"When you see the Southern Cross for the first time...You understand now why you came this way"
-- Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young
After long weeks under the umbrella of dust that cloaks the skies as seen from the Persian Gulf and Gulf of Oman, we have left that filter of fine orange silt behind as we head down the coast of Somalia en route our new mission; supporting anti-piracy operations in these waters of the Horn of Africa. For the first time since I came aboard Joshua Humphreys the horizon is a clear, sharp dividing line between sea and sky rather than thickening haze, the air is clear and the sun rises and sets instead of fading into or out of existence through the murk. The change in our surroundings is reflected clearly in our officers and crew as well; all hands seem to quietly (and some not so quietly) rejoice at the return to the open seas. Conversation is more animated, laughter rises from the decks, and even song is heard to accompany the days' work.
For myself, I find that the sight of a whale or flying fish, the curved prow of a dhow, or the brassy sunlight on the wind-ruffled water brings me a greater happiness here under a clear, open sky than I have felt in the constrained quarters of the dusty Gulfs; the change in our environment is reflected in my attitude of the past few days. I know that as we become accustomed to this area our joy will be tempered, but for now all hands seem happy to celebrate their liberation (if only a temporary one) from the oppressive atmosphere of those waters bound by Iran, Oman, the UAE and Iraq.
Of course, a large measure of my change of attitude is due to the night skies out here on the deep blue, and the new and exciting vistas revealed by our southerly passage.
The southern stars have always held a fascination for mariners. So different from those to be seen in northern latitudes, they represent the mysteries of another hemisphere, of lands and ways far from the familiar ones of our homes. As night watches pass and Polaris sinks slowly and gradually toward the horizon astern, fresh wonders rise off our bows; the shapes of odd constellations and asterisms framing alien stars and an unfamiliar Milky Way stretching across the sky and beckoning us onward to new discoveries, star clouds and lanes of inky darkness etching unusual contours across the night sky.
Even those amongst us who are not stargazers can recognize changes in the evening sky show. Stars that were only a few nights ago directly overhead now circle well to the north, while those that were once low over the horizon now climb high overhead. The sinuous curve of Scorpius' tail and Sagittarius' "teapot" now dominate the sky above us, and the contrasting yellow and blue sparks of Saturn and Spica stand high in the West at midnight. Our eyes are drawn to these changes, just as a land-dweller notes significant alterations in his home environs; we slowly approach the equator and the heavens' changes reflect our southerly course as clearly as a street sign indicates a new traffic pattern to an observant driver.
Last night was the first perfectly clear one since leaving the Strait of Hormuz a week ago...and what a night it was! Stepping from wheelhouse onto bridge wing I was struck motionless by the sight of the Milky Way, its star clouds and dark dust lanes in high relief, strewn with the familiar stars of Cygnus and Aquila and bordered by Lyra and Sagitta. Further to the south, past the Scorpion and the Archer, lay the somewhat less-intimate stars of Centaurus, dominated by the amber beacon of Alpha Centaurus, one of the the nearest stars to our solar system, and by the glowing ball of hazy starlight that comprises the huge globular cluster named Omega Centaurus. Just beautiful!
Even as I stared in wonder at this starry spectacle I could hear the splash of dolphins alongside and see the glow of bioluminescent plankton, excited by Joshua's passage through their uncountable multitudes, reflected on bridge wings awnings. My skin goose-pimpled to the touch of the warm equatorial breeze, and my inner ear registered the slow roll of our hull, its pitch and yaw in the gentle swell, the vibrations of powerful diesels many decks below my feet. And while I admired the view and soaked up the myriad sensations rendered by standing on the deck of a ship at sea under the vault of the heavens, I was already thinking ahead, drawing-up an audacious observing plan for the weeks to come; intending to take full advantage of the star-gazing opportunities inherent in our mission on these waters.
I have my portable star atlas, 10x50 binoculars, and a library of observing references and guides on my laptop, plus what looks a golden opportunity to explore in depth a region of the sky that I rarely get the chance to even glimpse. I think I am going to truly enjoy the next few months.