Tromsø: Tonight is the best night of the year to see the northern lights! Or so they said...

Tromso Travel Blog

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Sunrise (just before sunset)

The polar night just ended a couple of days ago, but that does not mean there is a lot of sun about. The sun peeks above the mountaintops for just a couple of hours a day, and it never really becomes fully light. Sunset basically follows immediately after sunrise, so you have golden hour all day long - a dream destination for photographers.

Tromsø is a strange place. I guess it would be, as six months a year are spent in near-darkness and the other six in bright light. I've heard these cities up north can be depressing places in winter, so it was cool to see how an attempt has been made to liven up the city by some unusual architecture. The Polaria museum, the Arctic cathedral, the library... all striking buildings.

The city also boasts a very cool feat of engineering.

Arctic Cathedral
The city is situated on the island of Tromsøya, which is basically this one big hill. As the city is covered in snow for a large part of the year (this area sees more snow than anywhere else in the world). The airport located on one side of the hill, and the town centre on the other, and since driving on hilly roads in the snow can be somewhat of a nuisance, they built a tunnel. No, not one tunnel, a complete network of tunnels, complete with exists and roundabouts, leading to several parts of the city, so that driving in the snow can be kept to a minimum. Really really cool and nothing unlike I have ever seen anywhere else.

My first stop for today was the tourist office, to try and book myself onto a tour for tonight. I had hoped to go on some sort of active tour tonight, combining something like dog sledding or a snow scooter safari with seeing the Northern Lights.

Tromsø palm

Unfortunately these tours take a minimum of two people, and I was just by myself, and there had not been any other people that had booked one of these tours yet. Funny, the tours I had tried to book before coming to Tromsø had all been fully booked, and the tours I was trying to book now were not full enough!

The staff at the tourist office was extremely helpful and knowledgeable though. They put me on the waiting list for several tours, in case other people showed up to book a similar tour, and when they phoned me up in the afternoon with the bad news that I was not able to go on any active trip tonight, they did give me several alternatives to choose from. In the end I opted for a Northern Lights chasing trip, after having stayed in one location last night, I really wanted a tour which would guarantee some more remote (read: less artificially lit) locations.

Polaria

I had a wander around town, strolled past the historic centre, though not much of the city’s 600 year history remains, the oldest buildings are about 100 years old. It’s hard to tell the difference though, since many modern houses are still built in the traditional style: made of wood and painted in vivid colours.

I escaped the freezing cold by visiting the Polaria. This is a museum dedicated to the natural environment of the arctic region, housed in a very striking building which resembles falling dominoes (though it is supposed to represent ice floes washing up on the shore).
Inside there is some information on the environment up north, the research that is being done in this region, and there is an aquarium with several tanks full of arctic sea life, including three resident bearded seals.

Bearded seal saying hi

I was just in time to see the seals being fed, which happens twice daily. To keep the seals mentally stimulated they are also trained, not so much to learn tricks, but rather to co-operate with the veterinary checks which are done every day at feeding time.

I don’t really like animals in captivity, I hate zoos for that reason, but there is something to be said about keeping animals here for research purpose. These animals are healthy and have a general good life. And, if truth be told, seals are just fascinating animals to watch.
These are the only bearded seals in captivity in the world, and much has been learned about the behaviour of the animals by studying these three. Many of the test results are displayed on the walls surrounding the aquarium proving that these are not only here for entertainment purpose - This ain’t a circus!

The way the seal basin has been set up is really well done.

feeding the seals
You can watch the seals both from above and under the water. There are several underwater windows and even a 4-metre walkway underneath the basin.
The other tanks also show different facets of Arctic underwater life. There is a section which resembles being under the ice, and how animals live there. There are colourful anemones, coral and even a tank with a couple of huge snow crabs. Fascinating animals (and they taste good too! If only I'd been allowed to cook one...)

The other highlight of the Polaria is a 30-minute panoramic film of Svalbard, the group of islands at 80 degrees north, the northernmost part of Norway and I believe also the northernmost continuously inhabited settlement in the world.
The film was really impressive, shown on 5 screens creating a half circle around you.

feeding the seals
The islands look really beatiful. They’ve been on my wishlist for a long time and have just moved up a nudge or ten.
After the film you leave the projection room via an artificial ‘Arctic Walk’, where they have recreated several parts of the environment on Svalbard, like permafrost, showstorms, the Northern Lights, a polar bear lair and more - All very interesting.

Though altogether you won’t spend more than an hour and a half in this museum, it is certainly worth a visit. I definitely enjoyed it.

When I came out of the museum the sun had set again, and it had become a lot colder. I had a warm, but uninspiring lunch in a small pub in town, and relaxed in my hotel room for a bit, until it was time to go on the tour.

Tonight’s tour was a Northern Lights chasing tour, where you basically go out in a car searching for the lights, stopping at remote locations where there is little artificial light to spoile the view, and where the surroundings are postcard picture perfect.

Tromsø Domkirke

 
Once again the company was very varied: Seven Singapore Chinese, who were working in Hammerfest and had come to Tromsø to celebrate the Chinese New Year, an English couple from my old hometown Tilehurst, and three Welshmen from Cardiff - a nice company to spend a night in the freezing cold with.

It wasn’t as cold as last night though. Last night had been really windy, but tonight we spent most of the time in a secluded valley, where it was a lot easier to stay outside for a long time. Even though, it is surprising how the cold can still creep up if you stand still for a long time, despite wearing three layers of clothing (including thermal underwear) underneath my skiing clothes.

main shopping street at 3 PM

The best way is to keep moving all the time, pacing up and down, or have a snowball fight.

Unfortunately there was no Aurora activity at all. There was a very dim arc visible over the mountaintops, but never any activity. Our guide told us it usually starts like this and then suddenly bursts into this dancing display of colours.
But not tonight though, there was just nothing to see all night long, despite the forecast looking very favourable for tonight.

The Northern Lights, or Aurora Borealis, are created by sun particles entering the atmosphere. After activity on the sun’s surface, these particles take three days to travel to the earth. So by monitoring the sun, it is possible to predict the Aurora activity. However, due to the rotation of the earth Tromsø is only in the northern lights zone between 6 and 12 at night.

It is north and there is light, just not Northern Light
Which under normal circumstances would make it ideal, as this is the time it is dark, and obviously you can only see the lights when it is dark.
Yesterday the guide had said that a sun storm was predicted for that night. We did see some activity, but not a lot (as I said, it looks much more impressive on the photos than it did with the naked eye). As we were driving back to Tromsø it seemed the lights got stronger and stronger.
At the tourist office today they had said the forecast for today was the best they’d had all winter. On a scale of 0 to 9, tonight would be a 3, whereas last night had only been a 1. So all the signs were good: The weather was clear, it was cold enough, and in fact all the professional photographers in Tromsø were out tonight. Then what went wrong exactly? I personally think the biggest activity had happened during the day, when you can’t see it.
This is the best we got to see all night
Some people in the group had seen the lights above Tromsø around 5 o’clock. It is very rare to see the lights in Tromsø itself, with all the disturbing city lights, and even rarer to see them at 5. So the activity must have been very strong at that time. I fear that was the end of the predicted activity, which had just come a lot earlier than anticipated and we had just been really really unlucky.

Or had I been? I prefer not to think so. I mean, I had been able to go on a tour yesterday, without booking anything in advance. And yes, it had been a shite and overpriced tour, but I had seen the lights and I had been able to take a couple of excellent pictures. So yes, it was very unfortunate that tonight there had been no lights activity, but this is the same for everybody.

freezing my butt off (I'll photoshop the aurora in later)
No one has been able to see the Northern Lights today, and otherwise the tour had been excellent. So I still prefer to think I was lucky to have seen them yesterday.
I guess there is no way to guarantee seeing the Northern Lights. You can increase your chances by staying in Tromsø a week, or longer, and go on a tour every night, but that would be an extremely costly affair. With lodging, food and activities you need at least 300 euros a day, so the lights don’t come cheap. And even then there is no guarantee at all.

However, despite there not being any lights, tonight’s tour had been miles better than last night’s. We didn’t really chase the lights, though we did stop at three different locations. But there was no sense of pressure for time at all.

the sky is green-ish, but that is about it really
The guide had been very patient and optimistic, and we stayed out much longer than planned, coming back in Tromsø at 1 o’clock. Quite a difference from last night’s, where we were forced to leave just when the activity had started.
Furthermore, I had originally wanted to book a guide who had been recommended by someone on Travbuddy. This guide has become famous because he had been featured in a popular BBC programme (which is largely responsible for the large influx of British tourists to Tromsø). This guy now charges more than 1.5 times the price of regular tours, and they had been standing only 200 metres from us all night long, so they had not seen any lights either. So we all felt a bit better about booking the tour we had. We’d paid a lot less, and seen just as much (or little) and our guide was just as friendly and knowledgeable.
starry starry night

All in all this has been a very pleasant trip to Tromsø, though in hindsight I would have liked to have stayed a bit longer to have been able to do some more activities. Locals have recommended March/April as the best time of the year, because there is more daylight and it is warmer, but there is still plenty of snow for skiing of other activities, and the Northern Lights are still visible at night. Perhaps an idea for next year?

 

In conclusion, my third trip to Norway has been a very memorable one. Finally got to do some proper travelling (if only for two days). But I am going back to Oslo in May already, so who knows what that brings. Gotta practice my Norwegian a bit more though.

view from Norrøna
Elg er også mat :)

gemini59 says:
Luckily you didn't book that famous guide!
Posted on: Feb 07, 2009
edsander says:
Hmmm ... Tromso in March 2010. Put me on the tentative list. ;-)
Posted on: Feb 04, 2009
Biedjee says:
Hmm, Alaska? Meet-up? 2010? I'm in! :)
Posted on: Jan 28, 2009
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Sunrise (just before sunset)
Sunrise (just before sunset)
Arctic Cathedral
Arctic Cathedral
Tromsø palm
Tromsø palm
Polaria
Polaria
Bearded seal saying hi
Bearded seal saying hi
feeding the seals
feeding the seals
feeding the seals
feeding the seals
Tromsø Domkirke
Tromsø Domkirke
main shopping street at 3 PM
main shopping street at 3 PM
It is north and there is light, ju…
It is north and there is light, j…
This is the best we got to see all…
This is the best we got to see al…
freezing my butt off (Ill photosh…
freezing my butt off (I'll photos…
the sky is green-ish, but that is …
the sky is green-ish, but that is…
starry starry night
starry starry night
view from Norrøna
view from Norrøna
view from Norrøna
view from Norrøna
Bearded Seal
Bearded Seal
Bearded Seal
Bearded Seal
Tromso Sights & Attractions review
Just as good as 'the best', only cheaper
Tours from Tromsø come in many shapes and sizes. There are about 10 travel agencies and guides competing for the tourists. However, there is only… read entire review
Tromso Sights & Attractions review
interesting Arctic natural museum
The polaria is housed in a striking building, resembling falling dominoes (although the intention was to resemble ice floes washing up on shore). It i… read entire review
Tromso
photo by: Biedjee