Aotea’s Dark Sky Sanctuary

On Aotea, we enjoy the trifecta of pristine ngahere, clear moana and the darkest rangi. Stunning beaches stretch between the bush and the sea stretch and these wide-open beaches provide a superb setting for observations of our Dark Sky Sanctuary skies. 

Our community values the protection of our land, sea and skies: 60% of the island is conservation park, there is a rahui around the island which is the ancient Maori way to protect some of our food sources and our sky is protected under a Dark Sky Sanctuary. We feel that preservation of our skies is particularly important to the health and wellbeing of our community, visitors and also for the night-time protection of our natural environment which teems with endemic flora and fauna, many protected species.

Elsewhere on the planet, many of these endangered species are affected by light pollution and to a lesser extent, elsewhere in New Zealand as well. Aotea, for instance, is a haven to the tokoketai black petrel and to long and short tailed bat species. Under Aotea’s dark skies, they are not distracted by light at night. On Aotea the population density if very low. We generate our own limited power, so are frugal with lights, and as there are no streetlights and definitely no bill boards, there is no light glow. So, when islanders have gone to bed, the island rests in wholesome, blissful darkness. 

Dark skies on Oruawharo Medlands. Captured by Steve Wardle

There a many other Dark Sky Places in the world, see here, but Aotea Great Barrier Island is unique, because it is so easily accessible from a large international airport (Auckland), and you don’t have to forego your creature comforts, as you can stay within the sanctuary, in comfortable accommodation.

Some people may be drawn to bright lights for their holidays but more and more are recognising that dark skies are a precious and scarce resource, and are choosing to holiday is dark sky reserves, parks or sanctuaries like Aotea. The island also has a wonderful subtropical climate and seaside stargazing is different level. Try it!

Did you know?

*Light pollution, the excessive or inappropriate use of outdoor artificial light, is affecting human health, wildlife behavior, and our ability to observe stars and other celestial objects. 

*An increased amount of light at night lowers melatonin production, which results in sleep deprivation, fatigue, headaches, stress, anxiety, and other health problems. 

*More than 80 percent of the world’s population, and 99 percent of Americans and Europeans, live under sky glow. It sounds pretty, but sky glow caused by anthropogenic activities is one of the most pervasive forms of light pollution. 

*Some of the most light-polluted countries in the world are Singapore, Qatar, and Kuwait, 

…but Europe and the United States are very much affected my light pollution too, see this map.

*Because of light pollution, sea turtles and birds guided by moonlight during migration get confused, lose their way, and often die.

*Large numbers of insects, a primary food source for birds and other animals, are drawn to artificial lights and are instantly killed upon contact with light sources.

Find more light pollution facts here.

FAQ’s about our Dark Sky Sanctuary

Aotea’s skies are exceptionally clear and dark. It is one of the darkest places to view the night sky in the world.

Aotea Great Barrier Island is a Dark Sky Sanctuary. An IDA Dark Sky Sanctuary is public or private land that has an exceptional or distinguished quality of starry nights, with a magnitude per square arc second over 21.5 (around Bortle 1 or 2) and a nocturnal environment that is protected for its scientific, natural, or educational value, its cultural heritage and/or public enjoyment. The darkness of the sky on Aotea is monitored yearly to ensure the island remains within the range specified by the International Dark Sky Association (IDA).

Guided experiences:

Good Heavens‘ friendly local guides provide comfortable chairs and blankets, and an 8” telescope. They entertain with interesting facts and fascinating stories of this magical night-time world. Discover our place in the universe, while looking up and getting lost in the stars. Private and group experiences available.  

Star Treks craft day and twilight treks – the Kaitoke hot pools twilight trek includes star gazing through binoculars, where one of their local guides, who is a dark sky ambassador will guide you through the dark sky sanctuary.

Carol Comer offers bespoke astrophotographers adventures for who want to learn more about astrophotography and photography some of the clearest night skies in the world.

The Milky Way traverses the evening sky throughout the year, with several thousand stars visible to the naked eye plus numerous binocular and telescopic deep sky objects such as star clusters.

In the Southern Hemisphere sky that we see, large and small Magellanic Cloud, our nearest galaxies, are also easily visible to the naked eye. The Crux, Southern Cross and Milky Way can be seen with the naked eye year round.

On Aotea, with a Bortle scale between 1 and 2, there is a lot of detail to be observed in the sky with the naked eye. Have a look at the Orion Nebula here and use the slider to the left of the image to see how much difference true darkness makes.

Bring binoculars to have a close look at open clusters, such as Matariki, the five of diamonds, Ptolemy’s cluster and the Beehive cluster and see how they sparkle.

Or grab a telescope, ask if your accommodation has one for you to use or book a stargazing tour with the Good Heavens team to observe deep sky objects with lots of definition and detail. 

The best stargazing on Aotea happens when there are no clouds and no Moon in the night sky. We love it when the centre of the Milky Way is high up in the sky, in July/August, but it’s a bit cooler than in the summer months, say from October to the end of April. 

It does always cool down after dark, though, and a down jacket, a blanket and a chair or a dune pan heated up by the sun in summer, make stargazing so much more comfortable. 

The time of Matariki, when the Matariki/Pleiades cluster reappears in the pre-dawn sky, is special to New Zealanders and there is now a holiday that celebrates this special event. Check if there is a pre-dawn ceremony that you may be able to join in with. 

But whether you come in summer, winter or in between, there is always something interesting to see in the sky, provided it is at least partially clear. 

There are several free stargazing apps available, and they are a great way to get you bearings. If you want to make fast progress on your stargazing journey, consider a guided stargazing experience. 

What about the moon?

If you like you the moon, you will love the moon above Aotea. As our night sky is so dark, once the moon is more than 50% illuminated, it plays a large role in the nighttime environment. For the evening sky, this is the case around 1/3 of the month. 

Our moon is stunning to view at this time! You may like to bring binoculars, if you want to have a close-up look. This time is less suitable for astrophotography and if you would like to see the Milky Way in all its glory, come at another time. When the moon is a waxing crescent for instance, or not in the evening sky. Use this moon phase link to help you plan your visit.

Matariki is the Maori name for an open star cluster, also known as the Pleiades, Subaru, the Seven Sisters and by other names. It’s also the name of the brightest star within this cluster. And in Maori tradition, Matariki is the Maori New Year, at the heliacal rising of Matariki. It’s a time to remember the dead and to release their spirits to become stars. It is also a time to reflect, to be thankful to the gods for the harvest, to feast and to share the bounty of the harvest with family and friends. 

Traditionally, Matariki festivities included lighting ritual fires, making offerings and various celebrations to farewell the dead, honour ancestors and celebrate life. This ancient tradition has seen a revival, and Matariki has become a national holiday in 2022. Now people across Aotearoa come together to remember their ancestors, share kai (food), sing waiata (songs), korero (tell stories) and to play music. If you have the chance to attend a hautapu ceremony and don’t mind getting up early, we would recommend this. Ask your host.

When is Matariki?

The celebration of the rising of the Matariki cluster in the sky is depending on when this cluster is clearly visible, and that depends on the Maori lunar calendar, but roughly the celebrations take place between mid June and mid July.

What are the dates of the Matariki public holiday?

The Matariki public holiday is based on the winter heliacal rising of the Matariki cluster in the early morning sky during the Tangaroa period of the lunar month of Pipiri.

The dates for the Matariki public holiday fall on the closest Friday to the Tangaroa lunar period during the lunar month of Pipiri. Tangaroa is not a single phase of the moon but rather the last quarter period of the lunar calendar. Because of this, the dates to celebrate Matariki differ from year to year. Read more on this Te Papa website.

Bioluminescence is the production and emission of light by a living organism. Bioluminescent creatures are found throughout marine habitats, from the ocean surface to the deep seafloor.

On Aotea bioluminescence in the water mainly seems to happen on calm, warm days, and if you want to see it in along the beach, there has to be some swell. It’s a magical appearance that we have mostly observed in February. 

All of our island is a Dark Sky Sanctuary. This means that on a clear night, our night sky is amazing wherever you are on the island. So, if the place you are staying at has a deck/veranda or a lawn, and not a lot of trees around, this is a great place for stargazing once you turn the lights off. In summer, you can just lie back and look up, in winter you may want to put on a warm jacket and grab a blanket.

Aotea is a hilly, bushy place. And trees and hills can hinder stargazing efforts. To get around this, we recommend heading for the beach. Beaches are plentiful on the island, and usually after dark, it will just be you and the stars. If you can, plan for the tides, see here. If the beach is narrow, go on a low tide. If the tide is high, stay above the high tide mark. You may like to scope your nighttime terrain while it’s light, because after dark, it does get very dark on Aotea, and even if you use a torch, your vision is limited to the beam of your torch. 

So, bring a torch (a red torch is best to protect your night vision). Be careful not to stumble into a stargazing tour. These take place most nights, usually at Twin Pines at Medlands. There are many other places along Medlands Beach and elsewhere, to enjoy the stars.

Self-directed viewing

If you are new to stargazing and would like to have some basic guidance, you may find a phone app sufficient. The team at Good Heavens Stargazing Experiences recommend Sky Safari and Universe2Go. Both have free options. Good Heavens also have a web page with more FAQ that you may find helpful. 

All of our island is a Dark Sky Sanctuary. This means that on a clear moonless night, our night sky is amazing wherever you are on the island. 

The selection of the landscape for astro (landscape) photography is often part of the creative process, and Aotea has the most wonderful landscapes galore. Our beaches are fantastic, as they offer the sky, and some stunning landscape features, usually puhutakawa trees. Long shots with a few lonely dwellings in the far hills can be captivating, and there are a few interesting old buildings, such as the church in Medlands and the old school house next to the community hall in Tryphena. 

If you need a level surface for deep sky photography, check with your host for recommendations before you book. 

Consider a bespoke astrophotography workshop with Carol Comer photography if you are a newby in the field, if you want to learn some new tricks, or if you like to be guided to Carol’s favourite landscape astrophotography spots on the island.

When you look at the sky from down under there are a few things that are very different:

You can’t see northern circumpolar constellations and objects, such as Ursa Major, Ursa Minor, Draco and Polaris, the Pole star, they are beyond the northern horizon for us.  But! you can see deep into the southern sky, and the Southern Cross and amazing celestial objects like the Magellenic Clouds (naked eye), open clusters like Ptolemy’s cluster (binoculars) and the largest globular clusters (telescope) become visible. 

As a generalisation, the Southern Hemisphere sky is also darker than the sky in the Northern Hemisphere. This makes New Zealand, and specifically the darkest places in New Zealand, such as Aotea, so amazing for stargazing.

You can help protect our night skies in one minute. Here’s how.

Dark sky readings

Five shocking facts from the International Dark Sky Association

  1. Exposure to light pollution at night puts your health at risk
  2. Light pollution kills millions of birds a year
  3. Light pollution contributes to climate change
  4. Artificial light at night disrupts the seasonal cycles of trees
  5. The sky glow of cities like Los Angeles are visible from an aeroplane 200 miles away!

Find out more from the IDA here

Guided Experiences

Upcoming dark sky events you may be interested in:

There are no upcoming events.

Read more about Aotea’s Dark Sky Sanctuary here…

Wonder Women

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Dark Sky Sanctuary

A Sparkle of Stargazing Have you been looking up and wondering what it is that’s sparkling down at you? Well here’s a stargazing snippet just for you. Turn all the lights off, go outside and take 10 minutes for your … Read More
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Interviews with local Dark Sky Ambassadors: