Interview with Northern Lights expert Dr John Mason
Dr Mason has been working with Hurtigruten since 2007, and this will be his eleventh consecutive winter season on our Astronomy Voyage. Some of the Hurtigruten team had the opportunity to spend the afternoon with Dr Mason, quizzing him on all things aurora-related.
Q: What’s so special about the Northern Lights?
The Northern Lights consistently appear near the top of “bucket lists” but what makes them so special? Why should people choose to go to the Arctic instead of the beach? Dr Mason explains, “The Northern Lights are one of nature’s great spectacles. One of the allures of the aurora is that it’s so unpredictable.”
If you’re lucky enough to catch a glimpse of the lights, the display will be unique. Dr Mason continues, “It’s comparable to snowflakes; there are millions of them but no two are identical. All auroral displays have similarities - they may start in a similar way, they may develop in a similar way, but no two will ever be the same.”
Legends in the lights
Throughout history, the Northern Lights have inspired awe and sometimes fear in the people who witness them – and many myths have grown up around them. “There are so many legends surrounding the auroras. The legends show that people couldn't understand what was going on so they did what humans always do; we relate it to our experiences by seeing familiar shapes in the lights. All the stories relate to human perception.”
We asked which of these legends most catches Dr Mason’s imagination. “A lot of the auroral structures resemble arches and rayed arcs in the sky. This led to the legend that it was a bridge between Earth and Heaven. The rays, which move along the ‘bridge’ right to left, were believed to be the souls of people who’d died making their way to heaven.”
Q: Why should people choose Hurtigruten?
With so many ways to see the Northern Lights, we asked Dr Mason why he thinks a cruise along the Norwegian Coast with Hurtigruten is one of the best.
“The weather plays a huge part in whether the Northern Lights are visible. You can never guarantee there will be a clear sky but the weather in the Arctic is changeable on an hourly timescale. On a Hurtigruten voyage, the ship is travelling between 12-14 knots per hour, and these weather changes are accelerated. Subsequently, the ship will pass under clear patches of sky, providing many more opportunities to see the Northern Lights.”
“Another advantage with Hurtigruten is that you sail north along the coast of Norway into the Arctic Circle and right underneath the auroral oval. This gives you a different perspective of the Northern Lights depending on your location. It also means you’ll be much more likely to see the Northern Lights as you will be spending so much time in the auroral zone.”
Dr Mason also mentions Hurtigruten’s promise. “If for any reason, you don’t see the aurora on your voyage, Hurtigruten offer their Northern Lights Promise, which is completely unique. If you don’t see the aurora on your 12-day trip, Hurtigruten will give you another 6 or 7-day Classic Voyage free of charge. No other company offers that.”
Q: What do you wish people knew about Hurtigruten’s Astronomy Voyages?
“A lot of people are of the impression that if you go to the Arctic in winter, it will be dark 24 hours a day and you won’t be able to do anything. What I’d like to tell people is, yes, it’s the Arctic winter but that doesn’t mean you will be in total darkness. During the Arctic winter, the sun sits on the horizon, creating a beautiful twilight. Seeing the beauty of the Norwegian coastline in winter, with snow and ice and the beautiful silvery twilight on the water and the mountains is a fabulous experience.”
Even Dr Mason admits, a Hurtigruten cruise offers much more than only the Northern Lights.
Catching a glimpse of the Northern Lights is an amazing experience, but it’s not the only incredible adventure on a Hurtigruten voyage. Dr Mason explained that there is much more to do than look up at the sky.
“There are plenty of opportunities to get off the ship and explore parts of Norway people wouldn’t ordinarily see. From the ship, you can book some fantastic experiences, like visiting the Sámi people, the Snow Hotel or the Midnight Concert in Tromsø. For the more adventurous, there’s dog sledging or snowmobiling. And RIB (Rigid Inflatable Boat) Trips from the ship take people out to see rare sea eagles and tidal bores.”
Stepping off the ship gives you the chance to experience the real Norway, and by joining the excursions, you’ll get a feel for the Norwegian way of life, beyond the Northern Lights.