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A Natural Phenomena: Norway's Aurora Borealis

One of the most exciting opportunities to accompany this expedition up to northern Norway, besides the myriad of wildlife potential, was the prospect of glimpsing one of the world’s most spectacular natural phenomena: the Aurora Borealis. It is most commonly seen within the extent of the auroral oval and spans latitudes between 60 and 75 degrees. The oval covers Norway, Iceland, Greenland, Russia, Alaska, Canada, southern Greenland and some parts of Sweden. It can also extend these parameters because the northern lights have been seen in the UK and Europe! During my time sailing along the coast, I crossed the Arctic Circle six times. It lies 66 degrees North and is home to a diverse range of species and habitats.

Image: Me standing in front of the aurora borealis, northern Norway. Photo taken by Espen Mills, Hurtigruten, 2022.

So, how do the northern lights occur? Well, In simple terms, they happen when electrically charged electrons collide with nitrogen and oxygen molecules along magnetic field lines within the Earth’s upper atmosphere. During these collisions, they release light and depending on the height at which they collide in the spectra of gases, determines which colours occur. The northern lights commonly appear white, green, pink, purple and red.

We were lucky enough to see the northern lights seven times during our six weeks of sailing. Often, they would appear white in the sky and look like faint strips of cloud hanging over the mountains. Sometimes you could only really tell they were present if you took a photo and saw the different colours through your lens. But once you trained your eye, you could definitely tell the difference between aurora and cloud!

Image: Another photo of me standing out on deck 9 in front of the aurora borealis, northern Norway. Photo taken by Espen Mills, Hurtigruten, 2022.

The Expedition Team and guests on board MS Maud were well versed in northern lights preparations, as we all knew they could come and go at any point. Usually, I would lay my outfit on the sofa in my cabin before going to bed (this consisted of my thermal ‘ghostbuster’ suit and many, many additional layers and warm accessories). I’d always keep the PA system on during the night in case of northern lights announcements and make sure my camera was fully charged. Some of the Expedition Team took it in turns to be outside on northern lights watch and radioed the bridge if strong northern lights could be seen outside. The best viewpoint was the helipad aft of the ship but you had to be careful as it often iced over during the night as temperatures dropped significantly. One evening it was -13 degrees!

I never got tired of hearing the northern lights announcements. As soon as I heard the slightest crackle through the radio or the PA system, I was up and out of bed in a heartbeat, frantically putting on my thermal suit and layers over my pyjamas. On a few occasions I had missed stronger displays but this was inevitable as they can strengthen and wane in a matter of seconds. Patience is key… and lots of layers!

Image: One of my favourite photos I managed to take of the northern lights. Tromso, northern Norway. 2022.

Over the six weeks that I had been voyaging across the Arctic Circle, I’d managed to take a number of average photos of the northern lights with my phone. It was actually incredibly tricky to take photos of the northern lights because your camera settings need to be bang on and slowing your shutter speed to capture the light presents itself with a number of challenges anyway. Thankfully, over multiple trips, the lovely photographers Ted and Espen had showed me a thing or two, and in the end, I managed some half-decent photos with my camera too!

Images: Photos of the northern lights taken from my iPhone XS. Tromsø, northern Norway. 2022.

For two weeks, we were also blessed with the presence of Becca, an astrophysicist who joined the Expedition Team on board Maud as part of her work. She presented incredibly detailed yet simple-to-follow lectures on the aurora and explained exactly how they occurred, giving us a daily forecast for northern lights potential. Becca also introduced everyone to a documentary called Chasing Steve which is a must-watch and I would highly recommend! It is about a group of aurora chasers who photograph the northern lights and discover some kind of aurora never seen before, and consequently name it STEVE. One of the members describes certain evenings of high activity as a “PANT’S ON” kind of evening, which means it’s worth getting dressed and going outside. Becca used this terminology over the radio when particularly strong northern lights could be seen outside!

Image: The aurora borealis taken from the helipad on deck 9 on MS Maud, using a Canon 4000D. Tromsø, northern Norway. 2022.

I’d been fortunate enough to experience white and green northern lights during my voyage. I was over the moon that I had seen such a breath-taking natural phenomena in the most serene and beautiful setting. Little did I know that our final voyage would truly outweigh all prior experiences! On 15th March, MS Maud was heading northbound from Tromsø to Honningsväg after a day of hiking, kayaking and droning. We’d checked the northern lights forecast during our daily evening meeting and it was looking very promising indeed. Predicted this evening was a solar flare called a coronal mass ejection which can cause geomagnetic storms. If these predictions were correct, then it was definitely going to be a “PANT’S ON!” kind of evening! We had some of the Expedition Team stationed outside, myself included, on watch as we were sailing north. It was approaching 21:30PM and we’d not seen any activity yet but we were still hopeful. Some of us had some fun with the long exposure settings on my camera, drawing shapes with torches. Unfortunately, it was getting pretty chilly outside, it was at least -7 degrees so a few of us decided to head inside, to warm up for 20 minutes or so.

Images: Long exposure photos taken with my camera. Northern Norway, 2022.

Image: Another of my photos of the aurora borealis taken from the helipad on deck 9 on MS Maud, using a Canon 4000D. Tromsø, northern Norway. 2022.

Fast-forward to around 23:15PM, we had an announcement over the PA system that northern lights could be seen from the ship. When I tell you, I practically jumped into my thermal suit and ran to the helipad, camera and tripod in tow, I’m not joking. I had to be careful not to have a Bambi on ice moment because it was so slippery but it was worth it! The sky was ignited with green strobes and waves of light dancing across the horizon. The colours were so vivid to the naked eye, and it looked bright, fluorescent green. The northern lights were constantly moving and undulating this way and that. They would snake across the sky, grow stronger then wane slightly, before growing stronger again. We could even see the lights creating patterns directly above our heads! It was fascinating to see the light dance and there was utter silence amongst the awestruck guests. The only sounds were the low hum of the ship and about 200 cameras clicking simultaneously. No photograph could ever do the northern lights justice, no matter how experienced of a photographer you are, you have to experience it with your own eyes!

Images: A selection of some of my aurora photos! Northern Norway, 2022.

I’m so grateful for the opportunities I have experienced during my time with Hurtigruten, sailing up and down the coast of Norway. It’s been an incredible, eye-opening experience and I have certainly met some friends for life. The northern lights were the cherry on top of the cake and I'll never forget such a beautiful spectacle. Norway... I’ll be back!

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