Tony McLean's East Yorkshire Wildlife Diary

Wildlife photography in East Yorkshire

Archive for the tag “Aurora Borealis”

Seeing the light

Aurora - Nyvoll fish-farm

I was sat in a bar in Alta a few night’s ago slowly savouring a rather expensive beer and casually re-reading Steinbeck’s ‘Of Mice & Men’ on my iPad. For those of you who haven’t had the opportunity of reading this short but beautifully written novella, I would highly recommend doing so. Essentially, it’s about loneliness and it reflected my mood perfectly.

It was early in the evening and outside the ice-covered streets were dark and empty. The bar was almost empty too and there was little opportunity for my favourite pastime of people watching. A tall Norwegian man entered the bar, dressed in a thick overcoat and white Aran sweater. He was alone and he appeared to be a visitor rather than a resident. I watched him as he ordered a beer and take a seat at the far end of the bar. He drummed his fingers on the wooden table as he scanned the room for someone to engage in conversation. I didn’t really wish to chat so I lowered my head and continued to read and sip my beer.

After five minutes or so, the man shuffled across and asked me in Norwegian if I wished talk. I didn’t want to be rude so I quickly explained that I was from the UK and didn’t speak his native language and hoping that this would suppress his desire to continue. It didn’t. He spoke excellent English and went on to tell me of the reason he was in Alta. It turned out that he was a marine biologist and was marooned in Alta for the night, waiting to catch an early flight the following morning to Tromso and then onto another trawler.

He told me about various boats that he had worked on and places around the world that he had visited. I said very little; just asking sufficient questions so as not to be rude and listened while he told me about his passion for sea-fishing and all things marine. He reached into his coat pocket and produced a postcard that he had written to his daughter and confessed that he much preferred ‘old-fashioned’ postcards to e-mail and any other form of digital communication.

He was a pleasant man and keen to talk about his job. My knowledge of fishing was rather sketchy so I asked him about a fish-farm that I had photographed earlier that week. I opened my iPad and quickly flicked to a photograph and asked him for an explanation of the strange blue lights. He patiently explained that these blue LED lights were commonly used in aquaculture in the Northern Hemisphere. Apparently, he said, and pointing towards his crotch, these blue lights artificially extended the photoperiod and masked the shortening day length that preventing the physiological processes that initiate gonad development. This in turn led to an increase in their growth rate. I was suitably impressed though admittedly, a little uncomfortable at his rather graphic gesture. He asked me whether I would like another beer but I declined, wished him goodnight and a successful trip.

I pondered on the significance of these strange blue lights as I walked slowly back up the hill to the guesthouse. It seemed to me that physics behind the emission of the blue lights was essentially the same as that which produces the phenomena we know as the Northern Lights i.e. electroluminescence. A quick internet search and a few minutes reading confirmed my suspicions.

The following evening, I had another opportunity to photograph a salmon farm, this time just outside Nygoll. Now better informed, I wanted to make another image that better encompassed my recently acquired knowledge. After several minutes of trial end error I finally ended up with the photograph at the head of this post.

Well, I’m sorry to say that I shall be leaving Alta tomorrow and heading home. I have enjoyed my trip immensely and have had the opportunity of making some wonderful photographs. However, if you asked me to nominate my favourite image from my whole trip it would have to be this image. Not because this aurora is by any means spectacular but because of the contrasting lights and their common physics.

One blue, artificial and constant—designed by man to provide food for a luxury market; the other green, celestial and ephemeral.

The Quiet Road to Nyvoll

Aurora over Nyvoll

Yesterday, I found myself scouring the map for a new area to explore. The weather forecast was distinctly unpromising; a short break in the cloud cover was promised at around 1:00 am but there would be a stiff breeze from the south-east. I had been festering for most of the day and I needed to get out.

The coastal road to the small fishing town of Nyvoll looked interesting. It was a cul-de-sac but that didn’t matter, at least it should be quiet and away from the main E6 with its thundering trucks. Satisfied that I had a plan, I grabbed my gear and set off north at around 8:00 pm. After some twenty miles, I turned west on to the 883 and followed the narrow road along the fjords through several small hamlets.

There was very little traffic so I drove slowly, stopping occasionally to get out and stare at the cloudy sky for any signs of auroral activity. The narrow road wound its way along the coast, with the sea on one side and steep hills and granite cliffs on the other. I noticed that many of the houses were still adorned with colourful Christmas lights; whose occupants seemed in no hurry to dismantle their festive illuminations.

About a mile south of Nyvoll I reached a long tunnel. It was two miles in length and fitted with an automatic roller shutter door at each end. I paused, waiting for the traffic lights to change and watched huge door slowly open to reveal the dimly lit interior of the unlined tunnel. Once through the tunnel I could see the lights of Nyvoll in the distance. I trundled on, passing a small pier of the ferry terminus and all too suddenly, the end of the road. I got out of my car for a few minutes and looked around at the small harbour with the dark sea and the feint blue lights of a small salmon farm.

Curiosity satisfied, I craved the warmth of my car once again and headed back the way I had come. Just short of the tunnel, I stopped once again and saw a dim green glow behind the clouds. I grabbed my tripod and camera and set up on the edge of the shore. The wind was quite strong and I had to place my hands on the legs of my tripod in order to subdue the vibrations.

After about twenty minutes of standing in one spot (I was hesitant to leave my equipment exposed to the wind) there was a break in the clouds and I managed to make four, eight-second exposures of the sky and harbour scene before returning to the comforting warmth of the car.

The return trip was pretty uneventful except for a beautiful red fox that ambled across the road in front of me. I stopped, but by the time I had grabbed my camera from the floor of the passenger seat, it had disappeared into the cold night. Pity, as this was the third fox I had seen in as many days. I smiled, wished it well and drove slowly back to Alta.

Dancing on ice

Aurora & fish farm

Pursuing and photographing the Northern Lights can be fun but it does have inherent hazards that can lead to serious injury to the photographer and expensive repair bills for their damaged equipment. For those of us visiting the polar regions and unaccustomed to the cold conditions, then the dangers may go unnoticed. Extreme cold dulls the senses and coordination of mind and body becomes retarded.

On a recent trip to Iceland, I was persuaded, against my better judgement, to venture outside on a cold and very windy day. Within minutes, the back of my jacket was coated with wind-driven snow giving me the appearance of half-man, half-snowman.   Thirty minutes later, a brief lapse in concentration and a rather large wave led to me losing both my camera and lens to the sea. I learned a valuable lesson that day––think twice before executing each and every action.

Last night wasn’t that cold for a January in Finnmark. The thermometer indicated that it was around -12 C but the wind-chill meant it was more like -20 C. It was a severe shock to my senses each time I exited my nice warm car to set up my tripod for the dancing light-show. The aurora was spectacular but as always, brief and capricious. Each time I’d decided on a pleasing composition, the glowing plasma would move to another point in the night sky.

The solar wind and it’s earthly cousin were conspiring to make my life extremely difficult. Recent mild weather added my frustration as every flat piece of ground that wasn’t covered by snow had a veneer of sheet ice that was almost impossible to walk on and often, very difficult to see. Of course, I had had the foresight to bring some crampons for my winter boots but putting them on and taking them off at each location would have been time consuming, so I accepted the risk and left them in my suitcase at the guest-house.

Any photographer that has attempted to set up his or her tripod to take long exposures in windy conditions knows the frustrations of trying to achieve a stable platform. Carbon fibre tripods are a wonderful invention but their light weight makes them vulnerable in anything but a light breeze. Yes, I know that I could have attached a bag of rocks to the hook on the underside of my tripod in order to lower the centre of gravity but that solution may be satisfactory for a static location but entirely unsuitable for such a dynamic event in which the subject is constantly moving.

The hard ice was impervious to the spiked metal feet of my tripod and the frozen ground was just as impenetrable. At each position I had to search out a patch of suitable snow that was not too deep yet offered sufficient purchase. I understand that RRS makes a ‘rock-claw’ tripod foot that may have been more suitable but unfortunately, I had to manage with what I had with me.

The good news is that both my camera and more significantly, myself survived the experience and I returned to Alta with some wonderful images. However, without proper foresight and planning and awareness of the dangers, the outcome may have been very different. Finger’s crossed…I shall keep safe for the remainder of my trip to this beautiful region of Norway.

Trapped…

Aurora over frozen-lake

I arrived in Alta on Monday at 1:30 in the morning. The flight from Oslo had been delayed by three hours and I was tired of travelling and ready for bed. Luckily, Bente the owner of the guest-house, had very kindly stayed up to welcome me. After a brief conversation, I dumped my bags on the floor and retired for the night.

The next morning I awoke with the familiar symptoms of a bout of Diverticulitis. This was not good news. I was a long way from home and the thought of spending part of my vacation in hospital was not part of my plan. The weather was also unseasonably warm. I struggled back to the airport to pick up my hire car and then spent the next couple of days lying on my bed and feeling decidedly sorry for myself.

Yesterday was New Year’s eve and I was feeling marginally better. I looked at the local weather forecasts and it didn’t look inspiring. High winds and partial cloud cover until 8:00 pm then fully overcast for the remainder of the night. I knew that the optimum time for an aurora display is usually between the hours of 10:00 pm to 3:00 am. Maybe I should stay in bed or read a book? Ignoring these doubts, I packed my gear and a flask of coffee and headed north along the E6 towards Hammerfest.

The road was quiet as I drove carefully out of Alta and up the winding pass onto the high plateau. It was already 6:30 pm and I could see the clouds pouring over the mountains from the west. I stopped at a lay-by and peered at the sky. I could make out some weak aurora in the moon-lit sky. I retrieved my camera equipment from the car and set up my tripod on the edge of the road and made a few 8 second exposures of the sky above a frozen, snow-covered lake.

Still dissatisfied, I returned to my car and continued along the road. I passed an automatic snow barrier and a short distance further, the road was partially blocked by a small avalanche. I continued on for a short distance and was met with a snow-plough and a completely blocked road. The high winds were sweeping snow across the carriageway and any further progress was impossible. I turned around and headed back towards Alta.

A few hundred yards in the distance I could see red-lights flashing on the automatic barrier as it swung vertically down into its closed position. I don’t know why but at that point, I thought of the famous scene of Indiana Jones in the Raiders of the Lost Ark. Unfortunately, real life is not like Holywood and I didn’t make it.

I got out of my car to see if there was a manual release for the barrier but no such luck. I poured myself a coffee and listened to the radio and cursed myself for venturing out on such an inhospitable night. I scoured the horizon for approaching headlights but it appeared that most sensible folk were all at home on this last evening of the year. About an hour later, I could see an approaching vehicle.

A tow-truck came to a halt on the other side of the closed barrier and the owner approached my vehicle. He was surprised to see me and asked me why I was not celebrating with my friends at home on New Year’s eve. Once he established that I from the U.K. and on holiday he must have concluded that this was just normal eccentric British behaviour. We chatted about football and he made quick call on his mobile and within minutes the flashing lights ceased and the barrier swung open. I thanked him for his troubles and wished him a Happy New Year.

I arrived back in Alta just in time for the New Year celebrations. Fireworks lit the sky and it seemed that everyone was outside welcoming in the New Year. Bente very kindly asked me if I would like to join the party but I politely declined. I’d reached my limit to the excitement for one evening. A couple of cans of beer later and I was fast asleep.

Photographing the aurora – Alta, Norway

Aurora - Langfjord, Norway

It’s almost a month now since I returned from a wonderful trip to Alta in Norway. I travelled there alone with the sole intention of photographing the Northern Lights. In hindsight, I was extremely lucky. The conditions during my short stay were almost ideal with clear, star-studded skies almost every night during my ten day stay. I don’t believe that the weather over there has been quite as good since returning to the U.K. I guess those ancient Norse Gods must have been smiling down on me.

Perhaps some of you are wondering why on earth I chose Alta in Norway to spend two weeks of my well-earned, annual vacation? I suspect that privately, even some of my friends think I’m border-line certifiable. Well, there is sound (sort of) logic behind my decision. Let me explain…

Last year, I travelled to Iceland with my Squiver friends and enjoyed the experience. Even though we only got to see the northern lights on one evening, it was spectacular. Far better than the best fireworks display you’ve ever seen and without the smoke and the crowds! Perched precariously on steep and loose glacial moraine and watching the light-show unfold was an amazing experience but one I admit, for which I was totally unprepared. I fumbled with my camera controls in the inky blackness and failed to get a sharp focus on the stars. I struggled getting an adequate exposure and had no time to explore alternative compositions. I was so very envious of my Canadian friends to whom this was second nature and who effortlessly snapped away and produced some absolutely stunning images. I was angry with myself but at the same time, I was hooked!

So, during the past twelve months, I’ve been surfing the web, searching for a location that would be both accessible and scenic and with a stable climate, clear nights and with good prospects of an auroral display. The small city of Alta in the arctic circle appeared to fit all of the above criteria. It was further north than the popular Norwegian city of Tromso and and more importantly to me, it attracted far fewer tourists. Personally, I hate being distracted by large numbers of other photographers all getting in each others way and spoiling my images with the light from their head-torches.

I stayed at the wonderful Baarstua Guesthouse, some fifteen minutes from the centre of Alta. The owner Bente lives in a beautiful family home right opposite the guesthouse and was extremely helpful throughout my stay, giving me plenty of advice and organising taxis and car rental. There is no doubt that Norway is expensive but staying at this guesthouse, equipped with its own small kitchen, enabled me to survive within my budget. I even hired my car from the local franchise of ‘Rent-A- Wreck’.

Aurora streams - Alta

I pre-booked a couple of evening ‘aurora hunts’ through a local adventure company Glød, before I visited Norway. This turned out to be a wise move. The local knowledge and experience of the two guides Anton and Katrina, proved invaluable and gave me the confidence to hire a car and explore the landscape by myself for the remainder of my trip.

Winter in northern Norway is cold. I experienced a range of temperatures from an almost tropical -10 C down to -35 C near Suolovuopmi! You need to dress for the conditions. A down-jacket, insulated boots and thermal underwear are essential. Handling your camera in such temperatures can be difficult. I have never yet found an ideal pair of gloves that would give me the necessary tactility and insulation. At temperatures below -20 C, your skin will begin to freeze in minutes. I thought I’d escaped without injury until small blisters appeared on the pads of each of my finger-tips when I got home. Camera batteries are much less efficient in really cold temperatures. I kept a spare battery in my inside pocket each night, just in case.

Witnessing the aurora for the first time is an almost spiritual experience. Yes, scientists have researched the phenomena and can fully explain the physics behind the spectacle. Nevertheless, the feeling of wonder and awe still remains. I admire both its beauty, rarity and its ephemeralness. To me, photography is all about capturing that unique moment in time; so very different from other media such as film or video.

Visiting Alta has also given me the opportunity of experiencing the polar winter with its unique ‘blue-light’; albeit at the tail-end of the season. Winters back home have become boring. Snowy conditions and minus temperatures are rare and are considered a nuisance rather than an event to be embraced and enjoyed. I like the cold and the ice. Everything appears so much cleaner and brighter. Here’s an excerpt from my daily diary that may give you a flavour of my nocturnal adventures…

Aurora and moonlight - Duggelv

Last night’s aurora was a doozie! For a few minutes, I swear I could have read a newspaper from its bright, green light. It was fantastic to see the winter landscape lit by an alien green glow and see its reflections on the surface of the sea. For a short spell, there was so much activity that I didn’t know which way to point my lens. I even wished that I had a fish-eye lens so I could capture the whole sky! It was stunning.

I set off about 8:00 pm, heading south along the E6 to a previously researched location on the shore of a fjord: one of Slartibartfast’s* award winning designs. I set up my camera in the middle of a snowy field and waited patiently in the deep powder snow. I guess it was below -15 C as my nose hairs tingled with each intake of breath.

After about fifteen minutes, I heard a man approaching me from the local farmhouse. He was curious to know the reason I was stood in the dark in the middle of his field. Satisfied that I was a genuine English eccentric, we chatted about the Aurora and the local wildlife, mostly foxes and otters.

Suddenly, I saw a luminous green light out of the corner of my eye and turned to see the stunning arc of an auroral rainbow spanning the whole sky. I reached for my camera and began to photograph this cosmic spectacle. The farmer tried to continue our conversation but eventually retreated to the warmth of his house when he realised I was totally engaged with my photography.

Aurora over the new Alta Bridge - Norway

I stayed and photographed the aurora for about an hour, trying many different compositions and camera settings whilst the aurora continued to wave and shimmer across the moon-lit sky. Eventually, I returned to my car, fingers frozen; as was the grin across my face. I drove back towards Alta, stopping at several previously researched locations; each time the aurora continued to oblige. I even managed to photograph the auroral lights above the recently completed suspension bridge over the fjord at Kåfjorden—perhaps a first?

* A character in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, a comedy/science fiction series created by Douglas Adams.

Aurora over Langfjord - Alta

The whole trip was a wonderful experience. My camera equipment (Nikon D4 and D800) operated flawlessly despite the sub-zero temperatures. As I sit here at my desk, listening to the wind blown rain battering against my window, I really wish I was back in Finnmark, Norway.

Aurora - Langfjord, Norway

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