The sky’s no limit
NEW ZEALAND’S GREAT Barrier Island, also known by its Maori name of Aotea, became the first island to be named a Dark Sky Sanctuary by the International Dark Sky Association (IDA) in June. Incorporated in 1988, the IDA is a Us-based non-prof it founded by astronomers David Crawford and Tim Hunter with the aim to preserve and protect the nighttime environment and the heritage of dark skies through quality outdoor lighting. Though seen as one of the lesser of environmental evils, light pollution from improper shielding of outdoor lights has been suggested as a contributor to hypertension, attention deficit disorder and even forms of cancer in humans. In the animal kingdom, glare and artificial light disrupt breeding rituals of amphibians and birds’ f light patterns during migration and hunting, which significantly affect their nesting and foraging behaviours. Aotea’s application to the IDA was lodged by the Great Barrier Local Board with support from Auckland Council, Auckland Astronomical Society and other conservation and regulatory bodies. The new status was granted only after the island passed the IDA’S scientific measurements of darkness as well as stringent standards for outdoor lighting and community outreach. According to an official release, Auckland mayor Phil Goff says the status “will help protect its dark sky and provide impetus for Aotea to advance a number of complementary initiatives, including showcasing alternative energy use as well as provide a new pathway for economic development”. He also believes the IDA status will attract ecotourists, astrophotographers, scientists and students to the island, which is currently home to about 900 residents who lack even a supermarket or ATM. Chile’s Atacama Desert and the deserts of Namibia, Botswana and Iran, have led the way in astronomical tourism, catering to would-be astronauts and intrepid travellers who are into solar and night-sky viewing. Typical excursions feature multimedia presentations, expert guests and full moon hikes. According to a survey conducted by the Bryce Canyon National Park in 2009, 67% of respondents who visited their park said they learnt something relating to night skies and astronomy. The Soneva Group, which owns a cluster of luxury resorts in Maldives and Thailand, is especially proud to have an observatory and astronomers at all three of its on-land properties. “I think one of the biggest shocks for people is when they visit a Soneva property and look up. We constantly hear the comment over and over of how many stars there are in the sky. People (especially ones from a big city) just don’t see stars anymore. When (guests) come out to our skies and see thousands of stars sparkling away, you can see a true realisation in their eyes on just how much light pollution takes away. We all have this beautiful canvas above us, but you can only enjoy after you take the mask of light away,” says Soneva group astronomer Mike Dalley, who adds that more than 25% of guests who have enjoyed a preview of the night, have booked private astronomy sessions to learn more.