5 Of The World’s Best Places For Viewing The Night Skies

milky wayIf you grow up in Southern California, school field trips to the Griffith Observatory are practically a requirement. For whatever reason, I always found the Planetarium more frightening than enlightening, especially in the sixth grade, when David Fink threw up on me on the bus ride home.

Despite many youthful camping trips with my family, I also can’t recall ever paying attention to the night skies (possibly because many of these trips were in the cloudy Pacific Northwest). Fast-forward 20-odd years, and to a solo camping trip on Kauai’s North Shore. It was my last night and the rainclouds had finally blown away. I stared up at the starry sky awestruck. It’s the first time l ever really noticed the stars, due to the lack of light and environmental pollution. I’ve been a stargazer ever since, and coincidentally, many of my travels have taken me to some of the world’s best locations for it.

Below, my picks for top-notch night skies, no student chaperone required:

Atacama Desert
, Chile

This stark, Altiplano region in Chile’s far north is the driest desert on earth, as well as home to the some of the clearest night skies on the planet. You don’t need anything (other than perhaps a great camera) to appreciate the stars, but a stargazing tour, offered by various hotels, hostels and outfitters throughout the town of San Pedro de Atacama, is well worth it.

I highly recommend the Astronomy Tour offered by the Alto Atacama Hotel & Spa, located just outside of San Pedro proper. For hotel guests only, this two-year-old program is led by one of the property’s guides, a naturalist and astronomer. The hotel has its own observation deck and a seriously badass telescope; you won’t be disappointed even if stargazing isn’t your thing. In addition to learning the constellations of ancient Quechua myth such as the Llama and Condor, you’ll have incredible views of the Milky Way, and be able to see telescopic images of Sirius and Alpha Centauri with a lens so powerful you can actually see a ring of flame flickering from their surface.

%Gallery-157717%alto atacama observatoryExmouth, Western Australia
Uluru (aka the former Ayers Rock, which now goes by its Aboriginal name) is considered Australia’s best stargazing, due to its location in exactly the middle of nowhere. In reality, the Outback in general has night skies completely untainted by pollution. But as I’ve discovered after many years of visiting Australia, the only bad places to stargaze are urban areas. The skies are also stellar above remote coastal regions, most notably in Western Australia (which is vast and sparsely populated).

The best skies I’ve seen are in Exmouth, located along the Ningaloo Reef. At Sal Salis, a coastal luxury safari camp, an observation platform and stargazing talk will help you make sense of the Southern sky. Be prepared for striking views of the Milky Way stretching across the horizon, seemingly close enough to touch.
mauna kea
Mauna Kea, Hawaii
In 1991, the year of the Total Solar Eclipse, hundreds of thousands of visitors flocked to the Big Island’s Mauna Kea Observatory – located at the top of the volcano – to watch the sky grow dark mid-morning. I was waiting tables on Maui, so all I noticed was a brief dimming, in conjunction with some of my tables pulling a dine-and-dash. A visit to the volcano, however, will assure you stunning views if you take a Sunset and Stargazing Tour offered by Mauna Kea Summit Adventures. Day visitors can hike, and even ski in winter.

Bryce Canyon, Utah
This national park, known for its bizarre rock spires (called “hoodoos”) and twisting red canyons, is spectacular regardless of time of day or season. On moonless nights, however, over 7,500 stars are visible, and park rangers and volunteer astronomers lead Night Sky programs that include multimedia presentations and high-power telescopes; schedules and topics change with the seasons.
aurora borealis
Churchill, Manitoba
Located on the southwestern shore of Hudson Bay on the fringe of the Arctic Circle, the village of Churchill is famous for three things: polar bears, beluga whales and the Northern Lights. Its location beneath the Auroral Oval means the “best and most Northern Lights displays on the planet,” according to Churchill’s website, and you don’t need to sign up for a tour to enjoy the show. Save that for the polar bear viewing.

[Photo credits: Atacama, Frank Budweg; Mauna Kea, Flickr user sambouchard418;Aurora Borealis, Flickr user Bruce Guenter]

Four natural wonders added to UNESCO World Heritage List

The UNESCO World Heritage list grew by four with the additon of new natural wondersThe United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization, also known as UNESCO, has added four new locations to its list of World Heritage sites. The destinations fall under the category of “natural wonders,” and were cited for their spectacular beauty, biodiversity, and importance to the surrounding ecosystems.

Newly added to the list was Japan‘s Ogasawara Islands, which are home to more than 200 endangered bird species, as well as a “critically endangered” bat. Much like the Galapagos Islands, this remote archipelago has a number of unique plants and animals, some of which can only be found there. The islands are also viewed as a living laboratory where the process of evolution can be studied in a self-contained environment that mixes influences from both northeast and southeast Asia in unusual ways.

The Ningaloo Coast, located along Australia‘s lonely western shores, was also given the nod thanks in no small part to its outstanding biodiversity. Just off the coast is one of the world’s largest near-shore coral reef systems, which stretches for miles and is home to sea turtles, whale sharks, and other exotic sealife. An intricate network of underwater caves spiderwebs across the region as well, creating a distinct ecosystem all its own, that boasts even more unusual and unique wildlife. Back on dry land, the Ningaloo Coast also provides spectacular scenery along rugged hiking trails.
Jordan‘s Wadi Rum received World Heritage status thanks to its blend of both nature and culture. The towering rock walls and maze-like canyons, surrounded by a breathtakingly beautiful desert, is only part of the reason this destination was recognized by UNESCO. It is also home to several distinct Bedouin tribes who have inhabited the region for thousands of years, leaving traces of their culture that date back to before the pyramids were built. There are reportedly more than 25,000 rock carvings and an additional 20,000 inscriptions, found throughout the area, some of which show the earliest examples of what would eventually evolve into the earliest alphabet.

The fourth location added to the list is the Lake System in Kenya. Consisting of three interconnected bodies of water, all located inside the Great Rift Valley, the region is home to one of the most biologically diverse avian populations in the world. UNESCO notes that there are no less than 13 species of threatened birds that live in the Lake System, some of which exclusively breed and nest there. The region also plays host to plenty of other wildlife as well, including giraffes, lions, cheetahs, wild dogs, and black rhinos.

Any one of these locations would make an amazing destination for adventurous travelers. These are fragile ecosystems however, so if you do go, be sure it is with a reputable guide service that believes in sustainable travel and ecotourism. After all, these places have been designated as World Heritage sites for a reason, and UNESCO isn’t the only one that wants to see them stick around for future travelers to enjoy as well.

[Photo credit: Alessandro Balsamo/UNESCO]

Australia’s Ningaloo Reef: whale sharks and world-class snorkeling and diving

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Enough about that other Australian reef. Ningaloo, located nearly 800 miles north of Perth in Western Australia, is where it’s at. “It” being an astonishing array of aquatic life, a lack of crowds, and plenty of budget-to-mid-range options including camping, backpackers, and smallish resorts.

In January, the Ningaloo Coast (which includes the160-mile-long reef/national marine park, Cape Range, and adjacent dune fields, marine areas, and islands) was nominated for a World Heritage listing, in recognition of the area’s “outstanding natural beauty, biological richness, and international geological significance.”

The world’s largest fringing reef (it grows directly from the shoreline, or a shallow backreef zone), Ningaloo also ranks near the top in terms of biodiversity, and the number of species found within a limited range. Unsurprising, then, that in a one-hour, offshore snorkel, I saw scads of impressive marine life (a large white-tip reef shark, giant potato cod, sea turtles, octopi, moray eels, countless fish) within arm’s reach. Depending upon the time of year, Ningaloo offers visitors the opportunity to view and/or swim with dolphins, dugongs, manta rays, sea turtles, sharks, and Humpback whales.What Ningaloo is best-known for, however, are whale sharks. The world’s largest fish, whale sharks are filter-feeders that can reach over 40 feet in length. Unlike most sharks, they swim by moving their entire bodies from side-to-side. Very little is known about these gentle, migratory creatures, in part because they don’t need to surface for air, and can remain on the ocean floor- at depths up to 2300 feet- for years at a time. They’re found in warm-temperate and tropical seas, but Ningaloo Reef is considered the most reliable spot to find them, when they congregate to feed off the coral spawn April through late June.

Although listed as “vulnerable to extinction,” enabling the public to swim with whale sharks is an incredibly effective way to promote education about the species, as well as aid researchers. In Australia, the animals are protected under the Wildlife Conservation Act, and Conservation and Land Management Act. Swims are strictly regulated by the Department of Environment and Conservation, including how many swimmers are allowed in the water at one time (10), and how far they must remain from the sharks (16 feet, and behind the pectoral fins). A spotter plane is used to locate the sharks, which are usually found up to several miles offshore.

Whale sharks have a pattern of spots marking their bodies that is distinct to each animal. At Ningaloo, swimmers are encouraged to use non-flash photography to capture the spot patterns behind their gills, and note any scars or other unusual features to help scientists track migratory patterns and keep a census.

It’s been a longtime goal of mine to swim with whale sharks, so when I found out an assignment in Australia coincided with their migration, I made arrangements to fly up to Ningaloo, via Learmonth Airport outside of Exmouth. Exmouth isn’t so much a town as it is a tourist pit-stop/marina in the midst of an arid, scrubby landscape of flat red earth and termite mounds, and approximately a bajillion emus, wallabies, and kangaroos. It’s a place of eerie, desolate beauty, and a stark contrast to the turquoise waters of the reef. Don’t expect to find anything to do besides swim, fish, dive, snorkel, and enjoy the scenery. For that reason, I’d recommend staying in one of the backpackers or campgrounds outside of town. All of the snorkel and dive boat outfitters will pick you up at your accommodation, regardless of where you’re staying.

I had my swim arranged as part of a package offered by Sal Salis, a two-year-old, tented, luxury eco-camp an hour south of Exmouth. The property is in the dunes just off the beach; my epic snorkel occurred right offshore. Sal Salis works exclusively with Ocean Eco Adventures to charter full-day, 16-passenger whale shark swims/reef snorkeling. Once onboard, we were issued wetsuits and snorkeling gear, and taken for a test swim to assess our abilities.

We were given explicit instructions on how to enter the water behind our guide, and the protocol for swimming with the sharks. After an “all-clear,” we were free to break away from the group and swim on the far (right) side of the sharks. Fortunately, my group consisted of a couple of kids and their parents, which meant they tagged behind the guide, in the shark’s wake. I was literally able to swim on my own. I should add that while slow-moving, keeping pace with a 25-foot shark for distances up to a mile (I asked) is no small feat. Even with fins on, I had to power swim using a combination sidestroke the entire way, so I could watch the shark while keeping out of range of its thrashing tail.

The exertion was well worth the effort. I’m a spiritually bankrupt sort, but swimming alongside such a magnificent animal is the closest I’ve ever come to a religious experience. There is simply no way to describe the feeling of being alone with a whale shark, in the blue gloom of the open ocean. The accompanying high of pushing myself to my physical limits added to my euphoria. Watching the sharks dive, trailing a clump of hitchhiking remoras from their pale underbellies, and disappear into the murky depths is the most beautiful, haunting thing I’ve ever seen.

By day’s end, we’d had four separate swims: two shorter runs beside smaller sharks (12 to 15-footers), the last two as described above. The boat had also been surrounded by a “super pod” of spinner dolphins that entertained us with their aerial acrobatics. It’s expensive (depending upon the operator and if you observe, snorkel, or dive, expect to spend at least $265/pp) but it’s one of those once-in-a-lifetime experiences that has no equal. Just to make sure, I’m already saving up for the next time.
If you’d like to adopt a whale shark to aid with research costs, check out ECOCEAN.

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[Video courtesy of Rolex Awards for Enterprise and ECOCEAN]