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BBC's The One Show Aurora Hunt - Ballintoy Harbour - November 2012

Almost one year ago I was approached by Tigress Productions on behalf of the popular BBC One U.K television program called The One Show who were interested in doing a short film about capturing the aurora borealis from N. Ireland, I agreed to do the show and soon met a member of the crew called Nick Hardy who came over from Bristol to give me a one on one crash course on what the show wanted and how it would all work. My girlfriend Roisin and I met Nick in Walsh's Hotel Maghera one cold Winter's morning and together we came up with a basic idea of how the show would work and what I was expected to do. To cut a long story short I had to give the crew a two to three day heads up regarding any potential aurora activity so a team could be put on stand by and ready to board a flight to N. Ireland, we would then meet up at my home and doing filming of me then drive to the coast and capture the aurora from any of several designated locations I had chosen along the Derry and Antrim coastline. Nick had to get a flight back to Bristol a few hours later so time was short however given the difficulties involved with predicting auroras and accepting the fact that various auroras will be missed by the crew for various reasons I was given a video camcorder to capture what I could myself.

I was tasked with taking still images of auroras which could be used as a support system for the show as well as taking footage of preparations for aurora chases and even storm/weather related subjects. Nick and I went on a quick drive to the Antrim coast and checked out Dunluce Castle and Ballintoy Harbour which where two locations I had in mind for the film and as chance would have it it was a very stormy day with gales, sleet, hail and big waves hammering the Ballintoy coastline which really impressed us both, I was delighted nature had put on a show for Nick and I could tell he was loving it. We did a test shoot with me standing taking images near the waves with the gales blowing me around and I was shown how to take self-movies, composition, white balance, timing etc - basic skills which I could use for any video footage I would take between now and the day the crew arrived. It was all very exciting stuff, Nick was a fabulous guy with great energy and buzzing with positivity so we got along great and I couldn't wait to get stuck into the challenge.

As I said at the beginning, that one day meeting was almost a year ago and alot had happened since then. During the days, weeks, and months which followed I kept up my usual hectic day and night imaging sessions which I doubled in frequency with even more vigor and passion in the hope of capturing something cool which could be used for the film. I collected over 100 still images (I later edited that down to my best captures) of starscapes, storms, funnels, moonbows, planet conjunctions, snow storms, waves, sunsets, convection, and of course auroras. During that period I made nearly 50 trips to the coast in search of auroras and ocean-related storms with great success however it got off to a rocky start during December last year when Roisin and I decided to put the crew's portable camcorder to the test when we intercepted a deep Atlantic storm at Ballintoy Harbour, winds were truly severe that day and the foam blowing from sea to land was incredible, Roisin began filming me however the camcorder must have got hit by a stray 80mph foam splat in the wrong place and it stopped working - first official day out with the camera and it had broken in the harsh conditions and despite TLC in the form of heating for days afterwards it never responded again so I had to return it to the crew however they were great about it and I believe they later managed to retrieve some of the footage, you can view that days chase here.

Since that chase I had to take all future video clips with my own HD video camera which made me feel alot better because if I damaged it then it would be my own. There was certainly no shortage of action for Roisin and I filmed snow showers, ocean waves, convection and several exciting aurora hunts. During the build up to any potential aurora shoot I had to mount the video camera on a tripod in my room and record myself talking into the camera describing what was going, addressing sunspots, flares and CMEs and aurora hunting plans. Roisin was a fantastic help to me during this period for she took video of me talking about aurora forecasts then real time action clips of me driving in the dark (inside the car) as we pursued any northern lights activity, it was all a fun and educational experience however most or none of it may even be used at all however it kept me in the correct frame of mind and helped build confidence for talking to the camera. Roisin and I got rewarded with several stunning auroras during this period including many more fainter displays, the best of which can be seen in the 2012 reports section.

This all sounds like fun and games but in actual fact it was a very intense period and as time ticked on it became an ongoing source of stress for me because I wanted to get the film over and done with as I had several projects going on at the same time and my internal batteries were getting drained as I always had this in the back of my mind and even at night when trying to sleep because by nature I am very passionate about this subject, even obsessive at times and I always try and do my best and give 100% to the goal, after all I had signed a contract and was determined to deliver my end of the deal. My ideal situation was a period of settled weather with clear crisp nights, a dark moonless sky, and multiple aurora risks from several CMEs delivering direct blows to the Earth which would be the perfect chance to let the crew see a truly magical sight, in a nutshell I not only needed to predict an aurora and the weather in short notice but I also had to make it a decent display which would be a very difficult task indeed. The beautiful auroras of March, April, and October would have been ideal candidates for The One Show however due to various reasons such as unpredictable weather, uncertainty with CME arrival, questions regarding glancing blows versus direct blows or misses, moon phase, and many other factors so I held back from giving the crew the green light because in most cases the warning time was too short for booking flights and accommodation so I kept waiting and waiting for the 'perfect' geomagnetic set-up.


By November 2012 I had decided that I couldn't keep putting it off forever so the next decent aurora forecast would be the one to go for as I thought it would be fantastic to meet the crew and get the film completed before Christmas. The One Show had contacted me at a good time because the sun - and hence aurora activity - experiences a peak and a trough of activity every 11 years known as solar minimum and solar maximum. The next solar maximum was predicted to happen in 2013 so the period between then and now should be very productive for auroras so I was confident nature would provide us with what we needed. The sun went quiet during late October however by mid November a new active region rotated into view designated AR1620 and on the 20th it sported an unstable magnetic field with the entire sunspot extending across a region of the photosphere 10 times the diameter of Earth, then came several M-class solar flares, the SOHO and STEREO images which followed showed two CMEs heading for Earth with impact times expected between the 22nd and 23rd and since AR1620 was near the meridian and hence geoeffective - the CMEs should hit Earth directly. This was the chance I had been waiting for and after careful planning and studying the forecasts I decided this was the one I would be calling the crew out for. The only negative was the moon which would be high in the sky and in gibbous phase on both nights however this didn't bother me as I had seen many auroras in moonlight in the past and cameras would have no problem detecting them even if the human eye couldn't.

The weather was going through a very volatile stage with several deep Atlantic low pressure systems affecting N. Ireland with fronts of rain and strong winds however on both my target nights clear skies were forecast with colder air accompanied by an unstable post frontal air mass which could generate off shore showers and thunderstorms so now we not only had the chance of auroras but also lightning too and with moonlight bringing out the coastal features for cameras I considered the prospect extremely good for the crew so that all important text message was sent then calls with Hannah were exchanged and things rapidly began to happen, however more on this shortly. I want to go back a few days before the crew arrived for during this period I had been extremely active doing alot of night photography and was already beginning to feel a little run down, furthermore I got a terrible chill during the Leonids on Glenshane Pass and after other shoots in cold weather I began to feel constantly cold with a chesty cough which always seemed to be brewing rather than full out coughing however despite these physical nuisances I was feeling in fine form mentally and was keenly focused, one of these recent adventures was on the 20th when I went on a long duration photo shoot to the Antrim coast where gales and severe wind gusts were expected during the afternoon hours near the coasts and with the promise of big waves and ocean thunderstorms I couldn't stay in the house so off I went with a hot flask on yet another coastal chase.

I was shocked when I arrived because the sun was shinning, the sky was blue, the ocean was flat and there was no convection evident at all despite strong cells and lightning being active earlier in the day off the W coast, that could all change later so I checked out the E and W strands near Portrush then two hours before sunset I settled in at a quiet harbour close to the sea in the middle of nowhere, I was the only person there which suited me fine so I took the gear and went for a walk around the narrow ramblers paths and discovered several nasty landslides, sometime later I felt satisfied with my exploring so I went back to the car and had a nice brew. After some time alone with the light level dropping and wind picking up I began to have that horrible feeling that I was wasting my time and that I had drove all the way here for nothing so I asked the universe to provide me with something special to make the session worthwhile so I relaxed and waited. The car began to rock slightly from side to side as the gales gained in strength sending dark sheets of spray across the sea at high speed, then the sun was gone and clouds thickened and the light dropped rapidly, then just as I had given up hope I saw a dark head suddenly appear above the ocean surface, it sank back into the water then popped back up again, it was a Grey Seal and it put an instant smile on my face. Over the course of the next two hours I shared this quiet harbour with a family of Seals who put on a great show for me, at first there was one, then two, later three and by nightfall I could see six Seal heads at fairly close range to the shore which made for a special period for me, I had never felt so close to nature as I had during this moment, I had seen Seals here before on two other occasions this year however they where always basking on rocks in broad daylight in warm sunshine, however to see them in the sea hunting and playing in stormy weather with no one else in the area was really magical and something I find difficult to describe in words. This was like a real wildlife documentary and I had been chosen to watch.


The Seals were very playful and made no attempt to hide the fact that they were keeping a close eye on me, I would be watching two playing straight ahead then suddenly two more heads would emerge from the harbour inlet to my right and even in the low light I could see their puppy dog eyes staring in the car window at me, this game of cat and mouse would continue for a long time until they grew accustomed to my presence and went about their business without any concern about me. Their heads and whiskers reminded me of a dog or pup rising from the water like some bizarre submarine and I was completely in my element watching. I took alot of video footage which you can see at the bottom of this page and a large number of still images with the Canon 100-400mm lens which got me in fairly close however it was a challenge getting decent images with this heavy lens hand held with cold hands in such low light which required a high ISO and leaning against the car for support but just when I got ready for a perfect shot at a relatively slow shutter a gust of wind would rock the car and shake me so I had to be patient.


Dusk gave way to night as the waxing moon revealed itself behind me with a nice corona which did a good job of bathing the harbour and ocean with an eerie light while the stars came out in a rather moody blue night sky. It was now pitch dark at ground level so I grabbed my camera gear and quietly walked towards the shoreline and got as close as I could to the Seals who where obviously watching my every move. This is a time exposure with a 10mm ultra wide angle lens looking due N across the Atlantic, the heads of the Seals can be seen as dark bumps on the ocean which I have marked on the image, by the way these where alot closer than they appear because of the wide angle nature of the lens. I have to say it was absolutely amazing standing here in complete darkness with the stars on view with the Seals at close range. They became quite lively for a time too bashing the water with their flippers and tails making loud splashes while making strange grunting noises and what I can only describe as barking.

Ballintoy Aurora

I decided to leave the Seals at peace then drove further around the coast to Ballintoy Harbour to try out some photography and do a thorough recce on the area as I intended on bringing The One Show crew to this very location. The moonlight illuminated the rocky shoreline almost like daytime which made navigating alot easier however I still needed a torch at times for safety reasons. I just happened to be standing at this spot when I suddenly detected an aurora in the sky, I couldn't believe it because no geomagnetic activity had been forecast at all so this was a surprise to say the least. With the naked eye I could see the aurora as a very extensive green arc from the N to NW which stood out in good contrast against the moonlight complete with several vertical rays. I attached the 50mm F/1.8 lens and caught the display going into outburst however all the images had to be binned due to the wind shaking the tripod. The outburst subsided however the arc was still strong so I shot it at 18mm and 10mm, the above image was using the latter which shows 107 degrees of sky complete with aqua-green aurora and subtle red colouring from the rays much higher up in the atmosphere.

Ballintoy Harbour Aurora

The aurora was visible for quite some time so I gave it my undivided attention until it faded from the sky. This is the only 50mm frame I kept which shows the subsiding outburst with green arc, a formation of green rays, and a purple hue above the rays covering much of the frame. This was only an 8 sec exposure in bright moonlight with the lens stopped down a little however the stars are not quite in focus due to the focus ring slipping unknown to me as I held the tripod while navigating over dangerous rocks, no doubt I hit the legs off the rocky ground which was enough to alter infinity focus however I don't think it was enough to ruin this capture.

Ballintoy Moon Halo

By 22.00 I was considering calling it a night when I happened to notice high level cirrus clouds moving over the coast from the W ahead of another trough of convective showers so I watched and waited to see what happened. Cirrus and cirrostratus clouds are rich in ice crystals which can refract moonlight and produce beautiful optical displays and that's exactly what happened. A beautiful long duration 22 degree moon halo formed around the moon (also called an ice halo) which was the brightest I have observed this year complete with red, blue, and yellow-white colours visible visually so I got the camera back out again to get images.

Ballintoy Moon Halo

The above two images where taken from the high ground near the cliff looking down towards Ballintoy Harbour, you can see the ocean inlet and cottage in the foreground. At this elevation the strong winds made photography hell with nearly every single exposure destroyed by a shaking tripod mount which had been playing up in recent weeks and which urgently needs replaced. I kept shooting and waited for the wind to ease while hoping the halo would last and I got lucky with just enough stills to take home. I looked at the cottage below and thought that would look nice with the halo above so I drove back down and set-up the gear once again to try it out.

Ballintoy Moonbow

My last image of the night with the moon halo above Roark's Kitchen cottage and in good time too because soon after this the sky clouded over completely and I began the long drive home feeling cold and tired once again. Nature sure had been good to me though with a family of Seals, a surprise aurora, and this high quality moon halo so I went to bed late this night feeling happy and content.

The One Show Filming Day 1 - November 22nd/23rd

Two days after my Seal adventure there had been rapid developments and The One Show crew where en route to N. Ireland and expected to arrive early on Thursday November 22nd and accompanying them where two CMEs due to hit and cause disturbances for the next 48 hours, the official geomagnetic forecasts were going for active levels tonight and minor storming intervals the following night. The night before the arrival of the crew was meant to be a time of relaxed preparation and an early night in bed so I could be in top form the next day however nature had me on edge once again. An active cold front was surging from W to E over the Atlantic and heading for Ireland during the night time hours and it looked a potent affair with a severe squall line predicted, gales, heavy rain, lightning and even a chance of tornadoes in places so it looked like it was going to be a late night of radar watching. The squall line and storms behind it had produced hundreds of lightning strikes over the ocean all day long and continued to do so as they entered inland regions of SW Ireland so there was a good chance of night lightning photo opps so I was up extra late studying the situation then tried to get some sleep. I had set my alarm for 02.00, then 03.00 and 04.00 and each time I got up to check the radar and despite very strong radar echoes there was no inland lightning over N. Ireland so I went back to bed properly however sleep alluded me due to the natural excitement and anticipation of what lay ahead during the next two days and nights. I was up at 08.00 feeling cold and tired and had several driving trips to do then I got a call from Hannah informing me that the crew where already on location and where staying in Coleraine and would be calling around to my home in Maghera at 16.00. However, before I go any further I would like to introduce you to the crew...

Hannah Hoare

Hannah Hoare was team leader - ''I am a freelance Producer/Director and Edit Producer specialising in wildlife television. The natural world never ceases to amaze me, and I love the challenges of bringing it to the screen. I'm never happier than when I'm in a distant corner of the world juggling a tripod, a budget and some intractable animals. Except perhaps when I'm in an edit suite seeing it all come together. For the last couple of years, Off the Fence Productions have kept me very busy working on their Wildestseries for Discovery. Over thirty weeks on location in Africa, India and South America has seen me scraping snow off my tent at the top of Mount Kenya, picking leeches off my skin in the rain-soaked forests of the Western Ghats and up to my ankles in army ants in the Amazon.   

As well as taking me to some very demanding locations, shoots had a fast turnaround so tight schedules added extra pressure. Finding budget-friendly ways to tell good stories was a great challenge. Successful sequences were as diverse as a leopard hunting a gerenuk fawn (a lot of luck!) and a stick fight between Suri warriors in the Omo Valley (a lot of planning and a risk assessment as long as your arm…). Also for Off the Fence, I worked on NatGeo's award-winning series Monkey Thieves. As AP on the first two series I went on all shoots which meant I spent a total of six months clambering around the rooftops and less salubrious corners of Jaipur, following fiendishly mischievous rhesus macaques. As edit producer of five episodes I got the opportunity to write some fun scripts that have appealed to adults and children all over the world. 

Before coming to Bristol in 2005, I lived in Namibia for five years where I made adventure tourism videos. I also learned some life skills that have stood me in good stead ever since: how to bake bread in a hole in the ground; how to keep wine cool in the desert; and how to keep elephants out of your camp…tv credits

Marty Jopson

Marty Jopson was the presenter who was on camera with me - ''As a science communicator I work in three main fields: presenting TV programs, performing stage shows and building bespoke props for television programmes. I’ve been presenting science and history on TV for ten years and my current escapade is the One Show on BBC1. The One Show is the BBC 1 flagship, magazine format show, here is just a taster of my work on it. Also Walking the Line (YTV) was a local series about science, geography and history. What the Ancients did for Us (BBC1) was a huge series with Adam Hart-Davis, 9 hours each on a different culture. As well being AHD’s sidekick, I was responsible for all the props''.

Michael Quinn & David Kilpatrick

Cameraman Michael Quinn (left) and sound technician David Kilpatrick (right) formed Clean Slate TV - a television and radio production company in 2004 who each have over twenty years experience in the field. David has extensive television and radio experience and has directed documentary for many independent companies and has produced daily live radio for BBC. He is also a highly respected sound recordist specialising in documentary, drama and commercials. Cameraman/director, Michael has a background in medical photography and film editing. He has extensive experience of filming a range of documentary and television series at home and abroad. As a freelance cameraman Michael has worked for many leading production companies on projects for the BBC, RTÉ, Channel 4, National Geographic and Discovery Channel...current and past productions.

At 16.00 a car arrived in my estate and shortly afterwards Hannah, Marty, Michael and David where all in my house and already in action preparing equipment before the light levels dropped. Hannah needed some preliminary footage at my home location before we ventured any further so I was asked to set up my telescope in the backyard which became the focal point of several clips featuring Marty and I chatting about various sky related subjects including the weather and aurora potential, we where both filmed beside my old faithful Meade 8" LX10 S. Cassegrain which was a rather special moment for me because this instrument had introduced me to my first telescopic comets as well as my first 500 hours of visual comet hunting so it was rather fitting that DII (Discovery II is the code name for this instrument for my log book) was featured in the clip due to its sentimental value to me. We did many takes of our chat beside DII including extra footage of me observing through the eyepiece and during this first shoot with the team it felt quite surreal and dream-like because there where four people standing around me which I had never met before in my life, a massive tv camera was mounted watching me, directly above my head was a microphone on an extension pole and mounted in the yard was a bright light which was used to get the correct angle of light on me, at this stage it was dusk and moody and we all jumped on the spot to stay warm, it was obvious we had a very cold night in store. Several of my neighbours walked past but I don't even know if they noticed what had been going on, if only then knew The Once Show where here, I was laughing inside to myself just thinking about it.

The shoot went well then we went inside to the much welcomed heat and proceeded upstairs to my bedroom for another scene which was needed for the visual story board. The entire crew had managed to squeeze into my room with tv camera, sound boom and lights and again we did take after take with Marty beside me as we studied the computer screen and the various weather and aurora websites to get a final run down on what was happening while addressing the geomagnetic forecast, sunspots, satellite images etc. Once this was completed we were free to move on to the next stage and soon there where three car loads of us heading N to the coast for the most important part of all. We got held up in Coleraine in very slow moving traffic and I was shocked to see that it was caused by a band parade, it was most unusual to see one marching through a large town at this time of year, I could only imagine what Marty and Hannah were thinking. We drove through darkness and showers then arrived at the coast however before further filming began we all needed to warm up and get something to eat and after 21.00 we where seated around a large table eating a nice dinner in Bushmills at the expense of the BBC which was a lovely treat. I had the Donegal Salmon followed by a coffee latte which gave me a much needed glow. Marty had his smart phone perched upright on the table with one of the online aurora activity charts which showed the real time position of the auroral oval which refreshed on a regular basis so we could eat while being able to monitor the situation, it was clear at this stage that the CME hadn't arrived yet however that didn't mean we could sit around wasting time as Hannah needed more footage including a look at our location.

During the hours leading up to their flight I had been asked which locations I had in mind so I chose three and enquiries ensued to the relative authorities to get permission to film on their location in advance which included contacting the National Trust, some areas were more difficult than others however one of the locations I had selected was Ballintoy Harbour - one of my personal favourite locations along the Antrim coast - so it was decided that this would be where we would shoot from. The conversation around the table was entertaining with the crew talking about their favorite moments on The One Show, we even covered the subjects of not only auroras but moonbows and crop circles which got the interest of the waiter who was serving us, he introduced himself and said he was listening into the conversation and was fascinated and wished he was sitting at our table. Dinner was over and it was back to work and soon our three cars where navigating around the dark coastal roads of N. Ireland into the unknown and by 22.00 we where on location at Ballintoy Harbour.

The One Show Aurora Hunt - Ballintoy Harbour

Everything seemed to happen very fast after this, the harbour was amazing as always but very dark and cold with a few rain squalls blowing through making life outside rather unpleasant. The cloud cover was stubborn and lingered for a long time with only very small breaks which contradicted the forecast so we had to be patient. Filming then commenced once again however it was more challenging than usual because the crew had to shoot at night outside which wasn't the norm so powerful lights where mounted pointing in strategic locations then the tv camera and long sound mike where out again and by this time I had grown accustomed to the sight and after a few takes it all seemed rather normal in a strange sort of way. More film was taken with Marty and I standing by the shore doing an update on the situation then video was taken of me driving down the harbour road into the car park with headlights on so it could be added to the story, this was repeated a number of times so I had to drive back to the top, turn on the narrow bend, then drive back down past the camera in the dark while trying not to hit the crew then the scene was repeated at a different angle. The sky stayed temperamental the entire however later in the night the clouds yawned open towards the W and a brilliant moon came into view casting a beautiful glitter path across the sea and beach so the crew quickly went into action to take advantage of the opportunity and filmed Marty and I walking along the beach talking with the moon above us which I'm sure must have been a nice scene.

By 01.30 it was still cloudy and with the charts indicating no aurora activity yet the crew decided to call it a night and go back as other work needed to be done including some much needed rest for the following day. I decided to stay longer as I wanted to get in some photography and also because fellow photographer Paul Martin from Omagh was on location with us doing photography and after the same thing so Paul and I spent the rest of the night taking exposures of the convection over the ocean and within a short time span the sky was completely clear and utterly beautiful in every direction however the aurora never appeared. The image above shows Paul in action on the Ballintoy coast with stars and moonlit convection, it was a nasty night with a notable wind chill and at times we had to take shelter from the showers and wind in a large cave. We relocated to the E side of the harbour exploring new territory under a brilliant starry sky however we decided to end the session as both of us were tired and cold and the sky was behaving itself, it was a long drive for both of us and I was back home for 04.00 and I felt chilled to the bone and sleep was met with open arms.

The One Show Filming Day 2 - November 23rd/24th

I awoke early on the morning of the 23rd feeling truly awful. I had little sleep once again and something was working on me because my back was soaked in a cold sweat and my head spun as the rest of me shivered, it felt like I just couldn't keep warm and at that moment in time the last thing I wanted to do was spend another long cold night at the coast which I was certain would put me out of action for some time, I knew I had been spending too many cold nights out doing photography and my body had had enough, however the prospect of seeing an aurora tonight with the crew was something I was not going to pass on so I forced myself out of bed and got myself in a more positive state of mind. I had a shave followed by a hot shower and warm food then I spent some time on the internet researching the aurora prospects for the hours ahead, this would be the crew's last night in the country so I really hoped the sky would deliver something nice. First the weather forecast, there where showers and a few thunderstorms over the ocean to the W however the consensus was for a clear moonlit night with a harsh frost with temps dropping to -4 degrees C so it looked excellent for what we needed. Then the most important forecast of all which was the geomagnetic kind, ie: what would the spaceweather be doing?, this was the official forecast issued...

Geophysical Activity Forecast: The geomagnetic field is expected to be at quiet to unsettled levels on day one (22 Nov). On day two (23 Nov) conditions are expected to increase to unsettled to minor storm levels with a chance for major storm levels due to the arrival of 21 and 22 Nov CMEs. Conditions are expected to decrease to unsettled to active with a chance for minor storm levels on day three (24 Nov) with CME effects combined with a favorably positioned coronal hole. A chance for a proton event exists on days one, two, and three (22 Nov, 23 Nov, 24 Nov) due to a chance of high solar flare activity and a favorable position of Region 1618.

This was an exciting forecast which had not only maintained its positive nature for a 48 hour period but it had also been upgraded to major storm conditions. Furthermore an animated forecast had been issued predicting when we could expect to get a hit, the situation was that a healthy Earth-directed CME was due to impact during the afternoon at approx 15.00 UT followed by a glancing blow from a second CME around midnight. 15.00 came and went and still there was no sign of activity however this didn't bother me as forecasts can be in error by a margin of at least + or - 7 hours. The positive side was that the impact was likely at any minute and when it did it could disturb the magnetosphere enough to produce auroras which could be visible all night long and even into the following night so all was looking good. I was now feeling in top form and very focused on the night ahead and with camera gear sorted I left my house just as the sun began sinking into the SW sky with a nice moody glow.

The drive to the N coast went smoothly and I managed to miss the rush hour traffic which was great and through the window for the entire journey was a very photogenic bright twilight sky which was blue, cold, and punctuated at the horizon by a long line of cold air convection in the form of small anvils and towers all lit pink by the Sun which was already below the horizon, it was certainly a nice introduction to the night and on any other occasion I would have stopped for images but time was pressing and I wanted to get to my destination asap. I stopped at Dunluce Castle for a quick brew and it was already bitterly cold outside and obvious we all would be in for a tough night ahead. I got a call from Hannah informing me they where located in a hotel outside Portrush so I drove back and met the crew at the table where we all had something to eat and I enjoyed another beautiful latte. During the day the crew had been doing more filming with Marty doing his science piece on location at the coast and the crew also managed to check out Dunluce Castle and the Giant's Causeway which was great to hear.

BBC The One Show Aurora Hunt - Ballintoy Harbour

We had all eaten and were now wearing our warmest clothes and as darkness descended on night two it felt like a case of deja vu with three car loads of us once again navigating the coastal roads and before long we where parked at Ballintoy harbour under a sky filled with stars and a bright moon shinning proudly in the E. Phone and internet reception can be intermittent in this area and since I had no internet on mine anyway (I don't own a smart phone) I needed to know what was happening online however my wonderful girlfriend Roisin came to my rescue. Despite her working late that evening and already busy she very kindly took time out to text me regarding the latest news on the aurora activity by using the 'traffic lights' activity charts and it was around this time that I got her first text of the night saying high latitudes were on yellow and middle latitudes on green, that simply meant there was no aurora so the CME hadn't arrived yet. This news was not a shock and gave us time to do other things so everyone got busy, the next few hours were a bit of a blur for me and seemed to be filled with a lot of time setting up gear and getting the equipment tuned while brain storming ideas on location, any breaks were taken advantage of by warming up inside the car with a quick brew from the flask then back outside again. I really wanted to get images of the crew against the starry sky or even in daylight however there simply wasn't much time available as we were always busy, I only managed to get this one exposure of Hannah setting up a DSLR for time lapse photography.

The One Show Aurora Hunt - Ballintoy Harbour

During this busy period I recall meeting a photographer from Dungiven who very kindly helped out with setting up the camera, he also informed us that the aurora potential had been addressed on the T.V which increased the level of excitement even further. The sound and camera men Michael and David were fantastic to work with, they knew exactly how they wanted a scene to be shot and did a fantastic job of working their trade in the dark which I'm sure must have been very challenging. I managed to get a quick image in the middle of everything showing the famous Roark's Kitchen cottage up close at 10mm ultra wide angle with the moonlit sky and stars behind but the shooting was short lived as more filming had to be done. Marty and I did more talking scenes then Hannah came up with the idea of shooting a time lapse of us both sitting (and standing) on the seats near the shore watching the sky waiting on the aurora, the scene looked really cool on the LCD screen when she played it back to us and I hope it gets used in the final film. Marty was great fun to be around and I had instantly liked him the moment we met, he was intelligent, eccentric, and full of information and amusing stories so he kept me well entertained during the cold waiting period between filming, over the course of the two nights I learned some fascinating things from Marty about microbiology and many other subjects.

The One Show Aurora Hunt - Ballintoy Harbour

My phone beeped in my pocket and I had a look while mentally crossing my fingers. It was Roisin and this time she had positive news to impart to me. High latitudes had gone red and middle latitudes were on green, what this meant was that there was no aurora for us however there had been a significant surge in activity at higher northern latitudes where sky watchers were now observing a spectacular aurora display. Typically this was a good sign because when high latitudes went red it meant that middle latitudes would follow soon with some kind of aurora activity and especially so if the IMF tilted into a negative aspect which it usually does more often than it doesn't, I explained this to the crew and we were ready for the show. Within min's of receiving the text I took this random exposure facing N and JACKPOT!, there was an aurora visible!. Sometimes the camera can detect an aurora which the human eye can miss, especially if it is faint or subdued by bright moonlight which was the reason why I took this exposure so the tactic had worked like a charm. I could faintly see a vertical beam of light suddenly appear - wax in brightness then fade - with the naked eye and Hannah saw it too. This test image was interesting because you can only see the rays with no sign of the classic green auroral arc above the horizon, the reason was that the position of the auroral oval was over one 1000km further N and hence not over N. Ireland however the rays on camera where so tall (up to 100km in height) that we could detect them from this far S, so if the IMF tilted S as well then the oval would soon appear over N. Ireland and could be quite a sight. That's Marty in the red jacket walking along the beach between filming, you can see the red rays between him and cottage.

The One Show Aurora Hunt - Ballintoy Harbour

More filming took place with Marty and I chatting about the recent news along with footage showing the image on my camera's LCD screen explaining what we were looking at then more general footage of me taking exposures with the camera with sound boom above my head. It was already well after midnight and I was beginning to wonder when this high latitude aurora was going to surge south in our direction, then as if in response my phone beeped again and the news was great, middle latitudes were now on yellow which meant there was aurora activity from our location and sure enough we could see a green arc glowing above the horizon which hadn't been there before. We were in business and I was delighted because this was a technical success for me so I was relieved that nature had presented us with an aurora after two long cold nights. Another piece of filming ensued with Marty then Michael and David had to leave to prepare for another job so Hannah, Marty, and myself took care of the remaining work which needed to be done.

It was bitterly cold with a breeze which seemed to penetrate through all my layers of clothing however I put that uncomfortable feeling to the side and let myself become delightfully distracted by the aurora itself. Now it was time for still images of the aurora so Hannah and I decided to change location and with camera gear in hand we walked around to the E side of the harbour, walked down a dark slanted path and navigated over sections of sand, rock pools, rocks and pools of sea water, the tide was out so we where able to get onto a region of the coastline which normally would be forbidden in a rough sea and with a little help from our head torches we made it to our location which was on top of a large outcrop of rocks which provided us with an elevated natural platform with a flat ocean horizon directly in front which was perfect for our requirements. If you go back to the fourth image down in this report you will see the location better, that formation of rocks some distance away to the right of frame is where we where now standing. The above image was at 10mm showing Hannah setting up her DSLR for a long time lapse of the aurora and once it was shooting we left it in peace and watched the sky, this was a nice period because we were finally seeing an aurora and we both felt more connected with nature, it also gave me a chance to get images of the display myself.

The One Show Aurora Hunt - Ballintoy Harbour

I took as many stills as I could and was constantly changing between three different lens, the F/3.5 10-22mm, F/3.5 18-55mm and 50mm F/1.8. The above was with the 18mm kit lens. Hannah and I could see the green auroral arc despite the moonlight and at times I could make out faint vertical rays and even a subtle red colour to the sky some 20 degrees above the arc. I had to increase the saturation a little to bring the colours out as the moonlight tended to mess with the camera's colour recording ability.

The One Show Aurora Hunt - Ballintoy Harbour

These were both with the 50mm F/1.8 which captured the detail exceedingly well complete with pronounced curve to the green arc and well defined green and red beams. You can also make out convection many miles away over the ocean from cold air mass showers with a cb complete with anvil to the LHS.

The One Show Aurora Hunt - Ballintoy Harbour

This was my favourite part of the night and the climax of these last two cold nights at the coast. It was quite surreal standing on these ancient rocks with the moonlit ocean in front as a faint aurora appeared in the sky like a ghostly apparition with The One Show crew beside me, it was a really special moment, this was my 107th aurora display, it wasn't memorable for its brightness however it is unforgettable for the company I had and the experience it gave me. Marty joined us and we did a some brief filming of our boots as we walked across the rocks under torch light then we all had a quiet moment to take in the atmosphere. It was dangerous under foot with large cavernous holes in the rocks straight to the ocean below and on occasion the sea would send a loud spray of water upwards through the natural apertures in the rocks which sounded like a Whale looming somewhere under the water. A bright gibbous moon - now lower in the S - stood out in bold relief against the crystal clear sky with a tack sharp terminator sporting wonderful detail even with the naked eye. Turning around we could see a splendid display of Winter stars on show with Procyon, Orion, Rigel and Betelgeuse all winking softly while below brilliant Sirius 'The Dog Star' shone like a diamond with its glitter path clearly visible on the ocean below between the rocks, it really was a magical place to be.

The One Show Aurora Hunt - Ballintoy Harbour

The three of us began the walk back to the car park, said our farewells, shook hands and I hit the road for home. The steep curving road from the harbour to higher ground was in fine condition but once I made it to the main coastal road it was a different story indeed. There was a severe frost covering much of the country and the narrow roads sparkled brilliant white under the moon as if it was a layer of snow so I reduced my speed to accommodate the road conditions, the headlights from the One Show crew where behind me at one point but then I lost them as I advanced along the coastal route. Somewhere between Ballintoy and White Park Bay I was contemplating the idea of pulling over and texting the crew to warn them about the road conditions when suddenly the car hit black ice and I lost complete control in an instant, the rear of the car fish tailed wildly across both sides of the narrow road five times as I tried to counter steer and gain control each time however it was clear there was no hope of a fast recovery and despite my best efforts the car slid off the road to the left and slammed into a rock embankment with brutal force and just second's before impact I was sure I was going to die and there was nothing I could do, it all happened so fast and all I could think was 'why was I here in this car?' - the car came to a stop after it 'bounced' off the embankment and I was utterly astonished that I had come to no ill harm, in fact, I didn't even have a scratch!. The only change that had taken place was that my mobile phone had been thrown out off my trouser pocket (deep pockets too) and had landed on the floor near the passenger seat, I don't even understand how that happened, it's strange the kind of forces at work.

From the way the side of the car hit I was sure all the side panels would have been dented in and even the windows smashed but that was not the case, I couldn't believe the lack of physical damage to the car so I got back in and continued driving however by this stage there was a delayed reaction and I felt a little in shock so I had to calm myself down, I put down the window to let cold air in, then got focused again. That drive home was an absolute nightmare because the roads were white with ice and frost the entire journey home and in fear of another accident I drove all the way back between 20mph and 30mph and I was fighting sleep too, I wanted to just pull over on the side of the road and go to sleep but the cold was too much so I had to tough it out until I got home. I arrived back at 04.00 utterly exhausted. Early the next morning I went out to check the car which was when the above image was taken, it was like a Winter wonderland with a thick white frost covering the entire neighbourhood and quite beautiful and festive despite the events which happened hours earlier. The wheel cover had been smashed to pieces and the rim was bent upwards (better than down) and the rear bumper was hanging down a little but the damage was minor and the car could easily be repaired for little expense. I was just delighted to be alive and I suspect that the experience gained from driving on the snow and ice during the severe Winters of 2009 and 2010 probably helped me too so that was a positive.

What an eventful week of photography - two faint auroras, a family Seal encounter, BBC camera crew, little sleep, sick, and almost wiped out in a road accident which is about enough excitement for one report!. So what happened the aurora?, as it turned out over a three night period this was the very best the aurora got from our latitude so we were fortunate enough to have seen it at its peak magnitude however it was a very faint display which teased us and never put on the epic show which was forecast by spaceweather scientists, this is all part of the allure of aurora hunting and if anything else it underscores just how unpredictable auroras can be despite the state of the art satellites monitoring the sun every day of the year. This is also why I love aurora photography, this field of astronomical photography will test your patience, tease you, reduce you almost to tears but it can also be incredibly rewarding for the sky will always acknowledge and reward your dedication with heart warming surprises and jaw dropping visual shows which will put an everlasting smile on your face. I really do love this subject and I know from experience that sometimes you really do have to work hard for the results however when the universe gives back it will do so with magnificent abundance. I would like to thank Hannah, Marty, Michael and David for all their hard work and for going through the aurora hunting experience at all hours of the night along the infamous coastline of N. Ireland and I hope the final 4 and 1/2 min film for The One Show turns out well. I will end this report with a video clip of the Seals, this a compressed and edited version almost 14 min's in duration however it's worth watching all the way through with the lights out and a warm brew. Thanks very much for reading.


Martin McKenna

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