The stars over New Zealand’s Great Barrier island are 10 times brighter than those over Europe. Emma Thomson turns her gaze upwards on the world’s first Dark Sky Sanctuary island.
“It’s estimated that in Europe you can only see 500 stars with the naked eye, but out here you can see 5,000,” our local stargazing guide Hilde Hoven tells us. ‘Here’ is Great Barrier Island—New Zealand’s sixth-largest, a 30-minute flight northeast of Auckland—and in August of this year, it was designated the world’s first ‘Dark Sky Sanctuary island.’ There are only two other Dark Sky Sanctuaries in the world—the Cosmic Campground in the US state of New Mexico and Chile’s government observatory at Gabriela Mistral—but Great Barrier is the first island to gain that same status.
Until three months ago, Aucklanders escaped here on weekends to indulge in bush walks, wildlife, and white-sand beaches. But now something altogether brighter has taken the spotlight.
Sat on the porch of Trillium Lodge, a log-cabin guesthouse perched high on a hill, my head is tilted back and my mouth agape. Hilde hadn’t been lying. The whole sky seems alive. Stars glisten and streak across the black backdrop, satellites cruise by, and twinklers the color of rubies and sapphires dance in the deep darkness.
Last year, it was reported that 99 per cent of Americans and Europeans can no longer see the Milky Way due to light pollution. According to Fabio Falch, a researcher at the Light Pollution Science and Technology Institute in Thiene, Italy, “We have lost the connection with our roots—with literature, philosophy, science, religion. They are all are connected with the contemplation of the night sky.”
The island’s thousand or so inhabitants live completely off the grid: They are entirely responsible for supplying their own power through solar, wind or gas … There are no billboards or streetlights.
Falchi may have a point. As Hilde beams her green laser into space, she regales me with Maori legends; the image of their heroes pinpointed forever in the sky. And, best of all, she directs me to constellations never visible in the northern hemisphere, such as the Southern Cross and the Magellanic Clouds—dwarf galaxies orbiting the Milky Way.
Hilde, who used to be a translator, recently qualified as a Dark Sky Ambassador after receiving training from John Drummond, president of the Royal Astronomical Society of New Zealand. She has since banded together with two other locals—Orla Cumisky and Deborah Kilgallon—to set up Good Heavens, a company that offers private stargazing experiences.
So what makes Great Barrier Island’s skies so unique? For starters, its thousand or so inhabitants live completely off the grid: They are entirely responsible for supplying their own power through solar, wind or gas. Then there are no billboards or streetlights. Add to this that 56 per cent of the island is under the stewardship of the Department of Conservation. This almost-complete lack of light pollution makes for a very glittery stratosphere.
“Our readings were technically higher than the device can record—that our skies are dark beyond measurement!”
Gendie Somerville-Ryan, resident
And it’s paid off. Dark Sky Sanctuary rules are stricter than those of a Dark Sky Reserve because they have to be in a very remote location, promote long-term conservation and, above all, prove a night-sky brightness that’s routinely equal to or darker than 21.5 MPSA (magnitudes per square arc second)—the unit used to quantify night-sky brightness. Great Barrier Island has an MPSA of 21.79.
It’s these factors that have enabled Great Barrier Island to scoop the award for the world’s first ‘Dark Sky Sanctuary island’ in comparison to somewhere like Sark in the UK Channel Islands. Sark is a Dark Sky Community, which is the first rung of Dark Sky status.
“Usually, sanctuary status is reserved for a small area, not an entire island,” says local dark-sky enthusiast Gendie Somerville-Ryan who masterminded the project for the island to gain Sanctuary status together with her husband Richard Somerville-Ryan.
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Working with Auckland astronomer Nalayini Davies, the couple took readings all over the island on a clear, crisp, new-moon night, and sent the results off to the International Dark-Sky Association (IDA) for review. “They replied to tell us that our readings were technically higher than the device can record—that our skies are dark beyond measurement!” Grendie grins. “What’s strange is the darkest readings came on the side of the island closest to Auckland—which proves their light dome doesn’t touch us.”
I’m with Gendie and Richard back at Trillium Lodge. Outside, the sun still gilds the tops of the hills. The lodge owners, Jo and Lynda Medland, have put on a spread of cheese, crackers, and deep glasses of white wine. In between sips and nibbles, we discuss the tricky report process although the entire application, from submission to approval, took just six months. “Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Sky Reserve on South Island took three years to secure their status when it was established in 2012!” teases Gendie.
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But there’s also a bigger issue at stake: When winter sets in, visitor numbers plummet. I find out that average family income on the island is $38,000 NZD ($26,000 USD)—the lowest in New Zealand.
“Dark Sky tourism will provide employment for the younger generation. Like Hilde and her team, it’ll allow them to stay living on the island instead of being forced onto the mainland in search of work,” says Richard. “It’s really reinvigorated pride in the island, too. Over 300 people, a third of the population, turned out for the launch in August.” He’s beaming.
Our glasses are drained so we make our way to the pub for dinner. Night has fallen and as Richard coaxes the car along the country lanes, the headlights have to work hard to pierce the darkness. He pulls into a parking space outside the tavern and we step out.
A jingle of voices carries on the breeze. I look up, the carpet of constellations spread high above me, bright as brass buttons. My eyes scan for the Southern Cross. I find it. For Great Barrier Island, the future is dark. And strangely enough, that’s a good thing.
Find out more about visiting Great Barrier Island.
Learn more about the island’s night sky during a private stargazing experience with Good Heavens, complete with 8-inch Dobsonian telescope, binoculars, beanbags and hot chocolate.
Use apps like SkyView which pinpoints constellations live through your smartphone camera; Moon or Phases of the Moon to track the moon’s movements (great for photographers); and GoISSWatch for real-time tracking of the International Space Station.