It takes your eyes about half an hour to fully adjust to the darkness. Little by little, everything comes into focus: The silhouettes of two Norfolk pines, stars glimmering between their branches. The moon, tracing a silver path across the sea, making the white barrel of the Dobsonian telescope glow. And above, stars like sand on the beach below; great drifts of them scattered across the darkness, condensing into a feathery cloud, like smoke suspended in the sky.
“What’s that?” I wonder aloud. “It’s a spiral arm of the Milky Way,” says star guide Deborah Kilgallon. Despite the darkness surrounding us, I can hear the smile in her voice. Her wellspring of enthusiasm for the night sky hasn’t been dimmed by her familiarity with it. The moon turns her blonde plait silver as she squints into the telescope, training its lens on a succession of individual stars. Until tonight, I had no idea stars had different textures and colours. Betelgeuse is soft and golden-orange, while Sirius is a sharp-edged, twinkling diamond.
“Sirius is the brightest star no matter where you are in the world,” says Kilgallon. “It’s only 8.6 light years away. Betelgeuse is a red supergiant, many thousands of times brighter than our sun, but it’s further away.” Using a laser pointer, Kilgallon connects the dots between seven stars in the shape of a saucepan. To me, this constellation looks like a pot, but to the ancient Greeks, it was the sword and belt of a giant: Orion. I tilt my head to the side in order to see him – he’s about to disappear head-first beneath the northern horizon. “A lot of the constellations in the Southern Hemisphere are viewed upside-down,” explains Kilgallon. “A bit later in the evening, I’ll show you Scorpius, which rises as Orion sets – it’s always chasing him across the sky.”
Eight cosy outdoor chairs, each one equipped with a pair of binoculars, are set up on the tussock verge above Medlands Beach, a crescent of sand located 10 minutes’ drive south of Claris, the airstrip on Great Barrier Island. I lean back into the cushions, trying to take it all in. Normally, you’d have to hike days into a national park to see a sky like this. The stars are hidden from most of us by the light of the cities we live in – 80% of humanity lives beneath light-polluted skies, while more than a third of the world’s population can’t see the cloud-like spiral arm of the Milky Way.
That’s what makes Great Barrier so special. It’s dark, but it’s inhabited by about 1,000 people. Being on the eastern edge of Auckland, it’s easy to reach. It’s part of the city, yet not quite, separated from it by 88km of ocean – far enough for Auckland’s bright lights to fade out. The island is long and narrow; you could drive across it in minutes, and top to bottom in a couple of hours, on winding roads that whisk you from view to view.
“The stars are hidden from most of us by the light of the cities we live in – 80% of humanity lives beneath light-polluted skies”
Here, every resident lives off the grid. The island has no traffic lights, no street lights, no commercial lighting, no reticulated electricity, no banks and no supermarket. It’s common for islanders to grow their own fruit and vegetables to supplement what’s available at the tiny store. There’s a sense of making do, of living carefully – with ingenuity and restraint – and of embracing nature. That means that when night enfolds the island, there’s nothing to drive it away.
In fact, Great Barrier is so unpolluted by light that it was recently declared a Dark Sky Sanctuary by the International Dark-Sky Association, which certifies places around the world in order to preserve the quality of their night skies. There are several levels of certification, and Great Barrier is the darkest – it’s one of only four destinations so far to achieve sanctuary status, and the only island at that.
Now people come here for the sole reason of getting a good look at the night sky – some for the first time in their lives. Locals, too, have gained a new appreciation for what’s in their backyard. These days, resorts host astrophotography workshops and Great Barrier residents form one of the largest amateur astronomy groups in New Zealand, with about 100 members or 10% of the island’s population.
The minute I arrive at my bed-and-breakfast, Medlands Beach Lodge, I notice the telescope tucked into the corner of the living room. “I think we have more telescopes per capita than anywhere else,” says Gendie Somerville-Ryan, an islander and one of the driving forces behind the creation of the sanctuary. She has a big smile, a silver-blonde bob and the air of a person who gets things done.
But it wasn’t always like this. Two years ago, Great Barrier had a perfectly ordinary number of telescopes. Gendie and her husband, Richard, had moved to the island after a career spent overseas consulting in developing countries. Returning home, both realised that Great Barrier’s sky was something special, and that it needed protecting. They joined forces with Auckland astronomer Nalayini Davies to measure exactly how special it was.
The trio pulled an all-nighter to take a series of readings with an electronic brightness meter designed for astronomers. The brightness of stars is classified according to magnitude, a system devised by the Greek astronomers Hipparchus and Ptolemy. The lower the magnitude, the brighter the star, and vice versa. How do you measure darkness? By determining the faintest star that can be detected – the one with the highest magnitude. That clear, moonless night confirmed what the group suspected: Great Barrier was very, very dark. Davies, who is on a personal quest to protect the sky from light pollution, was astonished. “All the night skies are deteriorating around the world,” she says. “[Great] Barrier is pristine.”
Next, the Somerville-Ryans wrote a report, convinced local businesses to reduce what little outdoor lighting they had, and arranged for 25 locals to receive astronomy training to become dark-sky ambassadors, with the idea that they’d pass on their knowledge to family, friends and visitors. Soon, the Dark Sky Sanctuary will become enshrined in law too. Richard tells me he’s working with the Auckland Council on legislation to ensure that any future development respects the island’s darkness. Amiable and chatty, he almost hums with enthusiasm, even when describing meetings with public officials. “Downtown Auckland, you’d be lucky to see 100 stars,” he says. “Great Barrier, on the same night, a very clear night, you could see maybe 5,000 stars – that’s the magnitude of difference we’re looking at.”