The exceptionally starry nights experienced on the Kūaotunu Peninsula are soon to be preserved for the future as the Biosphere Dark Sky Project secures government funding through Destination Hauraki Coromandel.
The $50,000 grant will allow the Kūaotunu Peninsula Biosphere Working Group leading the initiative to engage experts to proceed with a request to change current lighting regulations in the Thames-Coromandel District Plan. This will help gain official recognition by the International Dark-Sky Association (IDA) as a Dark Sky Community.
In The Coromandel the heavens appear close to earth and seeing constellations and shooting stars is not unusual thanks to the low density of dwellings and the absence of light pollution. The night skies north of Whitianga are particularly black, one of the reasons local astronomer Alastair Brickell set up his observatory there as Stargazers B&B and Astronomy Tours, and why the European Space Agency (ESA) has recently approached him seeking to site one of their robotic telescopes within the proposed dark sky zone. This telescope is part of a worldwide collaboration looking for space junk and potentially hazardous asteroids.
The community team on the Kūaotunu Peninsula Biosphere Dark Sky Project has been working for over a year to build strong community support for the initiative and to understand the process to gain official recognition by the IDA.
Ngāti Hei kaumatua Joe Davis has been an enthusiastic promoter and Thames-Coromandel District Council staff and elected representatives are supportive of the project which will be important when the proposed regulation changes are presented.
Alastair Brickell has been pursuing this objective for many years, and is excited real progress is being made. “A Dark Sky Community will protect our night sky for future generations, and deliver significant cultural, economic and health benefits to the community, not just astro-tourists,” says Alastair.
While the thrill of stargazing is well known, amateur local astronomer and project team member Ed Scorgie emphasises the historical and environmental importance of an unpolluted night sky. “The night sky is a critical part of our human heritage. Since we were capable of it, humans all over the world have looked up at night seeking knowledge, inspiration and understanding."
And it is not just humans who thrive under a night sky without artificial light. Darkness is vital to the proper functioning of natural ecosystems. Artificial lighting affects species migration, predator-prey relationships, and the circadian rhythms and natural 24-hour cycles of many organisms, including plants.
The support of local communities is crucial to the project and many have shown their support with financial commitments and a great turnout at 5am on a chilly morning on the first Matariki weekend to gaze at the stars.
Ōpito resident Paul Cook is part of the team, and is delighted that the funding support will allow the engagement of expert assistance to develop and submit a private plan change request to the District Plan. "While our council staff and elected members are supportive in principle, we cannot expect ratepayers to fund such work. We need professional support to get us through the process,” explains Paul. "There are legal and technical aspects that we cannot manage alone. We are fortunate that our consultants, Kahu Environmental have been involved with similar activity in two other locations in New Zealand, and they bring a great deal of knowledge and experience.”
“Despite the significance of the night sky to our health and heritage, the sad reality is that large parts of the world’s population literally cannot see the stars at night," adds Paul. "We are particularly fortunate that the Kūaotunu Peninsula still has night skies that are close to pristine. It would be an act of environmental vandalism to waste this opportunity to protect them for future generations.”
The Kūaotunu Peninsula Biosphere Dark Sky Project team acknowledges the support of Destination Hauraki Coromandel, who invested significant funding from a tourism industry grant received from The Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment. "Tourism is increasingly supporting initiatives on land and sea, such as the growth of our kiwi population. The Dark Sky Biosphere takes this to another level, where the environment, biodiversity and people come first when designing visitor experiences of the future," says Hadley Dryden, general manager of Destination Hauraki Coromandel.
The initial proposed reserve includes Kūaotunu, Ōpito Bay, Ōtama and Ring’s Beach, and it is hoped that success in this area will lead to significant expansion of the Dark Sky Community in the future.
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