steal the show - a pair of humpbacks and even a mighty sperm whale. The sight of so many cetaceans reminds me of a 16th century maritime illustration, when oceans were brimming with ‘sea monsters’ before the decimating whaling industries took hold.

The M/S Reine uses two hydrophones to track whale clicks, and when the creatures surface and fall silent, crew use their eyes. The captain regularly climbs the mast and has three pairs of polarizing sunglasses, which he claims help him spot different species.

Switching off the engine, we drift slowly behind a creature twice the length of a double-decker bus (only adult male sperm whales can be found here). His gentle blows fall into a hypnotic rhythm, then he slowly dives, creating a cascade of water as his tail fluke fans the burning sky.

There are currently no official regulations governing whale-watching conduct in Andenes, although Daniele is working with marine research body MAREFA to put some in place. But with only a handful of operators in the area, responsible tourism is easy to manage.

Marten Bril from Sea Safari Andenes runs daily trips in an RIB boat and also offers an option for hardy souls to dive with killer whales. He relies on a spotter based at the Andenes lighthouse, using binoculars and communicating sightings by mobile phone, but has big plans to invest in new technology.

I can barely move in the insulation suit necessary for our wet and bumpy excursion, but the opportunities we have to get close to the orcas are exhilarating and unparalleled. One large male greets me at eye-level before ducking underneath our boat.

By the time we return from our three-hour trip, it’s almost dark. That gives us ample time to rest in the grand 1900s fishing house, which Martin rents out, before setting off on a northern lights hunt.

My boyfriend and I have rented a car (equipped with winter tyres), meaning we can explore at our own pace. On Daniele’s recommendation, we buy crampons and climb the snow-covered Ramnan Mountain using a steep but easily navigable path. (The location is not listed on maps, but is identifiable by lasers beaming skyward from the Alomar Observatory.)

The views from the top are astonishing, as we watch swirls of aurora skim the ocean like spinning tops.

The lights accompany us south to Bo, an even more scenic island in the Vesteralen archipelago, where peaks appear more frequently and crystallised forests sparkle like diamonds. (The coastal road running between Sortland and Ringstad is particularly special.)

Originally from Cornwall, Ian Robins manages Huset Pa Yttersiden, a small collection of waterfront fishermen’s cabins, with his Norwegian wife Ann Karina.

His passion is photographing the area’s resident white-tailed sea eagles, which he fondly refers to as his “house pets”, and he guides guests on winter safaris, using a boat equipped with a small cabin for shelter.

Setting off mid-morning, we weave between rocky islets into a no-man’s land, where different territorial eagles will comfortably hunt. Ian tosses a frozen fish into the water and waits for Europe’s largest raptor to arrive.

With a wingspan of almost three metres, it’s easy to spot. After circling the boat for a few seconds, the graceful bird swoops down, talons outstretched, to grab its fish.

“What a creature,” gasps Ian, and I have to agree.

As darkness falls and a faint trail of aurora paints the early evening sky, we walk along the water’s edge, crunching giant snow crystals underfoot. Studying the fine flakes up close reveals a series of intricate, hexagonal patterns, no two of which are identical.

It’s a similar story all over Vesteralen.

As days grow longer, shifting landscapes are bathed in an ever-changing light, meaning no one place appears the same.

It’s a natural beauty that defies any scientific or space age explanation.

TRAVEL FACTS

Sarah Marshall from the Press Association was a guest of the Norwegian Tourist Board (www.visitnorway.com and www.northernnorway.com).

Whale safaris cost from £78 (www.whalesafari.no and www.seasafariandenes.no).

Rooms at Huset Pa Yttersiden start from £109 per night with breakfast (www.yttersiden.no).

SAS flies to Andenes via Oslo from London Heathrow from £118 one way (www.flysas.co.uk).