The cabins the student expedition stayed in on their journey in front of the mountains of Bleikmorenen on the northern coast of Andøy, the northernmost island in the Lofoten archipelago.
Photo by Tamara Russell

Tamara Russell
The Navigator

Last year I was awarded a scholarship to spend a semester abroad from VIU in Arctic Norway. I ended up studying at the Universitetet i Nordland for six months in Bodø, a modest town in the Arctic Circle and the jumping off point to the spectacular Lofoten Archipelago. Near the end of the semester, I got together with some of my classmates to discuss the importance of hands-on education. That is when we came up with the idea—how amazing would it be for students to experience marine science in the elements that would lead to passion in their field?

We wished to nurture this passion for aquaculture and fisheries science in our fellow students by providing them the opportunity to experience the real thing in the unique and majestic landscape of Lofoten. The catalyst to this endeavor was a whisper when we heard about a Norwegian aquaculture company who was looking to fund student projects. To our elation, we ended up being awarded the funding by Skretting, the world’s leading fish feed producer. Students from Norway, Finland, Canada, Russia, and Colombia were accepted, and we were all excited to begin the experience of a lifetime.

We began our first day on Andøy, the northernmost island in Lofoten. The landscape up there can only be described as surreal: white sandy beaches, freezing turquoise waters, stark heaths, massive barren craggy mountains, a postcard of Lapland. The first thing we did as soon as we arrived, as any budding marine scientists would do, was investigate the shoreline. To our squealing joy, we stumbled across a beached sperm whale (Physeter macrocephalus), the largest of the toothed whales.


On the beach of the northern coast of Andøy, the northernmost island in the Lofoten archipelago, the students fall in love with Lofoten.
Photo by Tamara Russell

It looked as though it had been there for some time, a few months at least, mummified from the cold. It was male and must have been 15 metres long. There are only males in the north because females stay in matrilineal groups in the tropics their whole lives to raise their young free of the predation in the north. None of us had ever seen a sperm whale before. We marveled at the size of his vertebra, the spermaceti fluid leaking from the blowhole, how the blowhole is a single asymmetric hole on the left side of its massive dome, and how small his eyes were in comparison to the rest of him—an adaptation to his time spent in the deep sea chasing squid. It was a special and somewhat sad introduction to the sperm whales of Lofoten, but our relationship with these animals was about to change.

Day two, we set our sights on finding a sperm whale in the ocean. We boarded the vessel Reine, cameras ready, binoculars out, eyes fixed, holding our breath with every hope of spotting a sperm whale on the horizon. I spotted the blows of Glen, a friendly sperm whale named after the captain’s son. I diligently wrote down the time and behaviour in my field journal, carefully noting my favourite two words, “extended encounter,” a term used by marine mammalogists to describe long encounters with fauna. We saw large males next to the boat every few minutes as they replenished oxygen into their myoglobin-rich muscles before taking another deep dive for some tasty squid.

When sperm whales are about to dive, they bend their bodies virtually in half before their tail fluke shoots up high in the air as if it were spring-loaded. It was incredible seeing such impressive macro-fauna in the wild. Before returning to shore, we spoke to the head researcher of the Marine Research and Educational Fund of Andenes (MAREFA) about their current research. She was very excited about the current project, and even offered us work if we wanted to come back. It was late by the time we stopped recounting our sea stories back at camp. We slept soundly with our sea legs under us and our heads filled with whale dreams.

We made our way to the island Langyøa to the southern town of Stokmarknes, where we were meeting our funding organization. Some of us were extremely skeptical about this visit because we had heard so much about the problems with the aquaculture feed industry during our time at university, such as the carbon footprint of shipping and the depletion of wild fish stocks. You can imagine that we showed up well-read with many questions for our hosts.

The predicament we were eager to discuss was the heavy reliance on wild fish. This is a touchy subject, as catching smaller wild fish for feed may lead to the depletion of wild stocks in order to feed bigger—high value—fish. Skretting assured us that it is one of the company’s foremost priorities to avoid this redundancy. That means sourcing out sustainable fish meals and fish oils, which at the moment come mostly from vegetables. However, it is not currently possible to source exclusively from vegetables, since fish require minimum omega-3 content. So in an effort to use sustainable materials, Skretting mandates that suppliers of marine ingredients must document that the fish used have been fished in a responsible way: without overtaxing fish stocks or damaging the marine environment.

Another interesting practice we learned was that in Norway it is illegal to discard undesirable fish from your vessel, otherwise known as “by-catch.” So, nearly all by-catch in Norway is used in fish feed production; nothing goes to waste. This practice is revolutionary. Furthermore, for those that oppose GMO products, the fish feed industry in Norway has a self-imposed ban on the use of GMO ingredients. They are not only guaranteeing a GMO-free product to their customers, but Skretting is playing a role in reducing GMO products worldwide since they refuse to buy GMO ingredients themselves.

We were impressed with Skretting’s commitment to sustainability, and if you are interested, I encourage you to check out their 2011 Sustainability Report on their webpage at . I believe the global push for truly sustainable aquaculture in order to prevent over exploitation of wild stocks of finfish and shellfish is a noble endeavor and by all means attainable.

After our tour of Skretting, we headed south to the next chapter in our aquatic journey through the Lofoten Islands: The Stockfish harbour of Henningsvær, famous for its Henningsvær Bridges, traditional fishing village architecture, whale watching, and of course Stockfish, Norwegian dried Cod.

Henningsvær used to be a prominent fishing village in Lofoten, but with fewer of the younger generation carrying on their fishing heritage, Henningsvær has dwindled to a modest 500 inhabitants. One of those residents is our UiN Marine Mammalogy professor, Heike Vester, who hosted us in exchange for helping her with her Pilot whale research and fuel for her vessel. The stay also allowed us to soak in the Stockfish atmosphere of Henningsvær. But for that evening, we were exhausted and settled for supper, stories, and an early sleep.

The first day was unfortunately too rough to go out on the water. Any minute wave action, in a boat as low as Heike’s Zodiac, makes it extremely difficult to view animals on the ocean’s surface. So we spent our day learning about Henningsvær and helping Heike catalogue her research photos, a scrupulous and time-consuming endeavor. Walking around Henningsvær, you get the sense that nothing has changed in a few hundred years. You are surrounded by nostalgic, colourful Rorbuer (Norwegian fishing house) with the smell of cod drying in the air. The smell never leaves your nostrils. Just beyond the town, you can see acres of cod on building-sized triangular, wooden drying racks as far as the eye can see. This is Stockfish; this is Lofoten.

The thing about summer in the Arctic is that the sun doesn’t set, which allows for all-night research activity. Quite late that night, sitting and staring at our photo catalogue entries, Heike came into the room and announced “Okay girls, the sea is good to go. Let’s head out!” We high-tailed it to the Zodiac and set off into the Blue. We observed sea eagles, puffins, mackerel, our friends the harbour porpoises, but still no large marine mammals.

We had hoped to see a Minke whale, the seven metre-long Baleen whales that are part of Norway’s commercial fishery (didn’t anyone tell them we were coming?) I had heard sonar blasting for gas exploration the last time I was in Lofoten; had it scared them away? Heike assured us there are normally many large marine mammals in Vestfjord. Our hopes were dwindling, but patience is priceless. We were heading back to Henningsvær harbour when there was a Minke whale. It was truly a profound experience.

We stayed with the young male Minke for about half an hour—the maximum recommended time to spend with these animals to avoid causing them too much stress and to prevent the whales from getting used to human contact. Due to the whale fishery, a friendly whale is a dead whale. The ocean was calm and peaceful; there were no other souls in sight. Heike said she hadn’t seen a Minke that wasn’t being hunted by a whaler in three years. We took hundreds of photos to add to the catalogue, set our hydrophones on record, and took meticulous notes on his behaviour like the ethologists Heike encouraged us to be. It was joyous and deeply saddening at the same time because we knew it might be the last time anyone would see it alive.

Minke have become fearful due to whaling, which also makes them incredibly difficult to study. Even the whalers will tell you they are becoming harder to find. The Minke are unlike the gregarious whales of my homeland on Vancouver Island, who have little reason to fear us. As we were leaving Heike’s the next day, just as we feared, we saw a whaler coming in and our hearts sank. It was loaded with a young male Minke. We knew it must have been our Minke we’d spent time with yesterday, and it was heart-wrenching.

We left Heike in Henningsvær with heavy hearts, but the journey must go on. We needed to get to the town Unstad before supper, so we said our farewells and headed out on the road again. Along the way, we saw many signs advertising Hvalbiff (whale steak). It became apparent very quickly that whaling has a stronghold in Lofoten fisheries and culture.

At the end of a long road, past many more peaks and fjords, through a mountain tunnel about 700 metres long, we reached what felt like the edge of the world: the small surfing village of Unstad. When I say small, I mean small—the place has thirteen inhabitants. Since 1963 there have been surfers in Unstad. Thor Frantzen and Hans Egil Krane were probably the first surfers in Norway. At that time in Lofoten, they had to make their own boards from a surfboard outline they saw on the cover of the Beach Boys’ album Surfin’ Safari from 1962. The boards are still in Unstad, but we didn’t just come here to see surfboards; we wanted to catch our own waves.

That morning, we strapped boards to our bicycles in the cold and rainy Arctic. It would have been difficult for anyone to surf more than we did that day. It was cold, but worth it. Plus, one of us was on hot water duty: cycling to the cabin to bring a kettle of hot water back to fill our suits with. Exhausted, we made our way back to the cabins for a sauna. Our Finnish student insisted on having a proper sauna: naked and with Vodka.

The last day of our journey finally arrived. Before our ferry that evening, we conducted an intertidal study at the Eggum Natural Reserve, with an emphasis on marine invertebrates and algal species. There was abundant Fucus (rockweed) everywhere next to turquoise blue water. We also found many shells belonging to three different phyla: Echinodermata, Bivalvia, and Gastropodia. There was a magnificent white sand beach, which tricked us into thinking we had landed on a Caribbean island despite the crisp air.

I learned from my Marine Biology professor at UiN that white sand was the result of erosion of carbonate frameworks, or reefs, built by coralline red algae (Rodophyta). I can’t stress my excitement enough. We also got into an interesting discussion on the feasibility of algalculture in Lofoten. Apparently, Norway does have somewhat of an algalculture industry, relying on natural beds of Ascophyllum nodosum and Laminaria hyperborea, but L. hyperborean accounts for about 90 per cent of the national harvest. However, overall seaweed aquaculture is small in Norway.

On the ferry back to Bodø, all of us were silent, contemplating the amazing things we encountered. It really was the trip of a lifetime. For us, this trip wasn’t the end, only the beginning: one of us has gone on to her MSc in Animal Behaviour, another her PhD in Phycology. One is doing her internship in Australia, another is working as a Phycologist, and the others, filled with passion from the trip, are finishing their BSc and push on through to the next adventure. I hope that future students will take our lead and pursue such adventures during their time at university. I strongly feel that exposure in any field is vital for student success. I know it has been for us.