Andenes Whales, Digermulen Students, and New Svolvær Friends


Location: Svolvær, Norway
Lat/Long: 68° 14′ 0″ N / 14° 34′ 0″ E
Weather Conditions: 54F (12C) Mostly Cloudy
A small community on the drive to Svolvær.

VIDEO: Andenes, Digermulen, Svolvær

A video overview of the team’s travels through the Vesterålen and Lofotens to date. They are headed next to the tiny island of Røst, the southernmost island in the Lofoten archipelago.


View from the ferry looking back towards Gryllefjord.

Early Saturday morning (27 August 2011), we departed from Tromsø at 5 a.m. and witnessed another beautiful Norwegian sunrise on our drive to Brensholmen (approx. 1.5 hours). In the evenings here, the sun begins setting at roughly 8:30 p.m. and the color remains until nearly 11 p.m., creating some of the most stunning sunsets we have ever experienced in our travels around the world. Likewise, the sunrise colors begin painting the sky at approximately 5 a.m. and last until 8 a.m. – a picturesque site to see.

We boarded the ferry in Brensholmen and travelled to Bothamn, a 45-minute ferry ride. Once we arrived in Botnhamn, located 300 km (186 miles) above the Arctic Circle, we only had an hour and 10 minutes to complete the 1-hour drive to Gryllefjord in order to catch the 11 a.m. ferry to Andenes. If we missed this ferry, we would need to wait an additional 8 hours for the next ship. The pressure was on. During this intense drive, we found ourselves running out of adjectives to describe the northern Norwegian landscape – “stunning,” “amazing,” “awesome,” and even “absurd” do not begin to describe the the scenery we have encountered so far. Our words continue to fail us.

Aaron shooting photos at sunset in Andenes.

With  Aaron skillfully behind the wheel, and a bit of good luck, we managed to arrive only 1 minute before the ferry left! Safely aboard the ferry to Andenes (a 1 hour and 40 minute ride), we were finally able to catch a few minutes of much needed sleep. Upon our arrival in Andenes, we rented a small cabin on the harbor, and later photographed the Andenes Lighthouse at sunset.


Sperm whale on WhaleSafari out of Andenes.

Andenes, a town in the Vesterålen archipelago and the northernmost settlement in Nordland county, is known for its year-round sperm-whale watching. Sperm whales (often known as the “Moby Dick whale”) have the largest brain of any mammal and are named for the milky-white, waxy substance found in their heads. This substance was harvested from harpooned whales during the eighteenth through the twentieth centuries for candle, cosmetics, and soap production. Sperm whales can measure up to 67 feet in length and their head comprises nearly a third of this impressive length.

There are approximately 300,000 sperm whales in the world, 5,000 of which are in the Norwegian Sea. A century ago the population was nearly 5,000,000. In Andenes, sperm whales are often seen in the Bleik Canyon northwest of the town, as this nutrient-rich region promotes increased fish and squid growth. Whale watching is the major tourism attraction and economic force in Andenes – therefore, the Earthducation team had to experience it firsthand!

Reine, the WhaleSafari ship, based out of Andenes.

After breakfast on Sunday, we boarded the whale-watching ship Reine, operated by WhaleSafari, “the world’s largest Arctic whale watching operation,” according to the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society. WhaleSafari was founded by two Swedish researchers who discovered that the seas surrounding northern Norway offered rich opportunities for studying whales. In 1983 they established the Swedish Centre for Whale and Dolphin Studies. Due to the large aggregations of sperm whales off the coast of Andøya (the island on which Andenes is situated), they decided to offer whale-watching tours and conferences based on whale research being done at their center. In 1989 the WhaleSafari operation was launched and the Whale Centre was established. At the Whale Centre, researchers from universities around the world are offered opportunities to live on site and study whales in their natural habitat.

Aboard the Reine we were thrilled to observe six sperm whales! The whales crest at the surface, breathe for a few minutes, blow out excess water and inhale air, arch their body, then dive and expose their fluke. It was a truly moving experience to witness this activity. In addition to watching the whales, we were able to capture Earthducation narratives from passengers on the ship. We interviewed Lynne, an onboard guide; Jorgen, a marine biology student from Sweden; Bjorn, a photography guide from Finland; and Geir Mann, the Captain of the Reine.

Charlie and Justin interviewing Jørgen, a marine biology student, aboard the Reine.

We learned from Lynne that viewing the whales provides an important combination of “education, research, economic, and entertainment value that can’t be found anywhere else in the world.” After the tour, we discussed the sustainability value of the operation with Daniele Zanoni, the research and guide coordinator of WhaleSafari. Daniele discussed with us the history of the operation and explained that the whale-watching business employs residents from Andenes, as well as scientists from around the world who work with their team. In addition, he explained the obvious benefits to the community as the operation draws in excess of 10,000 tourists from all corners of the globe each year, many of whom note it is their life’s dream to see a whale before they die.


Arriving in Svolvær after our homestay in Digermulen.

When we finished our interviews at the Whale Centre, we packed up our gear and began the 2.5 hour drive to Digermulen to prepare for our visit to the school there the following morning. Once in Digermulen, however, we learned there were no restaurants and the only place in town for food, the local grocery store, was closed as it was Sunday. It turns out that our experience is very common in Norway as most restaurants and businesses are closed on Sundays. So, our plans to set up the tent and camp in Digermulen were quickly altered and instead we made a short drive to the nearest restaurant – an hour away in Svolvær! Once in Svolvær, we checked into the Aurora Hotel and then enjoyed a fantastic meal at the Nihau Restaurant, a combination of Japanese and Norwegian dishes.

Svolvær, translated as “chilly fishing village,” is the administrative center of Vågan municipality in the Lofotens. The town has a population of approximately 4,500 and sits on an active harbor near Kabelvåg. The economy of Svolvær is focused on art and orca whale watching. The appeal of this region to artists is obvious, as the landscape is comprised of vast and impressive mountains of rock that rise straight from the sea.


On Monday morning we returned to Digermulen to visit its school. As we drove through this quaint and beautiful community of 200 people, we quickly realized it was going to be a special day. As the rain poured down, Gunnar Aarstein, the principal, met us at the front door with a huge smile, which was a ray of sunshine on such a gray morning as well as a sign of the good things to come.

Aaron discussing the computer lab with Gunnar at Digermulen Skole.

Gunnar gave us a tour of Digermulen Skole, showcasing its classrooms and the computer lab. We had an engaging discussion regarding the role of technology in education and how many schools in Norway are still contemplating what role technology can and should play in the everyday life of students. We sat down to discuss, over coffee and pastries, the latest celebrations and challenges of this small school.

Currently, the school has twelve students ranging from grades 2 through 9. Although there are twelve students enrolled this year, it wasn’t long ago that the school had over forty students. A recent change in fish quota regulations, however, impacted the ability of many fishermen in this area to fish for a livelihood, and as a result, the area lost residents. In return, the school lost students. These fishing regulations supported the “big boats,” rather than the “small boats” that were owned by many community members living in this region of the Lofotens.

A group photo at Digermulen Skole.

Despite the small student population at Digermulen Skole, it was one of the most impressive schools we have ever visited – and we have visited a lot of schools. The students were enthusiastically engaged and knowledgeable about their history, community, education, family, geography, and even music! During music class, Aaron and Charlie grabbed a guitar along with the students and learned the appropriate way to strum a guitar. We’ll share with you soon some video of the Earthducation team practicing these music lessons at the Aarstein’s that night during our homestay!

The students from Magnhild Aarstein’s class, Gunnar’s wife, presented us with a Powerpoint presentation on how the local salmon fishery – Pundslett Laks – was closely connected to the school. They stressed the importance of the fishery to the school, and the school to the fishery. This symbiotic relationship has provided the students with many opportunities to learn about this business; its impact on employment for numerous individuals in the community; and the need for financial assistance at times as well. During the presentation, the students described their perspectives on the importance of sustainability for Pundslett Laks and the school, and they did an outstanding job! Thank you, students, for your important contribution to the Earthducation conversation about the intersections between education and sustainability.

Charlie shaking the hand of one of the younger students.

We sat down with the students after their presentation and talked with them about their individual perspectives on education and sustainability. Wow – what bright students! They shared with us detailed descriptions of why sustainability and education are important in many avenues of their lives. Although Digermulen Skole has few students, it is a school with a focus on experiential learning leading to students and teachers being engaged in their learning, their community, their country, and the world. The positive impact this style of learning is having on the Digermulen students is obvious.

During our visit, we also had the opportunity to share the Earthducation project with the school, including how the students, teachers, and others can get involved with this project after our visit, through visiting the EnviroNetwork. We hope you’ll share your voice with us there as well.


Salmon awaiting final packaging at Pundslett Laks.

As soon as school let out, we made our way to Pundslett Laks, the local salmon fishery located about a five-minute drive from the school. The fishery raises farmed salmon and processes them in their plant (learn more about fish farming in Norway).

We were welcomed to Pundslett Laks by Kurt Jenssen, the production chief manager, who has been working with the fishery for over thirty years. We didn’t waste any time — we slapped on our “clean” suits and booties and were off to tour the factory. Kurt showed us all the steps involved in processing the salmon, from the fish coming out of the “rings,” the enclosed area where they are raised, to being placed into Styrofoam boxes to be shipped around the world.

Salmon cage outside Pundslett Laks.

Pundslett Laks currently has forty employees that are mainly from the local area. Six of these employees have been working in partnership with the Digermulen Skole for over ten years. The company was founded in 1989, but the history of the first salmon farms in the area go back to 1978. Annually, Pundslett Laks produces 8,000 tons of salmon. They are also involved in the smolt-production process (from salmon eggs to small salmon) with ownership in two smolt companies, which secure the most important part of the production. Without the smolt, Pundslett Laks simply would not be able to produce any salmon for sale. The Think Salmon website is a great place to learn more about smolts and the complete life cycle of salmon.

After our personal tour of the factory, Kurt was kind enough to share his perspectives on education and sustainability. He emphasized the importance of sustainability for his business. Simply stated, Pundslett Laks, the community, and the school would suffer if sustainability was not part of how Kurt runs the business. Everything is interconnected. For example, at the simplest level, if the salmon farms are not monitored correctly, or if climate change impacts temperature of the ocean and the salmon population decreases, it will impact the business and thus the community of Digermulen as a whole.


Arriving at the home of Gunnar and Magnhild for our homestay.

On Monday evening, Gunnar and Magnhild invited us to stay with them. We didn’t hesitate for one moment at this opportunity. One of our favorite things to do is to stay with families in order to truly get an insider’s glimpse of the life and culture within an area. Just down the road from Pundslett Laks, Gunnar and Magnhild’s home stands among some of the most breathtaking landscape we have ever seen. With Vestfjorden of the Norwegian Sea to the southeast and the many peaks of the Lofotens in every direction, the landscape seemed to welcome us with open arms.

Walking back across the beach to Gunnar's home.

Less than fifteen minutes after we arrived at his home, Gunnar had us hiking over massive boulders making our way to the sea. Gunnar decided it was time to take a boat out on the water and visit a deserted island named Risvaer. As we made our way over massive waves, we entered a channel with beautiful homes, docks, boats . . . but no people! We learned from Gunnar that when the migration patterns of cod changed, the cod fishing community once situated here had nothing. Thus, people moved out of this area and it is now only used for summer homes.

Bacalao meal with Norwegian cod.

When we returned, Mahhild had a wonderful dinner waiting for us – Portuguese Bacalao – a traditional cod stew. Wow! The stew was amazing. Justin ate about four helpings before we all jumped at the lefse. Aaron remembers eating a great deal of lefse growing up, as part of his Norwegian roots. He has to admit, however, that the lefse at home was no comparison to Mahhild’s (sorry, Mom)!

Gunnar and Aaron looking through a photo album of Gunnar's American relations.

The Norwegian connection to Minnesota was a common thread in many of our conversations here in Norway. Many Norwegians know where Minnesota is located due to the fact that many Norwegians migrated to Minnesota in the early twentieth century. In fact, Gunnar shared that he has relations in Hallock, Minnesota! Also, Dan Huebner (who, along with his wife Bonnie Westby-Huebner, endowed Aaron’s chair of education and technology in the College of Education and Human Development at the University of Minnesota) spoke with Aaron a great deal before he left for this trip about his connections to this region of the world. Dan is the chairman of the Norwegian American Geneaological Center and Naeseth Library.

The night could not have ended better. From Bob Dylan to Leonard Cohen, Gunnar and Charlie rocked it out on the guitar as the rest of us sang and played the bongo drum. A perfect ending to a memorable day.

Interview with Sylvia Hamnes, a former principal of Digermulen Skole.

After a blissful night’s rest, we woke up early on Tuesday as Sylvia Hamnes, the former principal of Digermulen stopped by to visit with us. We learned that Sylvia had played an instrumental role in the partnership between the school and Pundslett Laks. She envisioned the partnernership that has now become reality – a school and business working together to support a community. She had a great deal to say about education, sustainability, and local politics. In fact, she is on the political ticket for the local election in September. Sylvia spoke to us in both Norwegian and English, a beautiful exchange of languages, as she described her important role in the community of Digermulen.


Behind-the-scenes at an interview with the co-founders of SALT.

After our conversation with Sylvia, we drove back to Svolvær to meet with Kriss Rokkan Iversen and Kjersti Eline Tønnesen Busch, the co-owners of SALT. SALT is an organization that shares knowledge on the marine environment to the public, politicians, and a broad range of stakeholders. Both Kriss, with a PhD in Arctic Marine Biology, and Kjersti, with a PhD in Agriculture focusing on marine animals, shared their perspectives on education and sustainability and how, after they completed their degrees, they had a great deal to contribute to the environment in this beautiful area of the world. Situated in Svolvær, in the middle of one of the most productive and unique oceanic areas in the world, SALT provides a unique firsthand look at the ocean and the possibilities and challenges.

Interview with Gaute Wahl, director of the Folkeaksjonen.

After our visit with Kriss and Kjersti, we made our way to meet Gaute Wahl, the director of Folkeaksjonen oljefritt Lofoten, Vesterålen og Senja. Folkeaksjonen is an organization that empowers individuals and organizations to show their opposition to oil drilling in the regions of Lofoten, Vesterålen, and Senja. Gaute shared with us that he is working to educate people about the possibility of oil drilling within these regions and the negative impact it will have on fishing, tourism, and the community as a whole. The regions Gaute is working to protect spawn the last large cod stock in the world. The combination of nutrient rich Atlantic waters and a narrow continental shelf seas makes this region rich in natural resources, and particularly vulnerable to pollution.

Charlie and Aaron getting the Skype session with CEHD set up.

Tuesday ended with Charlie and Aaron sharing the Earthducation project with their colleagues via Skype during the University of Minnesota’s College of Education and Human Development’s fall assembly. After an introduction by Earthducations’s co-investigator, Cassie Scharber (who is back at UMN), Charlie and Aaron spoke to the entire college, saying hello and briefly sharing the powerful experiences northern Norway has provided them thus far.

Of course, the most important part of Earthducation is YOUR involvement. We invited our UMN colleagues, as well as most people we have encountered in Norway, to share their thoughts on the intersections or disconnections between education and sustainability on the Environetwork. Our goal is to engage the whole world in this important conversation — and it all starts with YOU. We really want to hear what you have to say.

Thank you for sharing in this journey with us. Stay tuned.

We invite you to view the complete photo gallery for this update.

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