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Starry starry night
John Maclean is an astronomer, award-winning astrophotographer and Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society. He regularly joins guests on Cunard’s Northern Lights cruises to host expert talks and provide commentary on board, bringing celestial wonders to life.
To marvel at the ethereal beauty of the Aurora Borealis is, for many, a once-in-a-lifetime experience, as Cunard guest speaker John Maclean knows only too well. ‘Everyone really wants the Northern Lights spectacle to happen, of course, but we can’t control nature,’ points out the astronomer, who uses apps and updates from the Norwegian Centre for Space Weather to predict activity in the night sky.
Every day on board John hosts captivating enrichment talks, regaling guests with the many wonders of the night sky. The science behind the Aurora Borealis is remarkable, and John takes time to explain the role solar activity plays in creating the mesmerising shapes and astonishing colours that illuminate the sky.
Not least, he reveals some of the mythology surrounding the Northern Lights. ‘There are hundreds of fascinating stories from across the northern hemisphere,’ he explains. ‘The Sami tribes in Lapland, for example, traditionally believe the Aurora is a firefox running across the sky. In ancient times, people didn’t have science to explain what happens so they created stories to make sense of it all.’
Each evening, guests join John on deck to see if nature’s most spectacular light show will play out. The best time to witness the Aurora Borealis – which can be between 60 and 150 miles up in the sky – is between sunset and 2am, and it can last from five minutes to five hours.
‘At night, there is still so much to see. I point out constellations and we might see meteors – or shooting stars – streaking across the sky. On a clear night, the Captain may turn off the ship’s lights and suddenly hundreds of stars seem to flick on. It’s just spectacular.’John Maclean
For John, every time the Northern Lights appear in the sky is a memorable moment. ‘I’ll announce, “This is it!”, and hear a sharp intake of breath from the guests,’ he says. ‘A stunned silence follows, and as the lights dance across the sky, there’s a sudden ripple of excitement on deck. It’s such a special feeling.’
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