The skies come alive when the sun goes down over the Caribbean Sea. The absence of big-city light pollution makes the region ideal for the moon- and Milky Way-watching, stargazing, planet peeping and constellation sightings. Plus, the Caribbean’s southerly location, between the Tropic of Cancer and the Equator, makes it possible to see constellations not as easily visible from other global locations. Here are three ways to enjoy the tropical night sky:
1. Gaze on Your Own. Mountaintops, deserted beaches and scenic overlooks not lit up at night or out on the sea cruising are all great vantage points for a heavenly sight-see. There are many resources, but www.timeanddate.com/astronomy/night/ is a good site where you can type your location in the Caribbean and find out what planets, possible eclipses, moon phases, and sunrises and sunsets are visible from your vantage point at a particular day and time. Another fun find is to watch the International Space Station orbit overhead. Real-time tracking points from over 20 Caribbean islands are located at NASA’s spotthestation.nasa.gov. It’s easy to spot because it zips like the lights of a plane across the night sky whereas the stars appear stationary.
2. Visit an Observatory. There are a few observatories in the Caribbean. These are all open to the public at scheduled times, and after temporary closures for COVID, will resume their astronomical events. One of these is the Dr. Wm. Hrudey Observatory opened in 2021 at the University College of the Cayman Islands campus. There’s a custom 8-inch Solar Newton scope designed and built by the late doctor, and plans are underway for a larger 12-inch size.
“The Observatory currently is used mainly for solar observations,” says Bryan Cubas, marketing intern. “Beyond the observatory, the most frequently used places with the astronomy groups are Pedro’s Castle, Spots Dock, the Bluff in Cayman Brac and Public Beach (Seven Mile Beach). The beach location has had its lighting at night converted to red to make night-time observation easier.”
The Etelman Observatory, located at an elevation of 1325-feet on St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands’ Crown Mountain, houses a fully automated, robotically controlled, queue-driven 0.5m research-grade Cassegrain telescope. Astronomers from the University of the Virgin Islands, College of Charleston and South Carolina State University operate the program.
“We will soon go back to hosting open houses at the observatory free to the St. Thomas public. Plus, we will also be opening to visitors. We are developing the capacity to open during the day for tours of the facility and may also be open to evening events for visitors in the future,” says David Morris, Ph.D., an assistant physics professor at UVI and observatory director.
In Barbados, there’s the Harry Bayley Observatory in Clapham, St. Michael, where the 1963-opened facility has recently been equipped with a 16-inch Meade telescope and a Lunt 80 mm solar telescope.
“We are generally open every Friday night from 8 to 10 p.m. During this time, we give a 20-minute presentation, then a brief laser tour of the night sky, before going to the telescope. Our best months for viewing the sky are January to March as the atmosphere is clearer during that time,” says the observatory’s Laura Farnum.
3. Go with a Group. Island-based astronomy associations and national parks often, barring current COVID restrictions, host public events. Websites will list what is happening and when.
“For public events, we try our best to find a sufficiently dark but safe open space that is easily accessible via public transportation. A few of our members bring along their telescopes and allow others to look through as we search for different objects that are visible at the time. We also host pop up events, for example, one we had in a large cinema car park, where members of the public can join in the stargazing fun as they pass by,” says Cheyenne Polius, an island native who holds a master’s degree in astrophysics and co-founded the St. Lucia National Astronomy Association.
Polius recommends stargazing in St. Lucia in the summer as that is when the Milky Way is visible. Beyond this, good night sky viewing locations are Moule a Chique (a scenic point in Vieux Fort), Pigeon Island National Park, and ‘the Moon’ in Cap Estate (scenic point in Gros Islet).
The Curacao Astronomy Club has also led group stargazing.
“One of the best places to view the sky at night is in Watamula, on the westernmost end of the island,” says Kwinsley Michel, a Club member.
On St. John, U.S. Virgin Islands, the Virgin Islands National Park hosts a Night Sky Program from November through June each Wednesday at 8 a.m. at Peace Hill.
On clear, moonless nights, it is easy to pick out the Milky Way, and patient stargazers will be rewarded with visible meteors every 15 to 20 minutes on average. If one knows where to point them, simple binoculars can reveal distant galaxies, nebulae, star clusters, and more. There is neither a fee to attend, nor is there a need to sign up in advance,” invites Mark Lightfoot, who leads the program.