How I Finally Got to See the Northern Lights in Iceland

Northern Lights in Iceland
Northern Lights (photo from Special Tours)

Viewing the Northern Lights in Iceland

I’ve been chasing the Northern Lights in Iceland since 2012 and I’m proud to report that on November 13, 2015 (that’s right – Friday the 13th!), I finally fulfilled a bucket list item and witnessed them firsthand.

How did this all start? During my first visit to Iceland in January 2012 I went out twice via coach tour and unfortunately, saw nothing.  February 2013 – went out again, also on an excursion by coach, and again – saw nothing.  October 2014 – went out with SuperJeep tours and still nothing.  My fifth time was with Special Tours to see the Northern Lights by boat and that’s when my luck changed.

What exactly are the Northern Lights? I have absolutely no intention of delivering some super scientific explanation here so relax.  Cue the explanation Northern Lights Centre:

The bright dancing lights of the aurora are actually collisions between electrically charged particles from the sun that enter the earth’s atmosphere. The lights are seen above the magnetic poles of the northern and southern hemispheres.

On a cold night with some clouds overhead, I walked down to the Special Tours office on Reykjavik Harbour and turned in my voucher.  I had checked the Aurora forecast online and it was at 4 on a scale of 0 to 9 so I was feeling confident that we might actually see the Northern Lights in Iceland.   Apparently so did everyone else because I was surprised at the sheer number of people who had turned up for this tour.  With two boats available, I begged and pleaded to go out on the smaller boat, Rósin, and I’m so glad I did.  Our boat left sooner and because of its size could navigate easier out on the open water although Andrea, the larger boat, would probably have a different opinion. Once onboard you’re offered the most unflattering overalls, but while super ugly, you’ll sacrifice fashion for warmth once out on the open water with strong winds and cold water splashing up on the boat.

Now that you understand what the Northern Lights are and what I needed to do to go out and see them, let’s look at the pictures from my exciting night of viewing the Northern Lights in Iceland.

As we sailed away from Reykjavik, our guide provided insightful narration about the Northern Lights as well as tips on camera settings.  Initially, all we could see was the Imagine Peace Tower, but then something magical happened.  He said what we were seeing was the “shower curtain effect” of the Northern Lights.  It’s kind of like when you go outside to look at stars and it takes some time for your eyes to adjust to the darkness.  After several minutes you’ll see more stars than you did at the beginning and with the Northern Lights, the same thing happened.  What looked like nothing started to materialize into far more after waiting patiently.

This first set of pics were taken with my iPhone 6 Plus using a special app called (wait for it) “Northern Lights app.”  Seriously – you can’t make this stuff up.  While others had their big DSLR cameras, I opted not to bring mine.  Why? On prior trips I had and trying to take pictures in complete darkness proved to be far more difficult than I imagined.  That plus I have a way of losing cameras while traveling so I decided on just my iPhone and my GoPro.  In all of my excitement, I forgot to change the settings on my GoPro, which resulted in nothing more than lots of super black video and nothing else.  Despite the GoPro faux pas, my iPhone pics came out pretty good considering the boat never stopped moving. Had we been on land, I know they would’ve have turned out even better.

TSG Tip: While the “Northern Lights app” is great, the pics are no less than 10mb each so transfer them off your phone as soon as you can to free up space for more pictures.

TSG Tip: If you’re going out by boat to view the Northern Lights in Iceland, leave your tripod at home since you won’t be still at all on a swaying boat.

I was so appreciative that our tour guide was also taking pictures and took some incredible pictures of the Northern Lights and then posted them to their FaceBook page.

There’s no way to know for sure whether or not you’ll see the Northern Lights in Iceland when you go out hunting for them and if you do, hooray! If you don’t, don’t blame your excursion group or guide since they can’t make the Northern Lights appear for you on demand.  It just means you need to visit Iceland again (and again and again) until you do.

I’m so glad that I had to wait to see the Northern Lights and that they weren’t handed to me on a silver platter on my first visit to Iceland.  I felt like I had to work for them and once I saw them, it was an incredible feeling. But let me tell you something that most people probably won’t tell you.  I was shocked at my pictures because they revealed something I hadn’t seen with my own eyes.  The pictures were definitely better, brighter, and more stunning than the real thing.  Adjust your expectations and enjoy the moment for what it is:  A miraculous event many only dream of seeing and most never get an opportunity to witness.

If you have the chance to see the Northern Lights in Iceland or anywhere else for that matter, definitely go out and chase them down.

Have you ever seen the Northern Lights?

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