Due to the prosperity brought by the fishing industry, the Lofoten are not as scarcely populated as you would expect, certainly not when you compare it to the northern part of Norway. When driving on the islands in the dark, you will be surprised by the many places where artificial light is seen.
The 24 thousand inhabitants live on 1,227 square kilometers, which is in stark contrast with the situation in The Netherlands where we come from. In the province of Utrecht 1,164,875 people are packed together on 1,449 square kilometers. Another comparison is the municipality Uithoorn, where we lived until April 2008. Uithoorn’s 25 thousand citizens live on 19.5 square kilometer.
People who love flowers, plants and mosses will most likely enjoy visiting the Lofoten. While taking a walk through the swamps you can easily step on species which are highly endangered elsewhere in Europe. There are no restricted areas, so you can walk everywhere for a voyage of discovery. Each autumn, the islands are littered with blue berries, cranberry’s and cloudberry, a berry which is very popular among the Norwegians.
There is significantly less variety in animal species. Bears have been exterminated long time ago. Also the lynx has not been spotted in many years. In 2007, the Lofoten was connected with the large island of Hinnøya with bridges and tunnels. Some anticipated that the lynx might return to the islands, although they would face a lack of prey and will probably not receive a warm welcome from shepherds and farm owners.
Elks are generally spotted in the winter time. They even manage to swim from one island to the other, despite the strong sea currents. Some islands have many foxes and also stoats can be seen often, depending on the number of mice in the area. Otters swim along most of the coast. You even have to be careful not to hit them while driving! An occasional mink can be spotted, although they are not native but have escaped from the fur industry. Some islands have polar hare.
A comparable number of mammals are found in the water. Seals swim freely in many places, just like harbor porpoises. When you are lucky, it is possible to spot a minke whale from the shore, although a boat makes looking for them a little bit easier. The Lofoten used to be home to large numbers of killer whales. They followed shoals of herring that reached deep into in the fjords. The killer whales are still here, but it has become harder to spot them now the herring is keeping a larger distance to the coastline. But even then serveral times each year killer whales are see close to shore.
There are also groups of pilot whales. Humpback whales visit the waters around Vesterålen (pictures from Vesterålen) the last years when the herring in the winter is passing by. You are guaranteed to see sperm whales at Vesterålen.
For centuries, fishing has been the main source of income for the Lofoten Islands. Cod migrates between February and April from the Barents sea to the Lofoten for reproduction. This cod is referred to as 'skrei'.
These fish are caught and dried on racks, until they become stockfish. The drying fish on racks is a popular sight for camera-happy tourists. A lot of stockfish is exported to Italy, Portugal and the United Kingdom. Between October and February it’s all about herring. Halfway January, huge shoals of herring pass the Lofoten Islands and the neighboring archipelago Vesterålen. Summertime is used for whaling, which Norway still allows. This activity is not of big economical interest. Norway only hunts for minke whale and shoots a few hundred of them each year. In the summertime you can buy the meat on several places and supermarkets on the Lofoten Islands.
Tourism has become an good source of income. Actors in the tourism sector are keenly following a debate about whether or not to add the Lofoten Islands to the UNESCO’s World Heritage List. The archipelago seems to have all it takes to make it to that list. This would give tourism a boost. But in the meantime there are plans for a large wind energy park, and there is strong pressure to start drilling for oil in the rich fishing grounds surrounding the islands. Supporters of oil drilling say it is necessary to maintain jobs for the coastal population, as well as to maintain a prosperous country. Oil has made Norway one of the richest countries in the world, but the wells that have so far been used will soon run dry. Opponents of oil drilling argue that the large amounts of fish can, if maintained well, guarantee a durable prosperity. Oil exploration will never be a long-term solution since wells will run dry one day. With the possibility of accidents, the commercially essential fishing grounds are put at great risk. More Southwards along the Norwegian coast lies Statoils Gullfaks-oilfield. One day in 2010, control over an oil platform there was completely lost, creating a situation in which Europe was only one sparkle away from a giant oil disaster like in the Gulf of Mexico.
Northern lights and midnight sun
Lofoten: climate, population, economy, birds, mammals, plants
The Lofoten are a group of Norwegian islands. They are located above the polar circle, between the 67th and 69th parallel north. The climate is nevertheless mild, because the islands are surrounded by the warm water of the Gulf Stream. The average temperature is 12 degrees in the summer and -1 degree in the winter. The archipelago is characterized by steep mountains with sharp peaks, standing firm in deep fjords and stormy seas. Between the mountains there is space for picturesque fisherman villages, breathtaking beaches and peaty soil.
The landscape, colorful skies and the special light turn the Lofoten often into a fairytale land. Because of its location above the polar circle, there is a period when the sun never sets. The midnight sun phenomenon exists between about the 28-th of May and 14-th of July. On the contrary, between early December and the beginning of January, the sun doesn’t rise above the horizon at all. This doesn’t mean total darkness though. Because the sun is passing just below the horizon, there is a long twilight-zone, compared to the period just before or after sunrise. At midday, there is almost near daylight.
An impressive phenomenon are the northern lights or polar light, also known by its Latin name aurora borealis. This breathtaking sight is visible during nights when the sky is clear. The polar light starts when electrically charged particles of the sun collide with gasmolecules in the atmosphere. Northern lights often appears in the form of long arches. The particles can also be seen rushing through the sky like a huge luminous curtain. Every time aurora borealis appears, it looks different. It can be little or overwhelming. The color is often green, but it can also turn to red or purple. Polar light is most visible from the end of August, when the nights become darker, until the beginning of April. After that, even at night, the sun creates too much light to make the northern lights visible.
Economy: fish, tourism and oil
The Lofoten has large numbers of birds. Especially around the island of Røst there are hundreds of thousands of puffins, razorbills and guillemots. But all of these species are facing declining numbers, possibly due to a food shortage.
Red- and black throated divers, breed on the islands, while yellow-billed and great northern diver use the winter to fish close to the shores. In the winter, other arctic species like little auk and king eider visit the Lofoten. White tailed sea-eagles, which have a spanwide over 2.5 meter, are present all year around in large numbers. Merlin and rough legged buzzard are here, provided there are enough mice. Short- en long eared owls hunt for prays. Tengmalm's owl and hawk owl are a rare sight but possible.
There are plenty of blue throats, reed buntings and willow warblers. Waxwings come in the autumn, and sometimes pine crosnbeak. Blackbirds and wren are rarities. They exist, but it is a lot easier to spot ring ouzel and dipper. Dotterel has nests here now and then.
The Lofoten are an interesting place for birdwatchers, because it is home to species that don’t appear more towards the south of Europe. They make up for the fact that the list of species isn’t very long.
Download the checklist with birds of the Lofoten: