This Remote Pacific Island Could Become the World's Fifth Dark Sky Sanctuary
If you want to stargaze under a dark sky, the very best advice is to go where people are not — like the Pitcairn Islands in the South Pacific, which is attempting to become a Dark Sky Sanctuary by the end of 2018.
The last British Overseas Territory in the South Pacific, Pitcairn is connected to the most famous mutiny in history portrayed in the “1962 movie Mutiny on the Bounty,” and lies south of the Tropic of Capricorn and 300 miles from the nearest landmass. Just 50 people live on the main island of Pitcairn, which is only about two miles long and one mile wide, and surrounded by the third biggest Marine Protected Area in the world. There is no airport, and the only way to reach it is by boat.
“The wonderful isolation and lack of light pollution across all four islands in the Pitcairn group will make our sanctuary status truly special,” said Heather Menzies, Pitcairn Travel Coordinator. “As a community, from our tiny vantage point, we deeply value our unparalleled view of the Universe but we also benefit from the physical and psychological wellbeing that a truly dark sky affords all living beings.”
A Dark Sky Sanctuary is “public or private land that has an exceptional or distinguished quality of starry nights and a nocturnal environment that is protected for its scientific, natural, or educational value, its cultural heritage and/or public enjoyment.” They're at the very top of a certification process overseen by the Arizona-based International Dark-Sky Association (IDA), which also designates Dark Sky Parks and Dark Sky Reserves to protect against light pollution and preserve the night sky.
“It will be a valid application given the islands’ isolation and quality of the night skies,” said John Barentine, IDA's Director of Conservation. “They just have to make the world aware of this great resource.”
Though the Pitcairn Islands' bid to become the world’s fifth Dark Sky Sanctuary is all about recognizing its lack of light polluted skies, it's the economic gains from astro-tourism experienced by New Zealand that's the whole point of Dark Sky Sanctuary status.
“The Aoraki McKenzie region, which was declared a Dark Sky Reserve in 2012, has experienced huge growth in astro-tourism in the past few years, with close to a million people visiting the region over the 2017-18 season,” said Menzies, who had just returned from a trip to New Zealand’s South Island. “I wanted to get a sense of how a conservation commitment to protecting the night sky can impact positively a region’s visitor economy ... and it was incredible.”
Although Pitcairn is devoid of much lighting, it's nevertheless important to choose wisely when you visit. November through March is the summer rainy season, so that period is best avoided if you want clear skies. Those seeking a remote and undiscovered tourism destination should prepare for three days on a boat. It's becoming a more common day-trip for passengers on South Pacific cruises, but the only way to stay in Adamstown on Pitcairn is on the passenger and supply vessel the MV Claymore II.
The vessel carries 12 passengers in two-berth cabins, and makes just 12 sailings each year — four round trips to deliver cargo and supplies to Pitcairn Island from New Zealand (loading at Tauranga) and eight round trips a year from Pitcairn to Mangareva in French Polynesia. Since there's no harbor or port, passengers land on the island via longboat. The sailing schedule is such that you can stay for four or 11 days on Pitcairn. The other three islands — Ducie, Oeno and Henderson — are uninhabited.
While Pitcairn is being considered, there are only four Dark Sky Sanctuaries on the planet, all in geographically isolated locations far from human settlement. The newest are Aotea/Great Barrier Island in New Zealand and the Rainbow Bridge National Monument in southern Utah in the U.S.
Probably the most precious of all is the Gabriela Mistral Dark Sky Sanctuary in northern Chile's Elqui Valley. This site protects the skies for astronomical research by the massive telescopes at AURA Observatory, including the U.S.-operated Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory (CTIO). And it's worth nothing the area will see a total solar eclipse on July 2, 2019.
That same eclipse that will throw the Gabriela Mistral Dark Sky Sanctuary under the moon's shadow will earlier that day be visible from one of the uninhabited Pitcairn Islands. While the main island of Pitcairn proper will be about 55 miles south of the path of totality, the tiny atoll of Oeno (which is a vacation spot for Pitcairners) will experience 2 minutes 51 seconds of darkness and a view of totality.
That would be a good time to visit the Pitcairn Islands, because as well as being the southern hemisphere's winter (when there’s a higher chance of clear skies), solar eclipses by definition happen at new moon, which is always the very best time to go stargazing.
“The quality of Pitcairn’s night sky is up there with the best in the world,” said Menzies. “We’re incredibly excited about the prospects accredited Dark Sky Sanctuary status will grant Pitcairn ... the sky really is the limit.”