hoopers Inlet star trails


So you want to view the October 8th Lunar Eclipse?

Tomorrow evening, Wednesday October 8th, Otago stargazers will have, weather permitting, a front row seat for a splendid celestial spectacle when we get to see the second total eclipse of the moon this year.

Unfortunately, for those of us living in New Zealand’s South Island, this year’s earlier eclipse, which took place on the evening of 15th April was a bit of a washout (as can be seen from the picture below which was the best shot I managed to get on a mostly wet and cloudy evening).

A rather poor picture of the April 15th Lunar Eclipse, taken through thick clouds by me!

From a scientific perspective, Eclipses of the moon are neither rare, nor are they particularly important. However, what Lunar eclipses lack in potential for cutting edge science they certainly have extraordinary visual beauty in abundance; in my opinion a lunar eclipse is one of Nature’s great wonders and offers anyone interested in the night sky a wonderful way to spend an evening

Lunar eclipses occur when Earth passes directly between the Sun and the Moon. Over the course of a couple of hours the Earth’s shadow crosses the lunar surface, slowly reducing the amount of sunlight, eventually cutting off direct sunlight entirely during the deepest part of the eclipse. At that time, the moon can dim considerably and take on a menacing red/orange hue, sometimes likened to blood (hence the term “blood moon” ) In ancient times, a lunar eclipse was a scary thing to behold; and while in this day and age we understand the reasons for an eclipse, seeing the moon fade dramatically over a few hours still remains an awesome sight!

No special equipment is needed to see the eclipse. Your own eyes, a few blankets, a comfortable chair and some good company are all that is required.

The eclipse officially begins at 9:15 pm on October 8th, when the bright full moon enters the lighter part of the earth's shadow, called the penumbra. In the pictures below, I try and show what you might see; these pictures are ones I took during an eclipse in March 2007.


However, it won’t be until 10:14pm that the best part of the eclipse will begin, when the Earth's dark shadow (called the umbra) becomes visible on the lunar surface as a steadily growing dark “bite” on one side of the moon.


For the next hour the earth’s dark shadow will noticeably change the moon's visual appearance as it slowly creeps across the lunar disc.


By 11:25pm the moon will be totally eclipsed, and for just under an hour it will hang, blood red, against the relatively sparse starry backdrop of the constellation Pisces as you can see below

A simulation of the sky as it will appear mid eclipse at 11:54pm on 8th October

Here’s a picture I took during the total phase of an eclipse back in 2007, which shows how the moon might look at this time through a telescope

Picture of an eclipse I obtained through a 14 inch telescope in 2007

At 12:24 am early in the morning of Thursday october 9th, the total part of the eclipse will end, and slowly, over the next two hours, the moon will regain its normal lustre; it leaves the Earth’s dark shadow at 1:24am and the eclipse will end at 2:34am.

An eclipse like this occurs when Earth passes between the sun and the moon. As a result, direct light from the sun is cut off and the moon is lit only by sunlight passing through the Earth's atmosphere.

What would you see on the moon?
Lunar eclipses are wonderful for earthbound astronomers, but what would you see if you were on, or near the moon? An astronaut standing on the moon on Wednesday night would see the sun disappear, and the night side of the Earth would be surrounded by a red ring created by the simultaneous visibility of all the world's sunsets and sunrises. Unfortunately no astronaut has ever been on the lunar surface during an eclipse, but we do have pictures from a couple of space probes. This is a picture from Surveyor 3, a robot spacecraft that landed on the moon in April 1967. It managed to take a picture of that month’s Lunar eclipse, and here it is (albeit a bit blurry!) You can see the “ring” of sunsets quite well.
Lunar eclipse from the moon as seen by Survey 3 spacecraft in 1967

In 1969, on their way back from the second lunar landing, the Apollo 12 astronauts flew through the Earth’s shadow during their return from the moon and they too obtained some stunning pictures. My favourite is this one below, showing the sun emerging from the edge of the earth. I’m sure this is the kind of view that will thrill moon bound astronomers lucky enough to see it!
Apollo 12 image of sun emerging from behind the Earth.

interestingly there is a link between Surveyor 3, and Apollo 12; since Apollo 12 landed right next to the landing site of the robotic spacecraft and even brought back some parts of it to Earth. It’s funny to think that both craft shared an “interest” in eclipses too!

Studying earth’s atmosphere using eclipses
Lunar eclipses therefore give us great insight into how much dust there is in the earth’s atmosphere, since during the total phase of the eclipse, the only light that reaches the moon has to pass through the earth’s atmosphere.

Back in December 1992, there was another total eclipse of the moon. On that occasion the moon became hard to see, and wonderful variations in colour and intensity were visible.

These effects were caused by clouds of dust high in the Earth's atmosphere filtering the sun's light en route to the moon. The dust came from large volcanic eruption that occurred a few months before the eclipse from Mount Pinatubo in the Phillipines. There have been no recent large volcanic eruptions (but there have been several smaller ones), so this month's eclipse is not expected to be quite as remarkable as that of 1992, but the only way we know what will happen is to look!

Photographing Wednesday’ night’s eclipse
If you want to photograph the moon, you can get some lovely pictures using simple cameras. As long as your camera has the ability to take a long exposure, you should be able to get some decent pictures. If you have a wide angle lens, then a time lapse sequence showing the phases of the eclipse and the change in brightness of the moon is relatively simple to obtain; set your camera up, carefully focus on the moon and snap away throughout the eclipse. 10 second exposures every minute or so when combined using a freeware programme like Starstax will look awesome! At mid eclipse the moon will be roughly North, so at the start of the night remember to centre your camera not where the moon is when you set up, but due North, so you can capture the entire eclipse.

Close ups of the moon showing the eclipse in more detail are cool. To get pictures like the one I took above you will need a relatively long telephoto lens (probably at least 200mm in length is best) and if you use a tripod, you will have to use a relatively short exposure to avoid “blurring” the moon. High ISO (>1600) and as fast a shutter speed as possible would be best.

If you have a tracking mount (I do!) then set your camera up on top and just snap away during the course of the eclipse. Have fun!

One of the best things about astronomy, is that anything can happen. Who knows if the sky will be clear, who knows what colour the moon will be mid eclipse, and who knows how dark it will be. The only way to find out is to look! For this reason, and because I simply love watching eclipses anyway, I shall be sitting somewhere (hopefully cloud free) in Otago on Wednesday night with my cameras, my telescope, some warm clothing, some hot tea and much anticipation. I hope we get a grand show!


Some recent astronomical observations

After several months of relatively cloudy sky here in Dunedin, the past couple of weeks has seen a distinct improvement in the weather. Because of this I have been able to fire up my telescope and camera systems to try and take some more pictures of the sky.


The Moon, 7th February 2014 taken using my 100mm refractor, using Canon 6D camera. Exposure 1/40th second, F9 ASA 1600.


My first astronomical experiences in Dunedin

Since moving to Dunedin in New Zealand in late May, I have been extraordinarily impressed by both the lack of light pollution near the city, and by several amazing displays of the Aurora Australis. I have also started to re-discover my love of astronomy,
inspired by the beautiful southern hemisphere night sky.

On Saturday 1st June, my son Gus and I decided to go for a walk to the local beach some 500m from our house in St. Clair. Luckily I took my camera along, and when we got to the beach, I was excited to see a full blown display of the aurora in progress.


Six days later, on Friday 6th June, another Aurora was visible at second beach.
A 30 second exposure of the Aurora taken using a Canon Digital Rebel camera with a standard 18-55mm lens.

I was so excited I decided to drive to a dark sky site, this time south of Brighton Otago where the display faded, but the night sky was superb. Here’s a picture I shot just after I arrived
Same camera, same lens, but from dark sky site, south of Brighton Otago.

Roughly one month later, again during the dark of the moon, another auroral display summoned me to Brighton
This time clouds were a problem, but the display got better and better so I stuck around...

IMG_0414Despite the clouds, the display was very active, and a number of bands became visible near the horizon.

The green colour of this display was particularly impressive, and I took a number of pictures using some plants in the foreground.

Another few days, and another aurora, this one on the 11th July. which was very active, with lots of bands racing across the sky.


In short I am loving the night sky here in Dunedin, it’s amazing. Stay tuned for more pictures soon.

Why are the pintle & gudgeon from HMS Bounty at the Otago Museum?

A Museum Detective Story

When I first visited the Otago Museum earlier this year, one of the exhibits that immediately fascinated me was the collection or artefacts from HMS Bounty which can be found in our Pacific Cultures gallery.

The artefacts include a number of small items such as nails and a small ballast stone, but the collection also includes a large copper pintle and gudgeon, part of the ships rudder.

Objects from HMS Bounty on display in the Otago Museum

Being English, I am of course very familiar with the story of the mutiny on HMS Bounty. Bounty was a ship under the command of Captain William Bligh, on a mission to carry breadfruit plants from Tahiti to the West Indies.

On 28th April 1789 Fletcher Christian seized command of the Bounty, set Captain William Bligh adrift. Christian eventually settled with his rebellious crewmates on Pitcairn Island. The Bounty itself was destroyed by the mutineers on 23rd January 1790 and sank off the coast of Pitcairn Island in a place which is still called Bounty Bay.

I remember when I first saw the Bounty Collection, wondering why on earth a museum in Dunedin had bits of the Bounty, but, as with all things, that question hung in my mind and wasn’t answered immediately, as other priorities took hold (in defence of my apparent lack of curiosity, I was moving job and changing country during this period!)

A few weeks ago, the Otago Museum (of which I am now the Director) was visited by the British High Commissioner to New Zealand, Vicki Treadell. In researching her role prior to her visit, I noted that in addition to her duties as High Commissioner, she is also Governor of the Pitcairn Islands and thus thought it would be a great idea to show her the relics from the Bounty, and a rather nice Moai (human stone figure) which is also from Pitcairn, and also on display in the Museum’s Pacific Cultures gallery.

Human Figure from Pitcairn Island

Of course when Vicki visited the Museum, I took her to the gallery, showed her the relics from the Bounty and the Moai, and of course her first question was “why do you have these objects in your collection?”. Of course I couldn’t answer the question, and resolved to find out. In passing I would also note that Vicki was probably also asking why, given a law forbidding the removal of Cultural Objects

My first stop was with one of the Collections team at the Museum, Moira White. Moira agreed to search our Collections Management System and see what documentation we have about the Bounty Relics and Moai.

This is where things started to get interesting.

All Moira could initially find was a letter from W.R.B. Oliver, the Director of the Dominion Museum in Wellington (now called Te Papa) referring to an attached letter from Parkin Christian which unfortunately was not attached and was missing from our files.
Oliver to Skinner[4]

Letter from Director of Dominion Museum to Director of Otago Museum, 8th March 1935

Who was Parkin Christian and why was he writing to the Dominion Museum and offering bits of the Bounty? Why not write to Museums in England, or the Admiralty, who actually still owned the Bounty? And why didn’t the Dominion Museum want the objects? The mystery deepened!

Moira also found in our files a copy of a letter dated 8th August 1935
from the Director of the Otago Museum, H.D. Skinner to the New Zealand Missionary College in Longburn (now known as the Longburn Adventist college) referring to a payment of 20 pounds for the pintle and gudgeon, but making payment to the College, rather than Parkin Christian…

Letter from HD Skinner to NZ Missionary College, August 1935

So the mystery became even deeper; why was the Museum paying a Missionary College for the material?

My research now took two separate approaches.

First I did some internet research to see if I could try and find out more about Parkin Christian and other relics from the Bounty.

Secondly, on a hunch, I wrote to the archivists at each of the other major Museums in New Zealand to see if they could help with a more complete copy of the original correspondence from WRB Oliver (I assumed that a copy of Parkin’s letter would have been sent to both Auckland and Canterbury Museums as well as Otago, so I emailed Te Papa, Auckland and Canterbury to see if they could help).

Parkin Christian
Sometimes, google can be your best friend, and on this occasion it really helped. It turns out that there is a wealth of information about Pitcairn online and simply googling “Parkin Christian” revealed a lot! During the course of my research, I also discovered the Pitcairn Island Study Centre at Pacific Union College (and it’s Director Herbert Ford turned out to be a particularly useful source of information!)

Parkin Christian

My research revealed that Charles Richard Parkin Christian was a prominent resident of Pitcairn. He was born on 27th November 1883 as the third of nine children. His Parents were Francis Hickson Christian and Eunice Jane Lawrence Young. Parkin himself married Rosalind Eliza Butler, and together they had three children, a daughter Lorena (born in 1910 but who died a few days after birth), another daughter Marjorie, born in 1912, and a third child, their son Richard, born in 1915 (remember Richard as he becomes a key player in the story later!)

Parkin was a very important member of the Pitcairn Community, serving as coxswain of one of the Island boats for many years, and also eight terms as Island Magistrate (equivalent to Mayor of the Island).

Most importantly, internet research revealed that Parkin Christian was the person who, in the early 1930’s found and recovered the rudder from the Bounty, which had been on the ocean floor in Bounty Bay since the ship was burned and sunk by the mutineers.

Herb Ford provided me with a copy of an article from the Australasian Record, of the Australian Division of the Seventh Day Adventist faith from May 28th 1934 tells the story of the rudder’s recovery

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Page 3 of Australasian Record, May 28 1934

Interestingly the large piece of rudder shown in the article is now on display in the Fiji Museum in Suva. The reasons for it being in Fiji are explained in some detail in an article by Maurice Allward in the second edition of the Pitcairn Postcard Magazine (copy supplied by Herb Ford). The article includes some pictures of the rudder outside Parkin Christian’s house

Parkin Christian with rudder remnant outside his house

To summarise, once the rudder had been recovered, large chunks of it were being taken as souvenirs by visitors to the Island, and in 1941 a decision was taken (supported by the Admiralty in London who still owned the Bounty!) to send the remaining parts of the rudder to the Museum in Fiji for safe keeping. Entertainingly, in “payment” for the rudder, the islanders received a “first class wireless receiving set”.


Remaining parts of Bounty Rudder on display at Fiji Museum

So we now know that Parkin Christian recovered various parts of the rudder, and the main part is now on display in Fiji. But we still don’t know why, in 1935, Parkin decided to try and sell the pintle and gudgeon to a Museum or Museums in New Zealand.

Further research into our own records at the Otago Museum, uncovered 2 letters from Parkin to H.D. Skinner, both dated November 10th 1935. The first is particularly important because it gives a first hand description of the circumstances of the rudder’s discovery, which Parkin states was in October 1933. The letter also speaks to the fact that these are artefacts from the Bounty, and notes that while other Museum’s had asked for them, only Skinner offered any money for them!

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Page 1 of letter from Parkin Christian to HD Skinner, November 10th 1935

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Page 2 of letter from Parkin Christian to HD Skinner, November 10th 1935

On the same day that Parkin wrote the above letter, he wrote a second letter, presumably in response to another letter he had received from Skinner seeking assurance about the provenance of the pintle and gudgeon. In this second letter, Christian again describes the circumstances of the rudders discovery and recovery; in this letter Christian states that

it was taken up in a depth of 42 feet of water it cannot be seen with the naked eye when using what was made up into a diving glass case which we use when we go and take the fish with hook and line we use such instrument which we can locate or see anything at the depth of 25 fathom or 150 feet”

Christian seeks to reassure Skinner that the objects he has in the University Museum are from the Bounty;

Parkin states “if ever you come across any paper that state they have taken up such thing just you back against it because there is no truth in it”

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Page 1 of second letter from Christian to Skinner, Novermber 1935

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Page 2 of Second Letter from Christian to Skinner, November 1935

So we now know that Parkin Christian discovered and recovered the Rudder from HMS Bounty in October 1933, following a storm which moved some sand that had previously been covering the wreckage. He found the rudder using a diving glass, a device which helped the Pitcairners see into the ocean when fishing.

But why did Parkin sell the pintle and gudgeon to a Museum in New Zealand?

This is where the second strand of my research also paid dividends.

Unfortunately, the archivist at Te Papa could find no record of the original correspondence between Christian and W. R. B. Oliver.

However, the archivist at the Auckland Museum did find a copy of the correspondence, and it unlocked the mystery completely.

Like us at the Otago Museum, they had received a letter from W R B Oliver

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But unlike The Otago Museum, Auckland had a copy of the original letter from Parkin Christian, and it contains an explanation as to why he is writing to Museums in New Zealand...

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The original letter from Parkin Christian to Director of the Dominion Museum Wellington, 13th November 1934

It turns out that in the early 1930’s Parkin’s son Richard was studying at the NZ Missionary College, and Parkin didn’t have enough money to see his son through college. So the Bounty’s Pintle and Gudgeon were offered for sale to Museum’s in New Zealand, in the hope that one would be prepared to pay.

This is why The Otago Museum sent a cheque to the NZ Missionary College, and it also explains why the Otago Museum has artefacts from the Bounty. Parkin’s second letter to HD Skinner in November 1935 also explains why The Otago Museum has a Moai, since Parkin mentions in the last paragraph that “as for the stone god, if all goes well it will be shipped on the Tamaroa” Skinner had obviously asked if Christian had any other objects of interest during the course of correspondence about purchase of the gudgeon and pintle. Herb Ford has noted that Tamaroa was a frequent caller at Pitcairn in the 1930s - He record her often in his book (second edition) "Pitcairn Island as a Port of Call" (McFarland), in which he lists every ship (with particulars about each call) that called at Pitcairn from the arrival of the Bounty in 1790 to 2011.

Incidentally, it is fascinating that while HD Skinner in Otago jumped at the chance to purchase these objects, both the Dominion Museum and the Auckland Museum rejected the idea of purchasing the Pintle and Gudgeon; the letter from the Director of the Auckland Museum to the Director of the Dominion Museum shows very little interest in the objects.

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Letter from Director of Auckland Museum to Director Dominion Museum 8th March 1935

So… there you have it. It turns out that the reason The Otago Museum has the pintle and gudgeon from HMS Bounty is that Parkin Christian’s son was studying at Missionary College in New Zealand, and he was running out of money (like many other parents of college students around the world!) Couple this with H.D. Skinner, a highly entrepreneurial Director of the Otago Museum at the time who could see the historic value of the objects while the other Directors of Museums in New Zealand couldn’t, and you get a set of circumstances where key objects from Pitcairn’s history end up in the collection of the Otago Museum.

Just one story about a small set of objects in our Museum. It’s stories like this that are the reason I love working in Museums!

I’d like to thank Moira White from the Otago Museum and Herb Ford Director of the Pitcairn Islands Study Centre for their help in putting together this blog. I’d also like to thank the archivists at Te Papa, and The Auckland War Memorial Museum and the Director of the Canterbury Museum for their help in my research.

Ian Griffin, 14th July 2013. All rights reserved!