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Before the sun’s glow completely vanishes from Harkers Island, our neighboring planet Venus appears as if a light switch was flipped on 24 million miles away. It’s not always easy

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Before the sun’s glow completely vanishes from Harkers Island, our neighboring planet Venus appears as if a light switch was flipped on 24 million miles away. It’s not always easy

At Cape Lookout Lighthouse, Darkness Shines

The Cape Lookout Lighthouse at night

Before the sun’s glow completely vanishes from Harkers Island, our neighboring planet Venus appears as if a light switch was flipped on 24 million miles away. It’s not always easy to spot, but a group of dedicated stargazers locates the tiny speck of light instantly as they set up 14 telescopes at the Cape Lookout National Seashore visitor center. They’ve invited the public to experience one of the darkest skies in the state — and on the country’s Atlantic coastline. It’s the Crystal Coast Stargazers’ second annual Star Party, a celebration of Cape Lookout National Seashore’s official International Dark Sky Park certification in 2021.

One stargazer with windswept hair and crescent moon earrings is eagerly setting up her telescope. Vermadel Nienstedt has awaited this weekend for months. She’s one of the stargazers who helped apply for grants to spread the word, invited NASA scientists to speak, and reached out to every stargazing group in the state. “I started praying for the weather a long time ago,” she says. “I told the preacher one day in church, I said, ‘Patton prayed for good weather for battle.’ Then I think, ‘Forgive me for praying for good weather!’”

Vermadel Nienstedt photograph by Baxter Miller

She and her husband, Jimmy, aim their telescope west, just above the Core Sound Waterfowl Museum & Heritage Center. As night settles in, cars fill the nearby parking lot, and small lines begin to form at each telescope. For a moment, Nienstedt leaves her station and walks through the maze of stargazers. She stops by fellow stargazer Bob Harrison, who’s guiding his laser pointer in a circle around a faraway object that looks like dust in the sky.

“Who wants to see a galaxy?” Harrison asks. The small boy in front of him can barely contain himself. “I want to see a galaxy!” the child exclaims. Banks, a 5-year-old from nearby Davis, leaps toward the telescope. He lines his eye according to Harrison’s instructions, and the boy’s expression takes on a look of wonder as the cluster of stars and planets comes into focus.

It’s nearly a new moon, which is the perfect time of the month for stargazing — weather permitting — because the moon is a natural source of light pollution and can drown out nearby stars. But seasoned stargazers like these know that the moon is important for people to see, too.

The boy’s expression takes on a look of wonder as the cluster of stars and planets comes into focus.

“I once had a woman cry from seeing the moon through my scope,” Brandon Porter says as he adjusts his telescope beside Nienstedt’s. Porter, an active member of the Crystal Coast Stargazers and one of five NASA Solar System Ambassadors in the group, has pointed his scope just south of Nienstedt’s to show visitors the Orion nebula. As the famous Greek hunter reveals himself, Porter points to the nebula, below Orion’s Belt. “When it gets really dark,” he says, “we can see the edge of the Milky Way.”

But it’s already really dark. So dark that you can barely see your hand if you hold it in front of you. So dark that the stargazers’ laser pointers look like they hit planets. So dark that you can see the curvature of the earth as stars drape down toward the sea.

• • •

Before dark skies became a modern luxury, they were a problem, one that cost many their lives. The Cape Lookout Lighthouse was first built in 1812 on the southernmost tip of Core Banks, not too far from popular ports like Morehead City and Beaufort.

Since the 17th century, merchants and sailors in the whaling and fishing industries had navigated these waters to reach settlements like Diamond City on Shackleford Banks, where salted mullet was a coveted export. Others were forced to maneuver the banks to seek protection from storms. All crews faced the same dangers as they approached the narrow strips of sand between Ocracoke and Beaufort inlets: deadly shoals, unforgiving currents, and unpredictable weather conditions.

A 1590 map of Cape Lookout named this area Promontorium tremendum, which translates to “horrible headland” or “cape terrible.” Without a guiding light to see where they were or what lay ahead of them, countless ships ran aground just miles from the coast.

The original 107-foot octagonal lighthouse was too short and too dim, so a second was built in 1859, and it still stands today.

In 1804, Congress allocated money for a lighthouse “near the pitch of Cape Lookout.” The original 107-foot octagonal lighthouse was too short and too dim, so a second was built in 1859, and it still stands today. The light brought clarity and safety to mariners who used the Labrador and Gulf Stream currents along with the stars to find their way into North Carolina.

“For thousands of years, people have been connected to the night sky,” says Nate Toering, the chief of interpretation and education at Cape Lookout National Seashore. “Constellations [were used] for navigational purposes.” With the lighthouse and the stars guiding them, seafarers could access the coast without risking their lives.

Over the years, however, the world around Cape Lookout brightened, and a new threat came to light. This time, it was the darkness that needed saving.

• • •

Nienstedt is a Down East native, and a proud one at that. Her mother, originally from Williston, moved to Beaufort when she met Nienstedt’s father, who owned Peterson’s Grocery & Meat Market.

As a child, Nienstedt would peer up at the stars, never thinking anything of how rare it would become to see so many. She assumed that hers was the sky that everyone saw at night. It wasn’t until she moved away from Carteret County to Columbia, South Carolina, that she realized that not all night skies are created equal. “I can appreciate it more now, after having lived ‘off,’ as we say here,” she says.

At dusk, Crystal Coast Stargazers set up their telescopes at Cape Lookout

Nienstedt and her fellow Crystal Coast Stargazers meet at various locations throughout the month to enjoy the night sky together. Cape Lookout, which they helped get certified as a Dark Sky Park, is a favorite spot. photograph by Baxter Miller

Whenever she and her husband traveled, they’d always visit an observatory or planetarium and explore different night skies across the country. “I think that might be a leftover baby boomer [thing], as we came through the ’60s and [watched] the moon missions,” she says. When the couple retired, they moved back home and, with their newfound free time, decided to take up stargazing regularly. They joined the Crystal Coast Stargazers and began visiting Cape Lookout each month during the new moon.

On one of those outings, beneath thousands of stars, the group’s president made a bold assertion: I think we can get this place Dark Sky-certified. Bold because there are only 86 International Dark Sky Parks in the United States. Bold because it takes years to get a park certified. Bold because in the 23 years that DarkSky International has been recognizing dark skies, no place along the Atlantic Seaboard has ever been dark enough to achieve certification. But people who spend their free time looking at galaxies and faraway planets aren’t afraid of uncharted territory.

• • •

Unlike Nienstedt, Nate Toering grew up across the country in densely populated southern California. As a child, whenever he looked up at the night sky, he’d see one or two stars, if he was lucky. He knew there was more to discover out there, and he set off to find it. He began a career in park services and went from northern California to Alaska to Moores Creek National Battlefield in Pender County. He came to Cape Lookout in 2017 to lead a team of volunteers giving lighthouse tours.

Sometimes on the job, while preparing for the season’s start, Toering would sleep in the keepers’ quarters on Cape Lookout near the lighthouse. Around 4 a.m. on one of his overnight stays, he headed to the water and took a seat in the sand. It was nearly pitch black, but he knew that he was the only one on the beach for miles.

“You can hear the waves coming and crashing in front of you,” he says. “There’s very minimal trees or terrain or anything to block your vision, and you just see stars in every direction.” Way out there, when the conditions are right, you can see the haze of the Milky Way hang in the sky.

As the world around Cape Lookout brightened, it was the darkness that needed saving.

When the Crystal Coast Stargazers reached out to the park’s superintendent, Jeff West, with their mission to get Cape Lookout certified, West, Toering, and the rest of the park staff were immediately on board. Over the next two years, park staff and the stargazers measured and documented the darkness in the park from all angles.

Toering and Nienstedt spent hours in a golf cart, wheeling around Harkers Island, armed with a list of every single light in the 56 miles of seashore. They even climbed ladders to inspect lights on buildings. Lights that weren’t DarkSky-approved were replaced or taken down. Dim red lights are used throughout the park to illuminate paths during nighttime events, and the stargazers have adapted similar lights to mark the tripods for their telescopes to limit artificial light.

After the park went through a complete light renovation, Nienstedt made the rounds in Carteret County, sharing the story of how the park and the stargazers came together to achieve the first International Dark Sky Park certification on the Atlantic — and why that matters.

Members of the Crystal Coast Stargazers observe the night sky at Cape Lookout

The Crystal Coast Stargazers are well-versed in dark-sky etiquette: Red light, rather than white, helps people see where they’re going while preserving their night vision — and helps reduce light pollution. photograph by Baxter Miller

Marine life on the coast relies on the darkness for survival. Turtle hatchlings can’t find their way to the ocean from their beach nests if the sky is too bright. Light pollution can negatively impact the ability of some bat species to consume their steady diet of mosquitoes. More than 250 bird species have been found at the park, and those that migrate at night, like plover, have trouble navigating light-polluted skies.

“There’s a lot of small sea life that feed along the shores at night,” Nienstedt says. “So when it’s too bright, first of all, it messes up their day/night cycles, and second of all, they come out, and they’re easily seen by prey and wiped out.”

Nienstedt and park staff like Toering share this information with the public and, through events like the Star Party, invite them to come experience the darkness for themselves.

• • •

Tonight, Venus’s glow grows stronger as the Star Party carries on. Countless specks of light fill the sky above the group, which is gathered at the edge of Back Sound. Four miles south, the flickering light from Cape Lookout doesn’t rotate as it used to. It was just seven years ago that the lighthouse received LED lighting and became solar-powered, the first in North Carolina to make the switch, saving the park energy and reducing the light’s range by 10 nautical miles.

Between exclamations from visitors peering into scopes, a silent sense of wonder and awe spreads over the crowd. Although they’ve all gathered to celebrate a national recognition, it’s like everyone here is sharing in a coastal secret. One that generations of sailors discovered while following the light of Cape Lookout. One that Nienstedt grew up with and returned to. One that Toering traveled hundreds of miles for. And one that Porter has seen bring people to tears. From where these stargazers stand, the future is bright.

Cape Lookout Lighthouse
Harkers Island Visitor Center

1800 Island Road
Harkers Island, NC 28531
(252) 728-2250

This story was published on May 14, 2024

Katie Kane

Katie Kane is the assistant editor at Our State.