Only five places on the planet have this super-prestigious designation.
The Milky Way has been muse to poets, dreamers, and philosophers for as long as the night sky has shone. Today, however, fewer and fewer people are able to see this glowing wave of light that reminds us of our diminutive stature in a vast universe.
That’s because light pollution, the presence of man-made, artificial light at night, is increasing around the world, rendering fewer places on Earth prime for stargazing.
Indeed, Italian researchers found that 99 percent of Americans and Europeans live under night skies so polluted with light that they cannot see the Milky Way—or many stars at all for that matter.
So if it’s heavenly bodies you seek, it might be time to book a trip Down Under, where two of five International Dark Sky Sanctuaries in the world exist, each one bookending New Zealand’s North and South Islands. These star-studded wonders, Great Barrier Island to the north and Stewart Island to the south, are known for their incredible starry nights and lack of light pollution.
Great Barrier Island was honored with the distinction of International Dark Sky Sanctuary in 2016, and this month, Stewart Island joined the elite list as the second coastal sanctuary after its Kiwi neighbor to the north.
The designation of International Dark Sky Sanctuary is rare and earned after a long and thorough review process by The International Dark-Sky Association (IDA). Dark Sky Sanctuaries are typically very remote and must meet strict requirements for lighting policies, light pollution, public education, and initiatives to preserve and protect the dark sites.
Stewart Island’s Maori name is “Rakura,” which means “land of the glowing skies,” and is known for two celestial phenomena: 1) The center of the Milky Way passes directly above the island during the Southern Hemisphere’s winter, creating views that will never be seen in the Northern hemisphere. 2) Shoulder season is prime for spotting Aurora Australis, also known as the Southern Lights.
Fewer than 400 people call the village of Oban, Stewart’s principal settlement, home, and the remaining 85 percent of the island is protected as a national park. More than 44,000 people visited the island, which is 19 miles south of the south island, in 2017, and the number of visitors has grown 100 percent over the last four years.
850 miles north of Stewart Island and 60 miles northeast of Auckland is Great Barrier Island, which is inhabited by fewer than 1,000 people. Since its Dark Sky Sanctuary status award in 2016, star seekers have begun descending upon the remote Pacific island. Some locals have become dark sky ambassadors, helping visitors enjoy breathtaking experiences, for a fee, under the island’s starry skies.
Now that both islands have the support of IDA, as well as regional and national organizations, they aim to use their sanctuary distinctions to draw attention to protecting the islands and their resources, both on the ground and above.
Three other locations around the world have been awarded the title of Dark Sky Sanctuary: Cosmic Campground in New Mexico, Gabriela Mistral in Chile’s Valle del Elqui, and Rainbow Bridge National Monument in Utah.
For stargazers who can’t get away to these remote locations, IDA also recognizes cities, developments, and other locales across the planet that, while not as dazzling as the sanctuaries, are still wonderful sites for experiencing a superior view of the night sky.
Check out IDA’s International Dark Sky Places, a list of more than 100 places across the planet that promote stewardship of the night sky, host sky viewing opportunities, or just have a beautiful place at which you can sit and soak in the pinpricks of light from planets and stars so many miles away.