During the early hours of Tuesday, November 29th, an active cold front passed through Ireland delivering heavy rain, strong winds, and significant flooding. During the afternoon the same front crossed the Irish Sea into Britain where it developed a squall line with line echo wave pattern (LEWP) which spawned damaging tornadoes over Manchester and Wales. My attention was then drawn to the more photogenic post-frontal maritime airmass which would be moving in across N. Ireland in the wake of the front. I had studied the online charts 12 hours in advance and already made my decision then that I would be going on a night time storm chase to the Co. Antrim coast. The set-up looked encouraging with 100-200 CAPE with LI's between 0 and -1 with an unstable SWly flow across warm sea surface temps (SSTs) and a frigid cool pool of air aloft with upper atmospheric temps between - 30 and - 40 degrees C which would be great for lightning. Mix in an active trough and there was the potential for lively convective showers over the N and NW coastal regions of a wintry nature with the possibility of ocean generated thunderstorms. Further inland these same showers had the potential to produce snow on high ground however I decided to shun those for the greater photogenic potential of the coast, and besides, the geomagnetic field was unsettled which meant there would be a slight chance of an aurora display, so with the potential of getting the northern lights and lightning it was an opportunity not to be missed.
I got prepared during the afternoon with suitable layers of clothing, put £10.00 of petrol in the car and bought an assortment of rubbish food from the local petrol station. A couple of packets of crisps, a medium sized box of roses, several mince pies and a selection of sugary drinks along with a large bottle of water. This was hardly a healthy diet but my reasons were justified this time because I needed an abundance of sugar and salt in my body to boost energy levels and keep me warm with plenty of fluids for hydration purposes. It could be a long night and with the kind of wicked weather at the coast associated with these Atlantic low pressure systems it was more than likely going to be horrendous so I simply needed to keep myself fueled. I began the chase at 16.30UT before it go dark and headed due N towards the coast. I arrived at the Antrim coastline in good time just as the twilight sky was merging into darkness then I stopped at Dunluce Castle and admired the view. A beautiful slender crescent moon was well placed in the SW begging for attention in the wonderful deep blue star-filled sky which looked very festive, the only thing missing was a manger below it. I set-up the camera to take a few star shots and was immediately overcome by the horrible conditions, there were strong gusts of wind blowing in from the sea which shook my camera and the wind chill was painful, my hands felt like they were dipped into a bucket of ice, it was extremely unpleasant to say the least.
I decided a change of scenery was needed and felt a strong desire for some new visual stimulation with a greater potential for photo opportunities and I knew exactly where to go. I drove on around the coast further N and E past the Giant's Causeway, past Bushmills and found what I was looking for, a place called Ballintoy Harbour located between Bushmills and Ballycastle and less than a mile from Ballintoy itself. I took the L turn off the main road and descended downhill towards the harbour, the road was treacherous enough in the dark which dipped steeply down in a spiral pattern with water rushing down the road in a torrent, I was briefly worried that I might loose traction and slide off the road and if that happened it would be over the face of a cliff into the sea below. I finally arrived at the bottom and pulled into the car park then switched off all lights and adjusted to my new environment.
Once my eyes were dark adapted I took in where I was. Ballintoy Harbour is a very old fishing harbour located on the ancient Jurassic-age coastline which is of extreme interest to geologists and paleontologists due to its age and basalt origins, at one stage in the past this place was all volcanic lava, since then it had cooled and hardened into the exotic rock formations which are visible for all to see. The harbour is a famous location for watching Atlantic storms and is also well known for its dangerous waters with strong and unpredictable waves, tides, and eddies which have a tragic history all of their own. There is something very special about this place, I have visited it many times in daylight but never before had I been here at night and when I looked around me I was glad that I now had. This place actually feels ancient, you can almost sense spirits among the rocks and some primordial stirring within your blood as if your own senses know that the origin of humans came from those mysterious waters.
The moon had set and the sky was plunged into darkness with stunning starscapes on view with a well defined Milky Way cutting a swathe through the inky darkness. I was in love with this place already and couldn't wait to get out and take images. The scenery wasn't anything as serene as the above image might portray because once I stepped outside the car it was like someone had flicked a switch unleashing the atmospheric hounds from hell. There were intense gusts of wind blasting the rocks and screeching around the tall cliff face to the W and somewhere in the distance among the dark crevices I could hear the wind howl and moan in unpredictable patterns which made the place feel like it was alive, and with not a single human there other than myself I felt a curious combination of excitement, discovery, and fear. The above image shows my location on the shore looking N to NW across the ocean, in that direction it was absolutely pitch black however behind me was a single man made sodium light which cast its orange glow across the foreground which benefited my photography greatly because it illuminated the shore, beach, and rocks in its soft light which came up well in the exposures so the colours are all natural. The isolated cottage is actually a cafe which is a famous little place which serves refreshments, ice cream, and hot food which makes it a popular place for tourists. The stars of Ursa Major can be seen above the cottage along with a convective updraught tower miles away over the ocean, that single tower was the first sign of bigger things to come.
The wind was attacking the tripod which caused every image I took to shake which ruined most of my shots, I tried holding onto the tripod with both hands using my body weight to keep it steady however it only worked to a degree, I decided to get off the concrete path I was on and walk to lower ground and set-up on the beach which helped a little. The view was amazing here and I forgot all about the cold and wind, the ancient rocks jutting skyward from the ocean reminded me of Jurassic Park and the motion of the sea crashing and swirling around them before moving onto the beach was mesmerizing, I lost all track of time and epoch, this could have been thousands of years in the past and I wouldn't have known. The darkness hid alot and my eyes could only discern certain things such as the orange sand, the seaweed, and the transient form of a bigger wave hitting the rocks, there was alot of movement and strangeness to the point were I was half expecting to see a mermaid. I felt a little lost and lonely here however my old friends the stars made me feel at home and I was back in form soaking up the experience in a positive manner. Above are Corona Borealis, Bootes, and Ursa Major with Canis Minor below, if you look closely you can see the streak of a faint meteor within Bootes, it was likely a Taurid as I would see many more of them later.
I walked closer to the sea which felt a litter unnerving because I couldn't see much of it and the sudden crash and boom of waves impacting rocks stiffened my senses and played havoc with my imagination. On several occasions the sea came in and covered my tripod and boots taking me by surprise. At this stage trouble was brewing and I began to see flashes of lightning from somewhere out W (L) which reflected off the clouds all around the sky, tens of miles away over the W coast of N. Ireland was a large thunderstorm firing c-g bolts over Donegal and the ocean, it was moving from SW to NE and would soon be in view, many people would later report seeing the lightning from this cell from many miles away at inland locations. The thickening cloud in the image moving in from the L was a sign that trouble was brewing.
Flashes of lightning continued as the storm got closer and the clouds began to swallow up the stars from the sky, the bowl of the Big Dipper can be seen here before everything changed dramatically. With the naked eye the sky was completely black however this long exposure picked up some of the cloud structure on the leading edge of the storm which looked like an outflow or gust front-type feature, the other half of the storm was out of frame to the L.
That large mass of cloud is the thunderstorm itself located some 30+ miles away over the sea between N. Ireland and Scotland, moving L to R as it crossed the ocean in front of me, I had a great side-on view of it as lightning flashed sporadically from the cell, as usual it flashed when I ended my exposure and vice versa. The drowndraught crossed the ocean and hit my location as a sudden squall which tried to knock my camera over so I had to grab it with both hands and hope for the best. It was a thrill to watch this storm over the dark ocean from a beach at night with brilliant blue and white lightning flashes casting shadows onto the sand and illuminating my face with the rich stars visible above the storm. As I watched it produced 13 flashes of lightning and during one surreal moment a movement caught the corner of my eye where I saw a large Rat with a long tail scuttling across the beach no more than 3m from me, I wondered how many more where creeping through the dark seaweed, the strange sighting ended with a low but audible rumble of thunder which arrived across the black ocean.
I did get lucky and caught one lightning strobe however a sudden squall shook the camera so hard that it ruined the image hence the messed up star trails. If you have a keen eye you might spot the actual c-g bolt itself buried within that flash under the cell, tip: it's just to the R of that rock. This was soon followed by periods of thick cloud, gusts of wind, and heavy sleet showers which would be followed by a new clearance and this theme continued for some time. When this happened I would take shelter in the car and enjoy the warm air from the heater while eating and listening to a Christmas CD which felt quite surreal, I enjoyed listening to 'The Power of Love' by Frankie Goes To Hollywood over and over. The phone reception at this location was awful, I was having trouble sending and receiving phone calls and text messages from my girlfriend and sister, after all it was important to check in and let everyone know I was safe but with no reception I simply couldn't do that so I ended up having to drive to higher ground going back up the spiral road again and parked beside an old church and graveyard so I could get a signal. It was quite miserable at this point with the gales rocking the car on its suspension with nasty sleet whacking the windows. I guess I was meant to be near this church, in fact it was fitting considering what I was doing there because the Ballintoy Church lost its iron steeple back in the 1800s due to a hurricane!.
Later in the night I drove half way up the hill and parked at the side of that narrow twisting road to check out a new location near the Harbour, when I say it was dark here I mean it was dark!. There was a stone path at the edge of the cliff which swept down and to the R into the darkness on the image, I could just make out a sheen to the undulating stones and that was about it. The ocean was beyond and looked stunning so I decided to take a few shots, I wanted an unobstructed view and spotting the dark outline of a small mound I intended to climb it and set-up my tripod, I stood on the mound and it gave way beneath me, it wasn't a mound made of rock or earth, instead it was wet mud which collapsed under me so I quickly stepped back just in time to see the area I was standing on fall down a cliff onto the sea below, that was too close for comfort. At this time I could easily see a faint green enhancement to the sky which was very diffuse in nature and of a low surface brightness, this place was pitch black so it was obvious that there was a weak aurora display in progress, it extended from NW to NE, in the above image it was visible between Procyon and Gemini. Orion the Hunter can also be seen rising above the clouds on the RHS.
Another of the same scene, this time in portrait fashion, in the foreground you can see the stone path I mentioned and what was left of the muddy mound I stood on. I saw many faint meteors, the elusive Gegenschein, and mighty planet Jupiter which truly was the king of the solar system. I searched out new vantage points near the bottom of the cliffs to the R but it was so dark that I returned to the top of the hill again, there were very strange noises too which sent a chill up my spine.
I returned to my favourite spot, had another food and Christmas song fest, then returned to the bitter night air to re-shoot the sky over the cottage with clearing storm clouds above and the constellations of Lyra, Draco, and Ursa Major on view. I could still see the subtle green glow from the aurora which was still easily visible with the naked eye, what a perfect location this was, the sky sector behind the cottage looked N to NW so it would be an ideal location for major auroras, NLCs, moonbows, night storms and more so I will be returning here again for certain.
On the beach again close to the sea which waxed and waned with the strong tide. To the L a squally shower can be seen moving into view with Vega to the R accompanied by the auroral glow with strong upper level winds blowing the anvil material downrange from the cell itself, I was getting buffeted by strong winds again so camera shake couldn't be avoided, being on the beach helped somewhat because the sand dampened the vibrations.
A decent clear period arrived so I spent some time shooting the cottage again taking advantage of the Milky Way within Cygnus and with Vega and Deneb aloft with the auroral glow.
The cottage is called Roark's Kitchen, I recall getting an ice cream there during the Summer and sweating outside in the strong sunshine which now seems like a long time ago.
This would be an ideal location for star trails.
I then returned to my dangerous location on high ground near the cliff edge where I had trouble opening the car door due to the wind which made an eerie noise as it screeched around the cliffs, out of frame to the L I could see suds/foam blowing across the harbour wall due to the squalls, it really was a wild night. Here's another shot of the green aurora against that magical foreground, I think I'm now hooked on coastal scenes.
Last image from the night looking N to NE across the ocean towards Rathlin Island where dark storm clouds can be seen in the distance, I saw two more blue flashes of lightning from the clouds behind the large rocks at centre originating storms over Scotland. The red and blue lights on the horizon are from two light houses, watching their beams silently sweeping the starry sky added to the surreal atmosphere, it was a beautiful sight to end the night, I enjoyed a fairwell deep breath of sea air, took it all in then began my drive back and with the roads so empty on a week night I made it home by 01.00UT, I have to say it was a fun adventure which I won't forget, thanks very much for reading.