Group has eyes on southern sky

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Aurora chasers David Whelan, Dakota Brown, Les Ladbrook and Elizabeth King monitor auroras closely. Photo: Luisa Girao

IMAGINE the happiest moment of your life. What would it be?

For a group of Southlanders, the answer is easy – the first time they saw an Aurora Australis.

Viewing the Aurora Australis, or southern lights, is an increasingly popular hobby, and thousands of people are monitoring apps which plot the probability and predicted location.

Southland residents Dakota Brown, David Whelan, Elizabeth King and Les Ladbrook are members of this group, known as aurora hunters or chasers.

Auroras are electrically-charged particles from solar winds which enter the Earth’s atmosphere and react with its gases. The colours depend on the type of gas molecule, the electrical state at the time of collision, and the type of solar wind particle the gas collides with.

Mrs King has always been interested in photography, but thought she would never be able to take a good picture.

“But Les [Ladbrook] convinced me. My first photos weren’t the best – but I was over the moon with them.”

The mother of four children said her family knew auroras were one of her priorities.

“My husband understands, he tried to go with me but he gave up because sometimes you spend a whole night in the dark and cold just for a glimpse of an aurora. For me, it is worth every second.”

The group described it as addictive. “When you have a great shot, you start to think in ways to have an even better one. You start to think in different camera settings, lens and locations,” Mr Whelan said.

Mr Ladbrook is an administrator of an aurora Facebook community, which has more than 23,000 followers.

He said the community was very welcoming, helping each other with all kinds of tips.

Usually the auroras can only be photographed. “Seeing and photographing aurora can demand special know-how, practice and patience. On St Patrick’s Day in 2015, it was the most beautiful aurora I have ever seen. It was possible to see with the naked eye. But usually this is quite difficult.”

Another point Mr Ladbrook usually needed to clarify was when people said aurora could only be found in the winter.

“It can be any time of the year. The winter is good because the nights are longer, so gives us more chances.”

They encouraged people to turn the car lights off as quickly as possible or avoid using torches when hunting.

Mr Brown said to photograph an aurora, people needed a camera with full manual control, a stable tripod, extra batteries and a lot of patience.

Mrs King agreed: “You need to love and have a lot of patience. But when you get it, it is the most happiest moment of your life. It is something impossible to forget.”

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