To see the night sky as our ancestors did for millions of years, photographers and stargazers make the 45-minute drive up the coast to Pigeon Point Lighthouse, where Jeff Parry has dimmed the lights.
Parry, a member of the Santa Cruz chapter of the International Dark-Sky Association (IDA), has lived at Pigeon Point, where he manages a hostel, for 21 years. The irony that a lighthouse has become a dark sky destination does not escape him.
“You’ve got to know that there’s a little bit too much light pollution if the lighthouse keeper is like, ‘hey, let’s think about how we use our light,’” he tells me on my recent overnight stay.
The idea to go dark—aside from the lighthouse’s flashes of light every 10 seconds—occurred to him three years ago, when he invited the Santa Cruz Astronomy Club up to the annual Sleep for Peace event that marks the birthday of the United Nations the week of Sept. 25. For years, Parry says they put a note on everyone’s pillow that said “Sleep for peace. Please talk to someone about peace.”
The event evolved when Parry learned there was a movement within the U.N. called Star Peace Project, where nations would throw star parties on border towns with other countries that they were traditionally hostile toward. “They would have these parties, and then they were going to look at this deep-sky object together,” Parry says. “The whole purpose was to show that in reality, there are no borders. It’s a boundless universe. And I just thought that was a revolutionary notion.”
Parry, who is also a photographer, says digital cameras, along with sharing on Instagram and Flickr, have made Pigeon Point a popular destination. On new moon nights in the summer when there isn’t cloud coverage, like the one I got to experience on my visit, there are several photographers setting up to capture the Milky Way and do star-trail-producing time-lapse photography of the night sky.
With his new 12-inch aperture reflector Dobsonian telescope, Parry shows me the Hercules cluster, a spectacular cluster of 200 galaxies some 500 million light years away in the constellation Hercules. For the first time, I see the rings around Saturn, and I am starstruck.
Parry notes that people tell him they sleep really well here, and he credits the low light environment that kicks in the body’s natural sleep response. Better sleep is one of the many benefits of reducing light pollution.
Dr. Carrie Partch, a professor of chemistry and biochemistry at UCSC who researches the genetic mechanisms of circadian rhythms, is discovering that our recent shift toward bringing the day into the night through artificial light is affecting biology at the cellular and molecular levels, which she says can result in metabolic diseases, cancer, and reproductive issues for all life forms.
Parry notices fewer people staying up all night compared to when he had the cool bright light throughout the hostel. “I didn’t know. I thought I wanted to have the brightest light possible to be the safest light, but really, your eyes adjust if you give it a bit of a chance,” he says.
IDA offers guidelines on creating a dark-sky environment, and there is an official designation for dark-sky parks that has not yet been awarded to Pigeon Point Lighthouse. An important step Parry has taken toward that end, though, is to shield the outdoor lights so they are directed at the ground rather than shining into the sky or the ocean. Parry also replaced cool bright lights with less damaging warmer hues of yellow and red, which light pollution activists note is a design challenge since city planners typically find cool light more attractive.
One of the draws to Pigeon Point is the private hot tub overlooking the ocean that is only available to hostel guests in half-hour intervals. Parry has included signage by the hot tub to encourage people to turn off the lights, a suggestion that may not occur to guests, but greatly improves the experience.
The signage runs throughout the hostel as well, and Parry has noticed that where there is more aggressive signage, visitors are more likely to turn off lights when not in use, or at least close the curtains to prevent the light from seeping out the window. The hostel has an educational mission—and Parry’s got his work cut out for him, because only a small portion of visitors know they are staying at Hosteling International’s only dark-sky location.
Lisa Heschong, an IDA member who organized the “UCSC Original Thinkers: Earth Night” event in April that brought together speakers like Partch and the SKYGLOW timelapse photographer Harun Mehmedinovic, wonders when awareness about the benefits of protecting the night sky is going to hit. “The biology is beginning to accumulate,” she says. “The question is how do we translate that into public policy?”
Heschong was instrumental in helping develop the State Energy Code in 2006. It specifies different lighting zones for low-light natural areas to high levels of light for urban entertainment districts. How aggressively the city follows the codes is up to the political will of Santa Cruz residents, though.
She says we can look down the coast to Malibu, which recently passed a dark-sky ordinance, as an example. Pepperdine University in Malibu is working on campus dark-sky design guidelines as well.
According to Steven H.D. Haddock of Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Center, 76 percent of ocean marine organisms observed offshore of California are capable of bioluminescence, so artificial light is a direct threat to them. Squid boats, which can be seen this time of year off the coast, provide a particular danger to marine life confused by the bright light.
As Santa Cruz moves toward a more walk-and-bike-friendly infrastructure, Heschong says we will have to reconsider lighting. While the new technology of LED lighting provides more control and saves energy, the cool, bright light it puts off increases light pollution—and the impacts, while subtle, are far-reaching. Heschong compares the symptoms to jet lag or seasonal affective disorder.
The problem, Heschong says, is that humans love light. “It’s bright and shiny. We are inherently attracted to light as daytime creatures. We think it makes us happy, but we forget to notice it’s making us unhealthy,” she says. “It has profound widespread biological impacts, but it’s very easy to fix. Just turn off the lights.”