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As I sat on the side of the RIB (rigid inflatable boat), looking up at the snow-coated mountains rising out of the sea all around me, I wondered what in the world I had been thinking. Surely I had experienced a moment of temporary madness when I had signed up to snorkel in the Lofoten Islands — islands located well inside the Arctic Circle at 69deg north — in March. March meaning winter. Winter meaning temperatures that hovered around -4C (and water temperatures around 4C) as I dangled my fins in the water, too afraid to even put my foot in.
The boat rocked back and forth in the very light current as Therese, the owner of Aqua Lofoten, looked on expectantly. I turned to her — which was very difficult to do, entombed as I was in multiple layers of thermals and a drysuit — and asked if anybody had jumped in only to crawl straight back into the boat.
“Yes,” she said. “A group of Thai girls went snorkeling with a group of divers one summer, and they jumped in and then crawled up onto those rocks and asked if we could go home. Since people were diving, they had to wait on the rocks for about 30 minutes before we could leave.”
Great. That was in the summer.
Did I mention that Therese had also told me that I was the first snorkeler of the year? That no one else had been insane enough to sign up to snorkel while snow was still on the ground, and in fact all through the RIB boat?
Something about that comment spurred me to get into the water. Maybe it was the thought that since we didn’t have any divers with us, I did always have the option to crawl back out and head somewhere warmer.
When I hit the water, I didn’t feel cold. I felt surprised. The drysuit did its job and kept me warm; I was almost warmer than I felt snorkeling on Fitzroy Island in Australia’s winter last year! The one part of me that was not warm, however, was my face. Putting my head under the water was like getting an instant brain freeze. Luckily it wore off just like a brain freeze did too, but I occasionally had to come up just to let my face defrost a bit.
It was worth putting my head under the water though. At our first stop, I was immersed in a garden of waving kelp. I poked around the rocks, moving more to keep my body from getting cold than anything, but I didn’t get much chance to explore before Therese beckoned me back to the boat. I gracefully got back into the boat, feeling like a beached whale, only to find out that we had to move because the people digging a tunnel for the road above were about to blow something up. Probably for the best that we moved then.
Our next stop was next to a rocky outcrop with an amazing view back into Reinefjord. By this point, I was feeling more confident about not freezing to death, so I jumped right in. Soon I was back in the sea of kelp, except this one had hidden outcrops of bright orange coral hiding behind it. It was beautifully colourful — much more so than I ever would have expected for sea life living in such a cold sea.
I must have snorkeled there for at least thirty minutes, with a short break to warm up my face and hands, especially the one that had a leaking seal that had soaked my thermals up to the elbow. I was almost as happy floating on my back, gazing at the snow-powdered mountains of the fjord, as I was underwater.
The best stop on our whole tour was one I considered not doing, having really felt the cold as the RIB powered back into the fjord (although it was still much warmer than the trip out, when I couldn’t reach my gloves and I felt like my hands were going to fall off from the cold wind. That was the coldest I was the entire trip). Therese told me it was very different from what I saw at sea, and I knew I would kick myself if I didn’t at least check it out.
It was insane what a difference there was. There was no kelp in sight; instead, the entire seabed was covered in a fine, white sand — sand that people would be very excited about burying their feet in had it been above the water. On top of this sat hundreds upon hundreds of spiky black sea urchins. When I got closer to a rocky outcrop, I found all sorts of starfish, very few with the standard five legs. They were iridescent, shining a beautiful purple in what was an already near-purple sea. The coral was lighter, but still purple, and was much more plentiful than the coral on the rocks outside the fjord. It was different to any sea life I’d seen before — not surprising, since most of my underwater experience has been in the tropics — but just as engaging. Only the creeping cold finally forced me out of the water.
As we sped back through the fjord, which under the glorious blue sky was one of the most jaw-droppingly gorgeous views I’ve ever seen, I leaned back and smiled. Many people had thought me crazy for wanting to snorkel in the Arctic. Perhaps I was, just a bit, as evidenced by the fact that no one else had chosen to snorkel yet that winter. But you know what? This little bit of crazy was an experience that I will never forget.
What do you reckon? Would you try snorkeling in the Arctic in winter?
Aqua Lofoten runs snorkeling and diving tours (as well as other boating tours, like one to caves with 3000 year old drawings in them) from Reine in the Lofoten Islands year round. A half-day snorkeling tour like I did costs 750kr per person; if you are on your own you can pay the cost for 2 people and the tour will still run.