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Island in our region named Dark Sky Sanctuary

July 7, 2017 Headline News No Comments Email Email

Which island has become the first in the world to be designated an International Dark Sky Sanctuary, in a bid to protect its night skies for present and future generations? Clue: It isn’t that far away from Australia, but it’s not Australian territory.

Great Barrier Island (not to be confused with the Great Barrier Reef) is located 100 kilometres north-east of central Auckland, New Zealand.

The picture further below gives an impression of the night sky there, and this video really gets it across. Both are by Mark Russell.

The International Dark-Sky Association (IDA) established the International Dark Sky Places conservation program in 2001 to recognise “excellent stewardship of the night sky”. Designations are based on scientifically measured darkness of sky as well as stringent outdoor lighting standards and innovative community outreach.

The application for the international sanctuary status was lodged by the Great Barrier Local Board with support from Auckland Council, Auckland Tourism, Events & Economic Development (ATEED), Department of Conservation, iwi (the largest social units in New Zealand Maori society), the Auckland Astronomical Society, and Auckland Central MP, Nikki Kaye.

Mayor Phil Goff says Great Barrier Island is home to a community focused on protecting and preserving its stunning natural beauty which makes it the ideal location to receive International Dark Sky Sanctuary status.

Night sky on Great Barrier Island. Photo by Mark Russell

“Great Barrier Island is a place of rugged beauty and untouched wilderness, and is one of the most tranquil and unspoilt places in the wider Auckland region,” he says.

“This status will help protect its dark sky and provide impetus for Aotea Great Barrier Island to advance a number of complimentary initiatives, including showcasing alternative energy use as well as provide a new pathway for economic development. This IDA status will help the island attract more visitors, including ecotourists, astro-photographers, scientists and students.”

Great Barrier Local Board Chair, Izzy Fordham, says the Aotea/Great Barrier Island International Dark Sky Sanctuary is just the third to be afforded the sanctuary status in the world.

“Sanctuary status is reserved for the most isolated, and dark locations in the word and this designation is specifically designed to increase awareness of fragile sites and promote their long-term conservation,” she says.

“Ecotourism is extremely important to Great Barrier Island and the Aotea/Great Barrier Island International Dark Sky Sanctuary status will not only provide further tourism development and economic growth opportunities but also ensure the preservation of our exceptional starry skies.”

Local residents and dark sky enthusiasts, Gendie and Richard Somerville-Ryan, worked with Auckland astronomer, Nalayini Davies, to gather the evidence required to support the application, undertaking the first set of measurements on the new moon night in September 2016.

“Our measurements showed what we had all suspected – the Great Barrier Island skies are as good as it gets,” Somerville-Ryan says.

“Achieving this status will protect the island’s night skies and bring the island to the notice of astro-photography enthusiasts from around the world.”

As Auckland’s economic growth agency a key part of ATEED’s work is to help Auckland’s regions develop their tourism offering.

“We’ve seen how successful astro-tourism has proved as part of Lake Tekapo’s Dark Sky Reserve status, attracting significant numbers of international visitors to that region year round,” says ATEED General Manager Visitor and External Relations Steve Armitage.

“We look forward to working with the local community on Great Barrier Island to promote this exciting status, ensuring that the expected growth is managed sustainably so as not to impede on these special starry vistas.”

Incidentally, Great Barrier Island has other claims to fame, such as the Great FitzRoy Mussel Fest (an arts and crafts fair and an opportunity to eat New Zealand green-lipped mussels prepared in all sorts of ways). That happens at Port Fitzroy, biggest settlement on Great Barrier Island, which is about three hours by fast ferry from Auckland.

During the mussel fest a few years ago, a few local boat enthusiasts on the island found the fast ferry gave them a bit more than they had bargained for!

Written by Peter Needham

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