Sheffield Star/South Yorkshire Times, 21 May 2016.
David Clarke took a cruise along Norway’s rugged coastline to see the Midnight Sun and experienced Arctic wildlife at close quarters.
‘We can never guarantee that you will see them’, one of our Norwegian guides announced as she flung a piece of raw fish into the sea alongside the SS Orca. ‘But when we feed the gulls they are never far behind.’
Minutes earlier we had left our Hurtigruten cruiseship, MS Polarlys, and joined the smaller boat as it entered the narrow mouth of the Trollfjord. This awesome sidearm branches west from the 25 km long strait that separates the islands of Lofoten and Vesteralen, in the Nordland region of the Arctic Circle.
Forbidding mountain peaks, forged from some of the oldest rocks on Earth, surrounded us on all sides as our skipper steered us towards the west end of the 2km fjord. Trolls turn up everywhere in the folklore and place-names of Scandinavia, but we were hunting a slightly less elusive inhabitant of the Norwegian coast.
The sea eagle is northern Europe’s largest bird of prey. Also known as the White Tailed Eagle, females are larger than males and, when fully grown, can have a wingspan of 2.6 metres and weigh up to 6.86 kg. They feed mainly on fish and small mammals and build nests in trees and rocky ledges.
Noisy flights of gulls continued to mob our boat in search of food but eagles were nowhere to be seen. At the calm end of the fjord we saw Arctic terns, and small guillemots, with their distinctive black and white plumage, nesting in precarious ledges below the cliffs.
But we had almost given up hope when our skipper turned the boat around to rendezvous with the Polarlys. Then a shout went up from Theresa, a woman from North Carolina, who had spotted a juvenile eagle standing sentinel on a smooth rock by the mouth of the fjord.
‘Look, there’s another,’ a German tourist tapped me on the shoulder, pointing to the majestic profile of an adult bird soaring through the air to the starboard, pursued by a group of seagulls. The excitement was infectious as passengers clambered over chairs and each other to secure the best viewing position on deck.
Now the eagles were putting on a show for us, their dark silhouettes outlined against the snow-tipped mountains. At one point there were three flying in formation above our heads like a squadron of low-flying aircraft. A fourth dived into the sea a few hundred yards away to our starboard. It emerged clutching a fish in its talons, before returning to its rocky eyrie.
There appeared to be at least three families nesting along the fjord’s mouth, with adults and juveniles defending their territories and chicks. Almost half the Norwegian population of 3,800 pairs nest in the Nordland region, making it one of the best places to see them in the wild.
An excursion to Trollfjord is part of Hurtigruten’s summer cruising schedule along the long, rocky coast. It can also be reached by taking the overnight ferry from Bodo on the mainland, which is known as ‘sea eagle town’.
When our time was up the Orca returned us to the port of Svolvaer in the Lofoten Islands where we met our cruiseship. In Svolvaer painted wooden houses perch on stilts in the water, set against a dramatic mountain backdrop. Entering the harbour you pass racks used for drying the stockfish that powered much of the region’s economy.
Days earlier, on the northbound section of the cruise, we joined crowds on the deck to admire the spectacle of the Midnight Sun. We sailed from Tromso towards the rocky headland at Nordkapp or North Cape that, at 71 degrees north, marks the most northerly point in mainland Europe. From May to July this part of the Arctic Circle is bathed in sunlight for 24 hours each day, making it difficult to sleep without an eye-mask.
Tromso was the starting point of many Polar expeditions and a statue of Norway’s most famous explorer, Roald Amundsen, can be seen close to the tourist office on the quayside. The city remains a base for visitors who wish to explore the Arctic circle and offers a range of opportunities for lovers of wildlife and outdoor activities.
Hurtigruten’s excursions include a boat trip to north Norway’s largest sea bird colony, 15 km west of Nordkapp, where you can watch puffins, kittiwakes and Arctic skuas. There are also opportunities to go whale-watching and dog-sledding.
On day eight, en route south to the city of Bergen, we revisited Tromso to attend a midnight service at the city’s Arctic Cathedral. It was just before the witching hour and the sky remained half-lit by the sun’s rays. During the long summer, the constant sunlight brings the wildlife out at all times of day and night. As we pulled into the quay, the sun’s disc appeared to roll along the arches of a road bridge, as Arctic Terns whirled and ducked around our heads. It was fitting end to our expedition.
GET THERE: David Clarke travelled with Hurtigruten. The midnight sun is visible from late May to late July. Voyages from Bergen up to Kirkenes and back depart year-round with prices for the 6 day Classic Voyage South (Kirkenes to Bergen) starting from £724 per person (limited departures in April 2016). The same voyage departing on a wide selection of dates in July 2016 costs from £1,141 per person (based on two sharing an inside cabin on full-board basis). Flights and excursion are extra. Visit http://www.hurtigruten.com/uk/Experiences/Midnight-sun/ or call 020 3582 6642.