Dark Skies & Starry Nights: Astronomy’s Welcoming Benefits
By Waheeda Harris
Cruising the Amazon river basis on the stylish Delfin II, it wouldn’t be the wood ship’s luxury amenities or the numerous rainforest wildlife I remembered most – it was the night sky.
A few hours spent in a hammock staring at the inky darkness of the night sky was all I needed to ignite a curiosity that hasn’t abated.
As my eyes were overwhelmed with the sight of so many stars, my pulse slowed and my mind became calm. I realized how rare it was for me to see the stars, and I wanted that to change.
I flashed back to being a teenager who often stayed up late, and would seek solace on the balcony, looking at the night sky as I contemplated my future.
I realized I needed a dose of stargazing to keep me happy in the present, an intangible dose of wellness not easily found in the other practices I did to keep my mind and body in balance.
A 2016 study by the US National Park Service found 80 percent of North Americans can no longer see the Milky Way because of light pollution. Is it any surprise that when we are able to see the endless sparkling of the heavens we’re not smitten and seeking more?
Since that night in northern Peru, I’ve been seeking glimpses of the night sky, whether from a beach in Goa, a castle turret in the west of Ireland or on a small town’s dock on the Bruce Peninsula, learning from amateur astronomers who were excited to share what could be seen in the heavens.
A memorable hike in California’s Coachella Valley began before sunset to learn about the desert and ended in a secluded area where my group congregated around telescopes.
As our eyes adjusted to the evening darkness, our guides pointed to well-known constellations we could see without aid, explaining the mythology of Ursa Major, Ursa Minor, Orion’s Belt, and Cassiopeia.
Getting in line to gaze into deep space through telescopes, I could see Jupiter, the fifth planet from the sun.
As much as I loved learning the science, the act of seeing the stars and planets was like soaking in a hot tub, a relaxation and contentment I could feel throughout my body.
With a group that spanned ages 10 to 75, we left with a curiosity to see more, hopefully encouraged by making a wish on a shooting star.
Naturalist, teacher and astronomer Robin Tapley knows the benefits of stargazing. Tapley worked closely with JW Marriott The Rosseau Muskoka in Ontario, ensuring the hotel design created minimal light pollution while also developing an astronomy program for guests.
“People are overwhelmed, and often stunned when they first look at the night sky,” explained Tapley, “it’s very common that they don’t believe it’s real.”
During the hour-long sessions, Tapley sees the transformation as guests go from shock to engagement, curious about the cosmos. “They couldn’t comprehend how many stars can be seen, especially in deep space.”
As the ability to see the night sky is minimal in cities, dark sky areas are now being protected. Designated by the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, Dark-Sky Preserves are areas to help promote astronomy and protect access to the night sky.
Canada has the second most dark sky preserves in the world, with 22 found in Newfoundland & Labrador, Ontario, Northwest Territories, Nova Scotia, Saskatchewan, British Columbia, New Brunswick and Alberta.
Located in federal and provincial parks, these preserves are happy to aid in exploring the night sky, like Kejimkujik National Park in Nova Scotia, with its Dark Sky rental kit, which includes binoculars, star finder and red light or the Jasper Dark Sky Festival, an annual festival in the national park to gather those who want to learn and indulge in looking at the stars.
But one doesn’t always have to go into a rural area to appreciate the effect of the stars. A trip to southern France’s Provence region led me to learn about Dutch impressionist painter Vincent van Gogh.
As I spent time in Marseille and Arles, I learned of van Gogh’s artistic life and saw an exhibition that included one of his most famous creations “A Starry Night.”
Depicting his view of the night sky from his hospital room, the painting made me wonder if the night sky was his refuge, a place he could explore through his art, since he was not able to physically explore the landscape as he had.
I realized the stars had become my refuge, a welcome moment of solace in my busy schedule. That night I stared outside my hotel room window, and on the first star I could see, despite the city lights, I made a wish to continue my self-care through night gazing of dark skies.
Grand Velas Los Cabos Mexico has a stargazing package offering canapes, Moet & Chandon champagne and telescope access with a star map.
Trout Point Lodge of Nova Scotia offers the Astrophotography Lovers package, a two-night stay with night sky time on their viewing platform and photography workshop.
Spa Village Resort Tembok Bali has a unique spa service: guests can reserve time on a floating platform for a stargazing session before an open-air massage under the night sky.
Freelance journalist Waheeda Harris started travelling at a young age, curious to learn more about our planet’s culture, cuisine and traditions. And despite her many travels, she still has one nemesis: jetlag. Connect with Waheeda at about.me/waheedaharris.