Iceland has many attractions, one of which is the Northern Lights. Many people visit every year, hoping to catch a glimpse of the dancing lights in the night sky. Every tour company in Iceland seems to offer trips, offering to take you to the best light-watching spots. How can you possibly choose which company to use? And is it even worth taking a trip?
In short – yes. It seems simple – you drive out, into the night, and look for the lights. But, it is not quite that simple. There are a number of factors that need to work in your favour to see them.
Firstly, you have the time of year. September to April are the months with the least light, with December and January being the darkest months with the longest nights. The longer the night, the more time to spot the lights! Secondly, you have the phases of the moon. Any day that has a new moon, or only 25 per cent of the moon or less showing, is ideal. We were lucky to catch a new moon, which only happens once a month.
And then you have the most crucial points – cloud cover and auroral activity. The Northern Lights are a result of collisions between gas particles in the Earth’s atmosphere with particles from the sun’s atmosphere. Variations in colour are due to the type of gas particles that are colliding. The most common auroral color, a pale yellowish-green, is apparently produced by oxygen molecules located about 60 miles above the earth. Rare, all-red auroras are produced by high-altitude oxygen, at heights of up to 200 miles. Nitrogen produces blue or purplish-red aurora.
To understand whether any auroral activity is likely to occur, you have to consult the Auroral Forecast. This will give you a number, on a scale of one to nine, stating how much auroral activity is predicted – the higher, the better. However, this is where cloud cover becomes an issue. You can have auroral activity of six or seven, and total cloud cover. The most gorgeous, dazzling display of lights would be invisible to you.
Not quite as easy as you thought, right?
I checked the auroral forecast religiously for the first few days we were in Iceland. I had booked a tour with Happy Tours before arriving in Iceland, on the basis of their fantastic TripAdvisor reviews. On the day we arrived, our tour was cancelled due to heavy cloud. The next day, the tour wasn’t scheduled to run, and the day after that it was cancelled again. Uh oh. Luckily, our lovely guides – Snorri and Kristey – had checked the forecast, and recommended we try again on Tuesday night. After sufficiently bundling ourselves up, we were picked up outside our apartment at 9.15pm.
We were the only ones who had booked a tour that night, so we headed off into the darkness in a 4XD, peering anxiously at the sky. In the car, we could see a bit of very faint activity in the clouds, and to be honest, without our guides help, I wouldn’t have even noticed it! They knew all the best spots to try to see the lights, and consulted the auroral forecast to try and pick an area that would have minimal cloud cover. We ended up in a car park near a little cave, where we enjoyed Icelandic donuts and hot chocolate while we waited. And then the show started.
It was amazing. The speed at which the lights moved across the sky was incredible, and very ethereal. While it was only rated a three on the auroral forecast, Snorri felt the lights were more like a five. That’s an important point – even if there is low activity forecast, it’s always worthwhile heading out as long as there is no cloud likely to block the way! We saw mainly green lights, but also a bit of a purple hue and reddish tones. The lights would brighten, and then disappear, only to come back in a few minutes. Matt had bought his camera, and managed to get some amazing photos using an exposure time of about 20 seconds.
One interesting thing to note is that the colours of the lights are far more pronounced in photography than to the naked eye. While I understand it can be incredibly bright and colourful, it often looks mainly green tinged and white. Anyway, I was glad Matt got the photos, because they are a beautiful reminder of the tour.
As he was taking some of his photos, I had a chat to Snorri and Kristey. Their family business is the proud owner of the Saga, an Icelandic fishing vessel, and run fishing tours in Reykjavík. They were absolutely lovely, very friendly, and definitely knew where to find the lights. We loved being in a small group and being able to actually meet our guides, and when we just wanted to take photos, they were happy to leave us to it. When we had been at the cave site for around 25 minutes, three GIANT tour buses rolled in.
People were suddenly everywhere, trying to take flash photos (spoiler alert… you’ll get a blank, black shot) and getting in the way. Luckily, Snorri and Kristey had armed us with flashlights, so we wandered off into the night and set up Matt’s camera on a small concrete pad, away from the crowds. The lights really lit up then, so we were glad we stuck around. After about another half hour, we were starting to get a bit cold, so head back to the car. Even more tour buses had shown up, so we were glad Snorri and Kristey had taken us there earlier! I couldn’t imagine anything worse than being piled in a bus with 60 other people. Funnily enough, most people took one or two photos, and then hopped back on the giant buses and played on their phones. To each their own, I guess!
If we had to drive around on our own, I’m sure we would have gotten lost, and we would have been far less likely to find the areas around Reykjavík where the lights were visible. We really enjoyed our tour, and seeing the lights were an absolute highlight of our visit. If you want to opt for a small group experience – and I certainly recommend it – I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend Happy Tours. They also do a puffin tour, when its the right time of year.. I’m trying to convince Matt that we should go back and do it….
The photos accompanying this post are completely original, untouched and unedited. Pretty cool, huh?