Not long after arriving into the small town of Andenes in Northern Norway, the group headed towards the town’s lighthouse, for an open and dark view over the ocean to the north and west, perfect for aurora observation, and with the bonus of the iconic lighthouse as a foreground. The activity was slow to get going but by midnight we were enjoying rippling curtains of green aurora, tinged with pink on the lower edge, the pink resulting from solar particle collisions with nitrogen molecules at an altitude of less than 100 kilometres above the earth’s surface.
The next morning we were advised that the herring this year was concentrated around Skjervøy, in an area quite far north of Andenes, so sightings of orcas, humpback and fin whales had been less frequent around Andenes. Marten Bril was the captain of our boat and was heading purposefully in a north-easterly direction, against the wind, as sperm whale blows had already been sighted by spotters at the lighthouse. On our journey, we were surrounded by flocks of common eider and numerous vocal kittiwakes and herring gulls foraging around the fishing boats, while cormorants and shags perched on masts, lamp poles and rocks. A little auk flew by and we noted several small flocks of common guillemot in flight, along with the occasional northern fulmar gliding close to the waves.
We encountered the first whale about seven kilometres offshore, arriving in time to observe it resting on the surface, intermittent blows sparkling in the morning sun. Then, as the blows became more frequent, we got ready for the grand finale, an arching of the back and a slow graceful fluke-up as it took a dive. Marten explained that in the summer months sperm whales forage on giant squid in the 2,000 metre deep Bleik Canyon, a trough located 15 kilometres offshore. In winter, however, they are often also found closer to Andenes, feeding on different prey, possibly fish, and taking shorter, shallower dives.
All around we could see blows, suggesting there might be as many as 15 whales in the area. As one whale dived, we moved to observe another in the area, each time waiting for the magic fluke up. Sperm whales are thought to live to 60 or 70 years of age and research teams in Norway and in the Azores and Eastern Caribbean are compiling photo ID catalogues of their tail flukes, to better understand their movements. Females and calves stay in warm waters at lower latitudes including the Eastern Caribbean and around the Azores, where predatory orcas are uncommon, while male sperm whales are found at higher latitudes, including northern Norway. Fluke matches show that the males do not form stable populations with many different individuals showing up in the area. One individual, named Glenn, has a white patch on his dorsal fin and is often present in the Andenes area. Matches between males observed in Norway and the Azores show that some males travel there to mate with the resident females.
With increasing whitecaps forming on the surface, we made our way back to port, observing harbour seals hauled out on a rocky islet, king eider, long-tailed duck and a white-tailed eagle in flight. By 3.30pm, the sun was already setting and we watched the sky turn gold and then orange, the colours and light reflecting in pools on the nearby rocky shore.
After the beautiful sunset disappeared, we once again headed away from the town lights, to watch the aurora appear over the mountain and make its way westwards over the ocean. Once again we were treated to a spectacular display, with some fast moving green auroras with tinges of yellow and pink. At one point, the entire sky was filled with light, a moving sight that few will forget.