Okarito - A community's vision for a Dark Sky

When you wish upon a star….

Who could possibly imagine growing up without being able to see and wish upon a star?

Certainly nobody in the tiny settlement of Ōkārito, perched upon a sandspit on the shores of the Tasman Sea on the West Coast of the South Island of New Zealand. This unique little village lays surrounded by native bush and rainforest, part of a World Unesco Heritage site, and waterways…from mountains to the seas - a virtually untouched environment just minutes away from Franz Josef Glacier.

This pristine environment is renowned locally for its beach, bush and birds. The locals who live here do so in harmony with nature. They work hard to protect it from invasive species, plants and predators, and in so doing herald their native birds and plants.

So it should come as no surprise, perhaps, that they now seek to protect their night sky.

While New Zealand has been accredited with a number of dark sky places by the International Dark Sky Association, there is currently no accredited Dark Sky Community in NZ. So Ōkārito, a very small (about 32 residents) but very strong willed little community, could be the first.

A small sub-committee is working hard to bring this to fruition - comprised of Paula Sheridan of Ōkārito Boat Tours, Tash Goodwin of Glacier Valley EcoTours, Kath Morris - Ōkārito’s Community Association Secretary, Chris Monson of Department of Conservation Franz Josef, and Pam Birmingham, part time Ōkārito resident. They are keen to bring education, preservation and celebration to the forefront of their star laden skies.

Aoraki Mackenzie - Tekapo - is widely known and highly regarded as the world’s largest Dark Sky Reserve. There are two International Dark Sky Sanctuaries - Stewart Island/Rakiura and Aotea/Great Barrier Island.

And more recently a small area near Wakefield in the Nelson District has been established as a Dark Sky Park - Wai-iti.

“The Wai-iti Dark Sky Park has been established to preserve the area’s pristine night skies, as a place for pure enjoyment of the night sky, as well as for study of the night sky for scientific, artistic and amateur astronomy purposes,” says Ralph Bradley, chairman of the Top of the South Dark Sky Committee.

“This is a small step to preserve the night sky for future generations. It is a place to teach and educate the community about the importance of the natural dark night sky for our own health and well-being and that of plants and animals in our environment.”

(from www.darksky.org - New Zealand’s Dark Sky organization)

So what does it take to become a Dark Sky Community? Ōkārito is already well on its way with no street lights and very little commercial or outdoor lighting. A monitoring system must be put in place to record the lighting and minimisation of excessive or unnecessary lighting.

Some fixtures may need to be changed to amber light vs. blue light and shields placed around any outdoor light that “spills skyward”. An application will need to be lodged with the International Dark Sky Association, and the Ōkārito Dark Sky sub-committee will be working together with New Zealand’s Dark Sky Organization for assistance through this detailed and lengthy process

But why worry about our night skies?

Light pollution is now known to disrupt circadian rhythms in people, plants and animals - not only can this lead to disrupted sleep patterns, it can also lead to un-wellness and even disease. Plants grow abnormally and become weak when exposed to too much light at night.

Our day/night clocks are triggered by special cells which correlate to the earths’ natural day/night cycle. When we allow too much blue light in, our bodies reset to stay awake. This is the case for plants, birds and aquatic species as well. So when we dim our outdoor lights, and even the lights indoors, or change them to amber lighting, we are syncing more with nature. Getting better sleep!

A celebration…

Ōkārito treasures its plants, birds and dark skies. To walk down the little main street in the village at night is to behold a light show that no lights can rival. Mataraki (pleiades star cluster) after which the newest holiday has been named after is celebrated in June or July, in New Zealand, and marks the start of the New Year in the Maori lunar calendar. A time for reflection, of harvest and of gathering, of honouring those past and for looking to the future.

Ōkārito hopes to celebrate Mataraki with its own festival in the future as an accredited International Dark Sky Community, bringing together people under the dark night sky, to celebrate, not with artificial lights, but with those already there above us - if only we can continue to see them, now and forever.

Okarito night sky (Credit Ben Sarten) (1)
(Credit: Ben Sarten)