Amazing Ballintoy Harbour Aurora 27/28th March

Tuesday the 27th March was a glorious day of unbroken sunshine with temperatures inland reaching 19 or 20 degrees in most places. Weather like this is unheard of here in March. As well as the solid blue skies during the day, the night skies were totally clear and this was the perfect opportunity to shoot some starscapes, the milky way, startrails or whatever. The previous night a friend and i visited the famous Beaghmore stone circles outside Cookstown and took many images of the cresent moon and planet conjunction in exceptional skies. (I will post a page about this night and images early next week) Tuesday night was set up to be another clear night and i had said to myself a few weeks back during the miserable cloudy weather that i would never waste another clear night. So i started thinking of a few locations in the local area and then i decided to message Martin McKenna to see what he was doing and if he wanted to meet up. Martin was certainly up for it and a plan was hatched. Our destination was the north coast to shoot the planets over some cool foreground and i fancied doing a star trail. There was also a slight chance of seeing a faint aurora from an incoming solar wind stream but i never thought anything would come of it. Boy was i wrong! We met up in Maghera around 8pm and set off for the coast in the fading light.

The scene at Ballintoy Harbour was magical with perfect clear skies, the sound of the ocean and the smell of seaweed. We immediately got set up on the beach to shoot the cresent moon, Venus and Jupiter conjunction.A few shots into the session and while repositioning the camera for a different angle i heard a sickening crack from my tripod head as i tightened the handle. This was not good. Instant panic ensued and i thought my shooting was over for the night, to make matters worse the spare tripod was 80 miles away at home! It turns out the internal threads were wrung inside the tilt head and it would only tighten so far and then slip. I got the above shot of the conjunction together with orion, Pleiades and the V shape of Taurus to the left of the moon before my mishap. While this was going on Martin had trained his camera north and said he was picking up a faint green band on the horizon. I took a high iso test image as well and picked up the same glow. Yes! we had aurora, faint, but it was there. This was to be the start of an amazing adventure for us around the coastline in the pitch black with the aurora putting on the show.

We walked around the shore to a better and higher viewpoint and started taking images. I was struggling with the tripod head but found if i balanced it level and tightened it carefully it would hold, i also used the wired remote to fire off shots. A wide angle shot above of Ballintoy beach and cottage with an ever growing aurora and Milky Way. A security light which i had been cursing at the time actually lit up the entire scene and is one of my favourite images from the night.

During the night we observed quite a few quality meteors and i was delighted to catch this one above the aurora

We both jumped into the shot here, its nice to have one like this to look back on. You will notice the aurora growing in intensity all the time and some faint beams were visible between us and that big rock. Wish i had spent more time here and not cut our feet out of the shot, it was so dark and very hard to compose shots. I usually took a test image and made adjustments from there, sometimes the head would slip and the camera would either fall back or forward and i was back to square one. Lesson learned here-always bring your spare tripod.

Martin and i made our way around the rugged coastline in search of new locations to shoot the aurora from, with my small LED head torch lighting the way. We liked the look of these triangular shaped rocks and fired off a few shots. Bit of light painting here on the rocks to bring out some detail otherwise all you would get is dark silhouettes.

Another location and the aurora was changing every minute, a huge red glow was appearing above a vivid green band on images and Martin with his vast experience of auroras speculated that there could be an outburst about to happen.

He wasn't wrong and suddenly verticle beams appeared at center and fanned out along the display. I couldn't believe what we were seeing with this surprise northern lights show at the north coast. Just as quickly as it appeared it was gone lasting a minute or two at best. We discussed the possibility of future outbursts and thought about changing our location again. Martin knew the perfect spot on over towards the White Park Bay beach area so with gear in hand we set off again keeping an eye on the northern sky as we walked.

Our new location was close to the sea with rock pools and seaweed all around. A few hundred yards out to sea were huge rocks shaped by the sea over millions of years, all this made for a great foreground all we needed now was the aurora to come back. Right on cue it happened, a second and more intense outburst suddenly propelled beautiful vertical beams high into the sky as the whole aurora display brightened. The height and clarity of these multiple beams was astonishing and they reached 50 degrees high at times. The visible display was so mesmerizing i nearly forgot to take images. At this stage Martin and i were so excited and shouting at the aurora and each other, we couldn't believe this was happening. I think the fact that we had come here tonight intending to shoot the night sky with no expectations and no real aurora forecast out, made it even more special.

Check out the red, pink and purple colours above the aurora band that the camera picked up. I was able to see the reds with the naked eye which is a first for me

As the display was fading i took two shots and stiched them together to make this panorama which includes the moon and venus with their glitter paths on the shoreline. We stayed here for another while hoping for more activity and talking about what we had just experienced. It appeared the best was over so we started to make our way back.

On the way back we decided to try out a location on higher ground, this involved a steep climb and my legs burned as we neared the top. What a view we were treated to up there. The aurora was now a weak band but it still fired up the odd beam to let us know it was still there. The cresent moon was sinking towards the horizon and turning gold as it mixed with the murk and haze and the sky was so dark. It felt like a great way to end the night watching this scene out over the ocean.

One final image taken at Ballintoy cottage with Martin resting a minute to take it all in.

We visited Dunluce castle on the drive home and took a few shots here but the aurora was very weak and the sky conditions had deteriorated with alot of murk and haze so they're not worth posting. When packing up Martin suddenly shouted "look fireball" i looked up just in time to see it burning out with a stunning blue colour overhead. This was the icing on the cake of what can only be described as an epic and unforgettable night at the north coast.