How To Find The Northern Lights in Iceland

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I landed in Iceland while the sun was beginning to rise. It was just past 11 in the morning at this point. In the winter, Iceland only has about 4 hours of daylight. Though this may sound depressing to some, it’s the perfect recipe for spotting the Northern Lights.

I had downloaded an app before arriving called Aurora. Using this, I was able to see my probabilities of spotting the Northern Lights, along with the best areas in the world at any time. From my research, it seemed like our first night in the country would be our best chance of spotting the colorful show.

We’d nestled into a cozy hotel room in Reykjavik that would be walking distance to all of our activities throughout the week (or at least their pickup points). The Northern Lights cruise was only a ten minute walk through town.

A Walk Through Reykjavik

At 8:30PM, we set off. I walked over the slippery sidewalks with caution, having flashbacks of just how much damage these same icy roads can do to someone. It was dark already, or it had been, I should say, for the past 4 hours. I remember thinking that the bright side of this was that I could enjoy the sunrise with beauty sleep, when a loud honk broke my thoughts.

“What was that?” I asked, alarmed, as we looked over our shoulders.

“Look! Swans!”

Just a block away rested an entire pond full of hungry swans. An older man bundled from head to toe tossed crumbs of bread at the chorus of hangry shrieks. I found out later that these were called Whooper Swans. In late summer, they either migrate to the British Isles or stay put in Iceland, after loosing their flight feathers.

Boarding the Northern Lights Cruise

We arrived at our cruise ship twenty minutes early and still found the seating to be extremely limited. I guess the culture was to be pretty timely here. We chose a spot off the back of the boat on the last bench available. This ended up working out quite well for us.

“I think I see it,” a young man wearing a beanie whispered to his girlfriend as we laughed internally.

There was no way he could see it. I’d heard the lights don’t get that great until midnight and besides, there was way too much light pollution in Reykjavik for our naked eyes. Even so, I pulled out my phone, brought the exposure down and clicked the large white circle.

“Wait…Is that it?” I said, puzzled.

We looked down at my phone and the fuzzy greenish haze that adorned the side of the street lamp. I had heard that they always show up better in photos, but I didn’t think it would be THIS bad. The Northern Lights just looked like another cloud in the sky, nothing more.

“Okay, and we’re off! Thank you for joining us on the Northern Lights Cruise. Although I can’t promise anything, the forecast is looking really good for you guys tonight, okay? I will try my best to point out the formations along the way, but we’ve got about a 30 minute ride to the mountains, where we should be able to escape some of the light pollution from Reykjavik. Okay? Let’s go,” a woman who’d clearly done this a few times said over the loudspeaker.

Looking For The Lights

“If you look over to your left, at about 3 o’clock, you can see there is a formation starting. It is faint, but if you look just below the brightest star, it’s there. You should be able to pick it up with your cameras,” she boasted, droning on about what settings to use depending on your device.

I didn’t care about the pictures, I have Google, I wanted to see this show in person. I squinted off in the distance toward what looked to be another cloud. If this was what the famous Northern Lights truly looked like in real life, then it was safe to say I was disappointed. The next forty-five minutes or so continued like this, until, suddenly, a long stretch of green floated above the front end of the ship.

The Magic Moment

At this point, it was getting a bit crowded on the back end. However, if we wanted to find a better seat, we’d need to do it fast. Giving each other the nod, we raced through the hot chocolate stand and past the shivering ones who’d already given up. We pushed through the side door, with both hands on the outside wall of the ship, teetering our way to the front bow. It was completely empty: Just us and the Aurora Borealis.

Northern Lights
Northern Lights Over The Mountain

As I watched the snake grow a more and more vibrant green with each passing second, it began to slither across the sky. The auroras were now dancing along the mountain peaks. It was so perfectly graceful, I had no words. We sat there in silence until a large boom echoed across the icy waters. It was only a week after New Year’s and Iceland was still celebrating. On my left, Mother Nature applauded the Earth and on my right, fireworks streamed for humanity. This was a moment I could not replicate, even if I’d tried. This was a moment of euphoria.

“You guys don’t know how lucky you are right now. This has definitely been the best night for viewing so far this year. You can’t get much better than this,” the woman announced in awe over the loudspeaker.

Northern Lights Reykjavik
Aurora Swirls

I watched the sky swirl around me as if I was the magic inside of a genie’s bottle for the next hour. Sometimes the patterns would circle around the moon and other times shooting stars would join the dance with them. At one point, there was an emerald-colored line connecting us to the harbor. It was as if the universe was tracing a path back home for us to follow.

Northern Lights

The Northern Lights In Reykjavik

As I stepped off the boat, another swirl in the sky formed above me. This time, I didn’t need any camera to prove it was there. The colors shone so brightly over the street lamps that it was hard to believe. It was hard to believe because I know firsthand how city light pollution can make the night disappear. It can make the stars retreat and the moon compete. However, on this night the city was no match for the Northern Lights.

Northern Lights With Swans
Northern Lights With Swans

I watched as the jade spells followed us down the sidewalk. They twisted above the swans, who still seemed to be just as hungry. I think I stopped an average of three times per block to look up and say, “Wooooooowwwwww.” Trust me on this one, I have an alibi.

I chugged back up the hill to my hotel and took one last glance at the enchanting glow. I’d heard from many people who had been to Iceland that they’d never gotten the opportunity to see the Northern Lights while visiting. I couldn’t get over how lucky we must’ve been, how fate had aligned our schedule with the weather and the electrons sizzling above us. If this was just our first night in Iceland, I couldn’t wait for what was to come…

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