It happened last summer. Many many moons ago. Or should I say many suns ago - in the land of the midnight sun.
I am one of those lucky blokes who get to plan one’s own birthday. I plan it such that I don’t have to blow out the candles on my birthday cake and be reminded, in the process, how old I have become. Or be woken up at 3 in the morning with a phone call from an aunt wishing me a happy birthday and thus ruining the sleep that I so need at this age. Or be stuck with gifts from friends and colleagues that suspiciously look recycled and will be subsequently recycled, as well.
We usually take our annual fortnightly holiday during end June - early July. My birthday being on the 1st of July, I get to choose where I want to spend it. Away from the madness, with my phone switched off. Last year, since I was officially losing the right to ever utter the words – ‘in my ‘early 30’s’, I thought to myself, what the heck, let me make it exciting. I chose to spend my birthday in the land of the midnight sun.
Norway has always fascinated me ever since I had read about the midnight sun and aurora borealis in my geography lessons. If I could manage an itinerary within our budget and make a pitch exciting enough to sell to A, why not give it a try? Once I started my research, I also started getting confused. Norway is such an incredible place – with so much to do – that it really boggles your mind. Should we go glacier climbing, do dog sledging, go kayaking or take a hike in the Norwegian woods? Also, there’s the budget to consider, the country being a bit expensive than the rest of Europe. It is also very spaced out, in all senses and one needs to plan out the journey very meticulously. From point A to point B, there may not be an easy route. I turned to my travel forum buddies, I did extensive research, asked questions, read up everything I could get my hands and eyes on. Planning the itinerary for Norway was, perhaps, my most challenging one so far. Just to let you know, I did such a good job that I have been patting my back ever since.
Back to the birthday celebration, since I was already beginning to feel old, I thought I’d keep aside the physically challenging activities for the time being and go for a more relaxed itinerary. Like watching the whales in action while enjoying the midnight sun. That sounded ideal for my old bones.
There is this tiny fishing village north of Norway – 300 km north of the Arctic Circle – called Andenes, off the Lofoten Islands, which is supposedly the best place in the whole world to go whale watching. That’s what my travel forum buddies said – and I believe them. So what if it took us almost half a day to reach Andenes from Stockholm, via Oslo and Tromsø. So what if the flight from Oslo to Tromsø got cancelled and we were put on another flight, which made it just in time to enable us to catch the tiny twin-piston airplane that took us to Andenes. So what if there were only 10 people headed to Andenes. The journey itself was an adventure and when you are on the other side of 30’s, you need all the excitement that you can get.
A few words about Lofoten Islands and the whales in the Arctic Ocean. The Lofoten Islands are a chain of islands above the Arctic Circle in the Arctic Ocean. The waters of the Arctic Ocean here are the ideal ground for watching whales. The continental shelf drops to depths of 3,000 feet near these islands and massive Sperm Whales can be found in these nutrient-rich deep waters between May and September. The Sperm Whales found here is a bachelor's society - all male. The females remain in warmer seas further south, around the Azores and Canary Islands, with their young ones while the males swim out to the colder waters up north during summer to chill out and do some male bonding. Much like the males in human species chilling out during summer months with their buddies over some cold beers. The Lofoten Islands have always been a prime hunting ground for Norwegian whalers. However, these days, cameras are replacing harpoons. And that’s where we were going to be for my birthday.
As for Andenes, the moment we landed in this almost empty, tiny airport, we knew we were about to experience something novel. Away from the civilization, in a world of its own, Andenes is a petite fishing port with a population of 4,200. You can imagine how quiet it is. As for the backdrop, I don’t think I can do justice to it with my limited vocabulary. Red, blue and green wooden houses stacked together, the endless horizon of the Arctic waters and a red lighthouse. Stuff dreams are made of.
Or stuff eerie movies are made of. We reached quite late in the evening – around 8-ish. The sun does not go down the horizon above the Arctic Circle during the summer months, so though it was sunny, there was not a soul in the street, it being so late in the night. It was cold, it was windy and there were sea gulls swooping above our heads, welcoming us to the land of the midnight sun. It was a scene straight from some horror movie where a couple arrives in a small ghost town, to be eventually hacked to death. I, being the braver of the two, with a penchant for everything that’s weird and surreal, absolutely loved the setting.
We had booked ourselves at Groennbua, which was formally a rorbu or fisherman's quarter, now turned into a bed and breakfast. Since it was late in the night and my birthday eve, we decided to try out the restaurant attached to our B&B. Okay, here, I have a confession to make. I did something that I am not proud of and till today, can’t get over. I tried whale meat. To my defense, my research on Norway said Norway's whaling is limited to the non-endangered Minke whale. But I know, I know, that’s no excuse. In the debate between my left and right brain over whether to experience whale meat, my taste buds won. Hey, don't judge me, I am only human - that too, one who loves her food.
We will skip the dinner bit and go straight over to the next day – my birthday. We woke up to a gloomy cloudy day. By the time the breakfast was over, it started to pour. At the Whale Centre, which is a part of the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society, we were told that due to the rough weather and choppy sea, the tour may not happen. We had already booked our tour through the internet and we were flying back to Oslo the next day. So it was today or never. I knew it was bad karma – God was punishing us for eating whale steak the night before. I cursed A for inciting me to try it out and I cursed the Rain God for deciding to show off his power, today of all days. To while away the idle hours while it rained incessantly, we took a tour of the Whale Centre and learnt about different species of whales.
The Sperm Whale lives up to 80 years and a male grows up to 20 meters and weighs up to 75 tonnes while a female is 12 meters long and weighs around 20 tonnes. It has the largest brain in any animal - the brain weighing about 9 kg. It feeds on giant squid and fish. The name comes from the milky-white waxy substance, spermaceti, found in the animal's head, which looks like, you guessed it, semen. As a result of whaling, the Sperm Whale is currently listed as vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. Sperm Whales, along with Bottlenose Whales and Elephant Seals, are the deepest-diving mammals. Sperm whales can dive up to 1,300 ft and stay submerged for 35-45 minutes without breathing. Between dives, it surfaces to breathe for about 8-10 minutes. That’s when you get to see it.
The morning excursion was definitely cancelled. We were asked to come back around noon to enquire if the afternoon excursion was happening. We went around the village and had lunch. This time, however, I made sure I was nowhere near whale steaks. I cribbed the whole time and sulked and vowed never to touch meat, if only I get to watch the Sperm Whales in action. The rain, meanwhile, had calmed down a bit. We returned to the Whale Centre at the stipulated time and were told, though the sea was choppy, we would, after all, have our adventure.
And off we went. With our old bones shaking in the cold, we got onto the catamaran waiting for us in the harbour. The excursion is conducted by biologists who have been researching on these mysterious animals for years. I got talking to one of them, trying to figure out if there’s any way I could join the group as a volunteer. Looking at my shaking hands and hearing my chattering teeth, she said one needs to be a scientist in order to do so. I didn’t quite believe her – if they are into whale conservation, surely they need people to block whaling ships and protest against commercial whaling. Something I am a pro at. I have a doubt she had seen me savoring the whale steak the night before – she didn’t take me seriously.
It was cold. It was drizzling. An hour into the sea seemed like a lifetime. The journey was made exciting by some fellow passengers falling sea sick. It was so cold that I couldn’t even click pictures – my camera didn’t have an 'anti-shake mode'. I am not sure, but the temperature must have been 1°C - it was so cold. After what seemed like an eternity, albeit an exciting one, we reached the part of the sea where the whales are usually found. The whales are tracked through sonar system attached to the catamaran – it picks up signals if a whale is around and gives the coordinates. We were told that there were a couple of whales around and we had to wait for them to surface. Everyone grew quiet and looked around in anticipation. The shaking and chattering stopped – calm descended onboard.
And suddenly there it was. The majestic Sperm Whale. Our Moby Dick. First we saw the head, which forms one-third of its body length, surface slowly. After a minute or two, a sudden burst of water spouted from the blow hole. The spouting continued for a while. And then the grand finale – the tail up in the air as the whale slowly headed out to the depths of the ocean, as if it had had enough of us.
What a sight! You catch your breath and gasp when it spouts; you applause instinctively when it makes that final dive. We caught 3 more in action after that – each one more grandiose than the one before. Each gave us around 10 minutes of demonstration – but it was worth all the cold, all the rain, all the wait – it was truly an experience never to be forgotten.
The weather had cleared up by then and we followed a flock of sea gulls who guided us back to the fishing harbour in Andenes. I could have stayed in that water for ever – damn the cold. We were headed to Oslo the next day and from there to another remote part of Norway to do some glacier climbing. We were tired from a long day in the cold sea – but still spent the last evening basking in the midnight sun, exploring the nooks and crannies of this picturesque village. A quaint church, an old lighthouse, a tiny grocery shop, a local pub – that is all that is there to this village. And the midnight sun - it is almost dreamlike, surreal. A perfect birthday spent in the most amazing way.
I would recommend Andenes to anyone going up north in the Viking country. There are whale watching trips leaving from Tromsø as well – Tromsø, being a bigger town, compared to Andenes, and more accessible. But if you are a bit crazy like me, and would rather be away from the usual tourist hangouts and don’t mind being the only alien in the local pub and be ready to brave a 30 minutes flight in a wobbly twin-piston aircraft, Andenes it is for you. It’s not that out-of-the-way either – budget airline Widerøe flies from Tromsø and Bodø on certain days of the week to Andenes and if you plan well and plan ahead, you do get good deals.
I will go back to Andenes again someday – for the Aurora Borealis. Andenes sits directly below the aurora oval; the northern lights are visible here most winter nights. What a sight that would be! Maybe, I should plan that for our anniversary, which falls in January. But knowing A – who hates cold, it may be a very difficult sales pitch. I can already visualize his frosty stares. And lately I have been hauling him to all cold places – something, I have a doubt, he’s not too happy about.
And then there’s another Andenes I want to visit, this one with coordinates 13°09′S 72°32′W. The Andenes in the Sacred Valley in Perú. Another place steeped with mystery that has enticed me for years now. Here, andenes mean terraces dug into the slopes of mountains for agricultural purposes in the Andean Mountain between Perú and Bolivia. The itinerary is all ready – I just need to match the dates.
Post Script: I have not given up eating meat. I, however, have given up eating sushi and sashimi. That happened after I watched this documentary called ‘The Cove’ two months back. The only deserving Oscar winner this year, I think everyone should watch this film. The film describes the annual killing of dolphins in a National Park at Taiji, Wakayama, in Japan and tries to create awareness about this annual practice, which the Japanese government justifies as a part of their culture. Watch it and you will never visit a Sushi King or a SeaWorld ever again.