Photo by Mark Russell
Locals observe the night sky in Niue, the world’s first whole country to become a Dark Sky Place.
Niue has a population of 1,500 and is 1,491 miles off the coast of New Zealand.
Niue, an island nation in the South Pacific Ocean with a population of 1,500, is officially the first country to be named an International Dark Sky Place. Formally accredited by the International Dark-Sky Association (IDA), Niue’s more populated western rim received International Dark Sky Community status while its central core and east coast (home to the Huvalu Forest Conservation Area) were named the world’s 11th International Dark Sky Sanctuary. Together, the two designations cover the entire island’s sky, land, and sea, making Niue the first “Dark Sky Nation” in the world.
“A clear night on Niue is magic,” says Richard Somerville-Ryan, a New Zealander who provided technical support to Tourism Niue and wrote the application to the IDA with his wife, Gendie Somerville-Ryan. “You can be overwhelmed by the huge track of the Milky Way extending across the sky. And then, there are thousands of stars you can distinguish with the naked eye."
Niue’s remote location in the South Pacific Ocean—about 1,491 miles northeast of New Zealand—isn’t the only reason it earned this rare designation. In order for Niue’s application to be approved by the IDA, the country had to make significant changes, including replacing all street lights on the island with bulbs that emit less light and upgrading lighting even at private homes, said Andre Siohane, director-general for the Ministry of Infrastructure and chair of the Niue Dark Sky Committee.
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“Niue’s skies have been observed and appreciated for centuries,” Misa Kalutea, a Niuean elder and cultural guardian said in a statement. These traditions of star navigation and the regulation of life by lunar cycles and star positions have been passed down by community elders through the generations.
“The dark sky nation status adds new emphasis to the importance of our traditional knowledge, providing a reason for the retelling and sharing of this knowledge before it is lost,” Kalutea said.
Thankfully, the island doesn’t have to do much to set up stargazing spots for visitors. Felicity Bollen, the CEO of Niue Tourism, says that established whale-watching viewing sites throughout the island can easily double as stargazing spots for visitors and that guided astro-tours will be bookable by trained Niuean community members.
Because of Niue’s location at latitude 19 degrees south in the tropics, Somerville-Ryan says it is an excellent spot for viewing the main southern dark sky objects: the Southern Cross, the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds, 47 TUC, and Omega Centauri. You can also expect to see a full range of midlatitude constellations, including Orion, Taurus, Gemini, Cancer, Canis Major, Canis Minor, Scorpius, Sagittarius, and Libra.
“One of our most vivid star-viewing evenings came on a very still night where the sea was glassy flat,” Somerville-Ryan recalls. “At about 2 a.m. we saw the midpoint of the setting of Orion in the west and were treated to a view where it was virtually impossible to tell which were the actual stars and which were their reflections in the night sea.”
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As for when to plan a trip to Niue, Somerville-Ryan says that any night is pretty spectacular. But he points out that there are several celestial events to plan trips around in 2021, including a total lunar eclipse on May 25–26, 2021, and a partial lunar eclipse on November 18–19, 2021.
Air New Zealand makes the three-hour flight to Niue from Auckland twice a week. Before you arrive, you’ll need to arrange airport transfers through your hotel because there is no public transportation on the island, the tourism board says.
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