Published On: Thu, Dec 7th, 2017

Is this the best island in the world for stargazing?

Emma Thomson


Emma Thomson
December 5, 2017

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,” says local stargazing guide Hilde Hoven. ‘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.

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.

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Is this the best island in the world for stargazing?