Living with Nature’s Light Show
She grew up in Norway, living beneath the northern lights. Asta Lassesen, CEO of Hurtigruten Expeditions, tells of their everyday magic.
INTERVIEW & WORDS DANIELLE NORTON, JUSTINE COSTIGAN
In far northern Norway from late November to mid-January, the shortening winter days announce the beginning of Mørketid (polar night).
This is when the slowly descending sun finally drops below the horizon, offering no more than a few hours of soft bluish light over the frozen landscape each day.
The otherworldly night sky and snow blanketed mountain landscape in historic Tromsø – more than 350 km north of the Arctic Circle and the world’s northernmost city – is a dramatic backdrop to the northern lights, whose brilliant swirling shapes light up the darkness from September to April, extending through the polar night.
Located in the heart of the Auroral Oval, the geographic area where you’re most likely to see the northern lights, the aurora borealis is a backdrop to daily life in Tromsø throughout the long winter. While people from all over the world dream of seeing this extraordinary phenomena for themselves, Asta Lassesen shares her experience of life lived under the aurora, and why it’s never lost its magic.
Asta Lassesen, CEO Hurtigruten Expeditions. Photo: Rune Kongsro
What are some of your earliest memories of the northern lights?
When I was a child we were really fascinated by the northern lights. We said that it was dancing, like souls, and that it could potentially be grandparents who were no longer with us. So we felt some kind of connection with the lights. I don’t remember my parents talking too much about them, but I remember that when you waved something white the lights would move. Of course the lights would have moved anyway, but we thought it was us!
“ When I see other people look up and see these amazing lights, that’s when I actually understand what kind of impact it can have on our guests. People cry.”
— Asta Lassesen
Beautiful northern lights above Norway. Photo: Stian Klo
Do you still feel the same excitement when the northern lights appear?
The northern lights are a part of our DNA. When I am in my kitchen preparing dinner I hear my kids say, “Hey Mom, look out the window,” then the lights are all over the place. We live quite high up [in Tromsø] and tourists sometimes knock at my door and say: “Can we stand here and take some pictures?” It’s so amazing because you have the entire city below and then you have the northern lights above.
Having the lights in your backyard must be wonderful, but why is seeing them on a ship even more special?
[It’s because you’re more likely] to see the northern lights because you are moving, and when you are sailing there is no light pollution. During the winter we also offer what we call the blue hour, which is spectacular, especially for people who are interested in photography.
There is the incredible moment when you actually see the lights, but it’s also about the lead-up to seeing them; learning what they are all about, hearing stories from local people about what it was like to live on the Norwegian coast in winter 50 years ago. It’s a part of the entire experience.
A member of the Expedition Team tells stories about the northern lights on deck. Photo: Ørjan Bertelsen
How do you feel when you see people experiencing the lights for the first time? How do people react?
When I see other people look up and see these amazing lights, that’s when I actually understand what kind of impact it can have. People cry. They have been waiting for this for years, and they are so fascinated. I also see how they share this moment with their friends, with their kids, their family, their husband, and that’s also very touching. For me, it’s extremely important that our guests can explore and see the northern lights because I know it’s so important for them. For us [at Hurtigruten], this is what it’s all about – enabling people to have these kinds of moments on our ships. That is what we’re aiming for every single day.
What makes the Hurtigruten northern lights experience different?
We bring people closer, connecting them to the Norwegian coast, to the people, to the communities.
When people go back home I know they’ll tell people the northern lights were amazing, but I hope they’ll also have had other amazing experiences every single day on board and off the ship. When they come to Norway and see the northern lights, it is an experience they will remember for the rest of their life.
MS Spitsbergen sailing under the northern lights between Stokmarknes and Sortland. Photo: Hege Abrahamsen
More people than ever before are fascinated by the northern lights. Does this have a positive impact on tourism and northern communities?
As the biggest tourism operator in Norway, we were able to start to drive tourism during winter with our ‘hunting the lights’ concept. That was critical for all of our suppliers; both large and small and the local communities on the Norwegian coast. Remote towns, ports and villages went from having an operation from June to August under the ‘midnight sun’ to a year-round business. That is extremely important for the overall tourist industry in Norway and these communities.