The night the aurora and I bumped into each other

The story of my aurora chase #5

The aurora and the Milky Way put on a stunning display at the Giant's Causeway

There is a particular joy found in unexpectedly bumping into an old friend. I'm not talking about the pre-arranged get together, but rather than unplanned and spontaneous meeting where you  catch a glimpse of each other while walking down the street. The catching up that follows is great. But part of the charm of it all is just how unexpected it all was.

My aurora experience number 5 was just like that on Monday 16 February. Yes, there had been an ejection of plasma from a corornal hole a few days before, one of the indications that the aurora might happen. But the charts that evening had been quiet and it looked like nothing much was going to happen. For my aurora experiences 1 to 4, I had gone to the coast after seeing others post on Facebook that it was there. So I had travelled with a certain anticipation if not certainty that I would see something. But last Monday night, I wasn't expecting anything at all. And little did I know, I was in for quite the surprise!

My family and I had headed out to Dunluce Castle, a place that has been very fertile aurora hunting ground for me in the past. But this time it was just to see the stars. There was little cloud in the evening, and Dunluce, far enough away from the light pollution of Portrush, is a great place to get lost in the wonder of the galaxies stretched above. In fact, the Milky Way was looking particularly fine that night (and as we get closer to the spring, the galactic core of our galaxy comes closer to our view).

The Milky Way stretches above Dunluce - but no real aurora. Yet...

I did a couple of shots of the Milky Way reaching upwards from the Castle. As always, I'll look at the camera screen to see if any green is visible on the horizon (always a good plan, as a faint aurora will always be visible on camera long before you can see it with your eyes). But nothing. Just a star shoot tonight then, I thought.

By this stage, my family had started to get cold, so they wanted to head back the car. I just had one more photo I wanted, which involved me going back down the dark and somewhat creepy steps beside the Castle towards the bay below. So off I set, expecting the see the Milky Way rise up above Dunluce and far into the starry sky. And indeed it did. And again, only stars above, and no green on the horizon. Just a star shoot tonight then, I thought to myself once more.

But then, just as I was taking some shots for a starry panorama of the bay, very faintly on the horizon, I thought I could see some reddy-pink appear on my camera screen. As you will know, the aurora produces different colours at different altitudes, with the brighter greens being lower down for us in the mid-latitudes, and sometimes a dimmer reddish band above that. I didn't want to be clutching at straws and seeing what I wanted to see rather than what was there, but I was pretty sure there was the merest hint of colour.

The first hints of pink begin to appear on camera - and yours truly starts to get a bit on the excited side!

And, to my great delight, this was confirmed over the next few minutes, as shot after shot first revealed more red, and then gradually some faint greens, poking through the gap between the top of the clouds and below the reds.

The aurora was back. Unexpectedly. And I had just witnessed it gradually appear before my very eyes! I snapped away halfway down the steps, and all the while the display gradually got  clearer and brighter.

There was no doubt about it - the aurora was back!

Eventually, I headed back up to the Castle again. After the last time I photographed the aurora on the north coast (just around 7 weeks ago on Christmas Eve) I promised myself that next time I would move around a bit more. It's a bit of a risk - the aurora ebbs and flows over the matter of minutes, and the last thing I wanted to do was to be stuck in the car travelling to the next location during those 10 minutes when the display spiked a bit. But if you stay put all evening, you end up with 200 photos of more or less the same thing! Also, I wanted to get some ‘aurora selfies’. I know the whole concept of the selfie can be a bit on the narcissistic side, but I wanted to get some tangible evidence that I was in fact there witnessing this natural wonder.


Aurora selfies!

By the time I got a selfie or two, my very long suffering family were wondering where I was. Out they came looking for me, convinced I’d fallen half way down the steps! But it was great to have them join me and to see the aurora for themselves – at least, all that could be seen at this stage, which wasn’t much by the naked eye!

It was clear the night was going to be full of aurora chasing for me, so the rest of my family headed on and I began a tour of some of my favourite North Coast locations to catch the aurora and Milky Way from there.

First stop was Magheracross near Portrush. Not far from the car park is a fabulous chalk sea arch jutting out from the coastline. I have got some photos from there that I really like, so I really wanted to add it to my list of aurora locations. And it didn't disappoint.

Near Magheracross car park, Portrush. 

Eventually, I ended up heading for another of my favourite very dark places, the Giant’s Causeway. You are well away from light pollution here, so it’s a great spot for astro photography – and for thoroughly creeping yourself out in the dark, of course! But when the siren calls of the aurora are ringing in your ears, you throw caution to the wind and just get on with it!

The aurora began to intensify at the Causeway - just as the cloud closed in! Can you see the reflection of the star in the rock pool? When it first caught my eye, I thought for sure I was not alone...!!

The cloud was by now starting to close in, but also just around then the intensity of the display started to pick up. For the first time that night, it was clearly visible to the naked eye as that distinct brightening of the sky along the horizon. By this time, fellow aurora chaser Brian Fullerton had unexpectedly arrived at the Causeway, and we both excitedly headed onto the stones to capture our shots. I got a few more before calling it a night – and getting back into the safety of my car, away from all those scary things that always seem to be lurking just out of view on the Causeway at night…!

I capped the whole evening off with a quick trip to Runkerry Strand to see what shots I could get there, and unexpectedly bumped into yet another fellow aurora chaser, David Wright. We have a great wee community of aurora chasers in Northern Ireland – and it wasn’t just the surprise aurora that I enjoyed bumping into that night!

Runkerry Strand, Portballintrae

Runkerry Beach, with a hint of aurora green reflecting in the swash

By around 1.30 am, it was clear that the cloud was going to just get thicker, so I called it a night. But what a night it had been, and I thoroughly enjoyed my totally unexpected road trip with my old auroral buddy along the north coast.

Let’s do it again soon, old friend!