The starry night sky is lost to city dwellers. Only the light from the Moon, a few planets, and a number of bright stars can piece the glow of a city’s light-polluted sky. To see the stars, you have to get away and travel to a dark-sky site. But that can be challenging. The site could be several hours away, you might need to camp overnight, and you’ll have to hope that the sky doesn’t cloud over once you’re set up, thereby wasting your drive into the country. Fortunately, there is a better way—take a stargazing vacation on a cruise ship.
Stargazing at sea has a long history, one that’s directly tied to navigation. During ancient times, knowledge of the constellations and bright stars played a key wayfinding role when sailors ventured out of sight of land. The Minoans, who lived on the island of Crete between 3,600 BC and 1,400 BC, used their knowledge of the sky to help them navigate the waters of the Mediterranean. At about the same time, the Polynesians were using the stars to guide them as they sailed from island to island across the vast Pacific Ocean. In all cases, these ancient mariners used the positions of the constellations, and the rising and setting points of certain bright stars, to ensure they stayed on course during the night. During the past 1,500 years or so, sailors in the Northern Hemisphere had a handy celestial guide—Polaris, the North Star or pole star. The height of the pole star above the northern horizon equals the latitude of the observer, making sailing east or west along lines of latitude reasonably easy for Viking, Spanish, and Portuguese navigators.
Today’s sailors have satellites, GPS, compasses, and other modern devices to help guide them across Earth’s oceans. Even so, it’s fun to stand near the bow of a ship, contemplate the dark, star-filled night sky, and imagine what it was like to navigate the ocean thousands of years ago. A stargazing cruise can take you back to those ancient times, with no consequences if you don’t know your stars or constellations!