Watch: Kiwis on flight to sub-Antarctica wowed by spectacular light show

Author
Kurt Bayer, NZ Herald,
Publish Date
Sun, 21 Mar 2021, 2:56PM

Watch: Kiwis on flight to sub-Antarctica wowed by spectacular light show

Author
Kurt Bayer, NZ Herald,
Publish Date
Sun, 21 Mar 2021, 2:56PM

A special night-time tourist flight to Antarctica to view the Aurora Australis natural light phenomenon has been deemed a "spectacular" success.

More than 250 travel-starved Kiwis boarded an Air New Zealand plane in Christchurch yesterday for the ten-hour round trip.

With overseas holidays and other jet-setting jaunts ruled out by Covid-19, "aurora hunters" flocked to book a $1200-plus seat – and up to $6995 – on the chartered flight.

Many on the unique trip had travelled from across the country for what they felt was a "flight of a lifetime" and "bucket list" experience.

The Aurora Australis – and its more famous northern hemisphere equivalent, the Aurora Borealis – are the result of particles in the solar winds colliding with gases in the Earth's atmosphere, captured by the planet's magnetic field.

Beautiful scenes captured by a passenger on the 'flight of a life time.' Photo / Supplied

Beautiful scenes captured by a passenger on the 'flight of a life time.' Photo / Supplied

The particles converge and become visible in dazzling light shows, with ribbons of green, red, and pink, close to the Earth's poles.

Last night, after experiencing the now rare activity of checking in and boarding an international flight, passengers on the Air New Zealand Boeing 787 Dreamliner didn't have to wait long for the natural light show in the skies.

The first sightings came within 20 minutes of leaving Christchurch - much sooner than expected – and expensive cameras with special lens were whipped out alongside zooming smartphones to try and capture the incredible images.

In a highly-unusual aviation act, the cabin lights and plane's external beacons were killed as the flight went into "stealth mode".

The in-flight entertainment system was also pulled, with the darkness helping passengers pick up the auroras more clearly.

Leading astronomer Dr Ian Griffin, who was on board the flight along with other expert astronomers to help explain the auroras, told passengers how cameras were in fact "about 100 times better" at detecting colour than human eyes.

With the naked eye it was spectacular enough, with black-and-grey gas clouds banking the star-splattered heavens, wispy clouds of light shapeshifting slowly into angular lines, skyscraper stacks, or cavalier impressionistic brush-strokes. It's easy to see how auroras gained mystical qualities over the centuries.

But the camera lens were soon capturing vivid green action, with broad skies washed in luminescence.

Snapped shots were shared about.

"Oh wow, there it is."

"This is epic," one aurora chaser gasped. "You can really see the greens now."

A seat-swap system ensured everyone got clear window views.

Passenger from the flight's window seat capturing spectacular views. Photo / Supplied

Passenger from the flight's window seat capturing spectacular views. Photo / Supplied

With the astronomers in contact with the pilots, directing them along the best flight path south, they looped around the best aurora viewing zones, zig-zagging over the Southern Ocean, close to the White Continent.

After ten hours, the plane returned to its take-off destination and landed in the early hours of this morning.

A tired but buzzing crowd disembarked.

For Janene Garnett, who travelled with her husband Dave from Hastings for the experience, it was a bucket-list item ticked off.

"It was really special," she said afterwards.

"It's not something you'd do every week but Mother Nature really turned it on for us."

It lived up to her lofty expectations, leaving her stunned by the aurora's shifting lights, describing them as "magical" and "mystical".

Griffin was also beaming. "It's been really active tonight… incredibly active," he said.

He was also surprised to witness so much activity so far north.

"We are blessed to see it," said Griffin, adding it had been a "spectacular night".

Rachel Williams of Viva Expeditions who partnered with Air New Zealand to offer the flights said: "The aurora really put on a show for us."

Viva are now preparing for another flight tonight – and then again on May 15 and August 7, with 500 people already on the waiting list.