What’s a ‘dark sky nation’ and why does New Zealand want to become one?

With Māori experts leading the way, the country is planning to slash light pollution at an unprecedented scale.

On a clear night above Lake Tekapo, a township at the heart of New Zealand’s South Island, the sky is studded with countless glittering stars. Light pollution affects 80 percent of the globe, making this stellar night view somewhat rare—but it’s not uncommon in this island nation of 5 million.

In fact, New Zealand is aiming to become certified as a dark sky nation by the International Dark-Sky Association (IDSA), an unprecedented goal for a country of New Zealand’s size.

Indigenous Māori people are leading the initiative by spreading awareness of the ecological and cultural importance of dark sky preservation.

“Our language [te reo Māori] and different cultural practices and beliefs come out of our observations of the night sky,” says Rangi Mātāmua (of Ngāi Tūhoe tribal descent), an astronomer and professor of Mātauranga Māori (Māori knowledge) at Massey University. The Māori people use maramataka (the lunar calendar), for instance, to identify the best times and seasons to plant, harvest, fish, and hunt.

New Zealand’s exceptional dark skies are more than just a beautiful setting for stargazers. Here’s how to experience them and learn about their indelible cultural value.

The sea and the sky

Hundreds of years before the founding of Rome, the Māori’s Polynesian ancestors were voyaging across the Pacific Ocean in double-hulled canoes, called waka hourua. Their knowledge of the night sky helped them navigate vast, featureless distances on the seas without the help of compasses or sextants.

“Our traditions tell us that our ancestors voyaged for different reasons,” says Te Taka Keegan, associate dean Māori at University of Waikato. “We were on the ocean to fish, travel to meet our relations, and set off for new countries.”

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Keegan completed his master’s thesis on traditional navigation and helped sail a waka hourua from Hawaii to Rarotonga, in the Cook Islands—2,700 nautical miles—using early Polynesian navigation techniques.

First, he says, noting where stars rise and set is essential. Voyagers would align their canoe with stars on the horizon, and as those rose, sailors knew how to align with the stars that would take their place. Bright planets, such as Jupiter and Venus, also helped orient sailors. The moon illuminated wave patterns, another indication of direction.

Keegan says these were more than just navigational aids. “You form a sense of familiarity, a kinship with the stars. You’re not alone on the ocean—you have all these other friends in the sky looking down on you.”

The mythology of stars

Preserving New Zealand’s night sky is vital for conservation and biodiversity. Dark skies are crucial for nocturnal birds, such as the declining kororā (little blue penguins), that come ashore to prepare their nests under the cover of darkness, and migratory birds, such as bar-tailed godwits, that use star positions to navigate the night sky. Darkness is also essential for insects, whose declining population has been linked to light pollution. At-risk wētā, for instance, are nocturnal, and artificial light could reduce their activity.

“The night sky is essential to the balance of [New Zealand’s] ecosystems,” says Olive Karena-Lockyer, of the Te Aupōuri and Ngāti Raukawa tribes, an astronomy educator at Stardome Observatory in Auckland. “It’s connected to every aspect of the environment. As the night sky changes throughout the year, it becomes an indicator of different natural processes,” like the blooming of flowers.

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The appearance of the Matariki star cluster (also known as Pleiades) in June or July heralds the Māori New Year. “The way it’s traditionally celebrated is that we would gather food from different parts of the environment—freshwater, saltwater, the gardens, the forest—and cook that food in the ground,” says Mātāmua. “We offer that food to the star cluster when it rises in the morning sky to say thank you for all that we’ve received throughout the year and hope for the promise of a new and prosperous season.”

The moon, stars, and constellations have also influenced Māori mythology. As the authors of a study reviewing Māori astronomy wrote, “The stars were perceived as beings, who were bound together as a family.”

Becoming a dark sky nation

The untainted night skies above Lake Tekapo (Takapō in te reo Māori) are part of the 1,686-square-mile area in the Aoraki National Park and Mackenzie Basin, designated by the IDSA as a dark sky reserve, just one of 20 in the world.

About 74 percent of the night skies in New Zealand’s North Island and 93 percent in the South Island are considered “pristine or degraded only near the horizon.” New Zealand is now on a mission to become the second dark sky country after Niue, which was certified in 2020.

Nalayini Davies, a New Zealand astronomer who’s also on the board of directors at the IDSA, says it’s within reach—but will take at least three years to raise awareness among residents, change and implement local light ordinances, and expand the area of protected places.

The next step is raising awareness of light pollution through education, which is where astrotourism takes the lead. The Dark Sky Project is co-owned by Ngāi Tahu, one of the largest iwi (tribes) in New Zealand. The tour company raises awareness of protecting dark skies while incorporating science with Māori astronomy.

“Looking at the sky and connecting to it sits at the heart of humanity. It’s one of the earliest activities every single culture on the planet did, and the night sky is intrinsically connected to who we are as humans,” Mātāmua says. “When we start to sever that bond, we change who we are as a people. We’re changing the way we understand our world and the things that are important to us. We need to try and put together better ways of using lights and caring for our night sky.”

Rina Diane Caballar is a freelance writer based in Wellington, New Zealand. You can find her on Twitter.

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