On a clear night in Gisborne, the starry skies are downright awe-inducing. Not only are we blessed with dark skies for optimal viewing, but we also have a tremendous resource in local astronomer, astrophotographer, and teacher John Drummond, who also created Gisborne’s first astro tourism business last year. If you want to know more about what you’re looking at up there, he’s your man.
The timing of this story is bittersweet, as John has recently lost the person who first sparked his interest in astronomy. His mum, June Drummond, died at age 95 earlier this month. She bought John his first telescope, and opened his eyes to the wonders above. He remembers the exact moment it happened, “When I was about 10, my mother and I were walking down Rutene Road after swimming at the McRae baths. It was a December evening, and the stars had come out. She said ‘Look John, there’s the pot’ (part of the Orion constellation). And something just went off in my head, like the universe poured into my soul. And I’ve been fascinated with astronomy ever since.”
Gisborne has long had a well-established astronomy community, with a local club operating since the 60’s, and the opening of the Cook Observatory atop Kaiti Hill in 1971. As part of the junior section of the club, John started spending weekend nights up at the observatory. From the age of 12 or 13, his mum would drop him off up there for “meteor watches” with a small group of other guys, most of whom were a bit older. Around that time, an Auckland astronomer named Ronald MacIntosh was making a list of new meteor showers, and the boys would observe to confirm or deny what was on that list. They would stay up all night, rotating. Half the group would be up top on the parapet to observe, and they would phone down to the rest who were recording observations in a notebook. Their observations contributed to MacIntosh’s research and were even shared overseas.
John got even more excited in 1973, when an infamous bright comet appeared in the sky, Comet Kohoutek, named after the astronomer who discovered it, garnered a lot of hype in the press and fueled a religious movement, “Children of God,” who claimed the comet was a sign of impending apocalypse. For John, it was the first time he saw a comet with his own eyes, and it propelled him into a specialised interest in comets.
Astronomy took a bit of a back seat when he hit his teenage years and started spending a lot more time surfing and partying. He would often bunk school to go surfing, and remembers his brother running down to call him out of the water at Stock Route, “Lytton High School has phoned up, they wanna know where you are!” Of those rebellious years, John says laughingly, “if you told me then that I would be a school teacher now...”
John laments that he wasn’t more serious about his studies then, to pursue science and math at university, but his more circuitous path has made for an interesting journey. After high school he got into horticulture, and owned a Christian bookstore for six years. It was there that he met his wife Elizabeth, who expressed her interest in John through repeat visits to the bookstore. Sadly they only had a year and a half together before she died of cancer.
After Elizabeth’s passing John sold the bookshop and went traveling overseas, surfing world class breaks like Pipeline in Hawaii, Jeffrey’s Bay in South Africa, and even a novelty wave in Israel after a strong west wind created head high swell.
Travels concluded, John studied for his teachers qualification in Auckland and returned home to Gisborne to teach. While teaching, he continued to study, earning a Master of Science in Astronomy online through Swinburne University. It took about six years to complete, and once he finished the program in 2015, the doors opened to teach what he really loves. John now teaches Astronomy at both Sonrise Christian School and Gisborne Boys High.
Along the way, John became one of the country’s leading amateur astronomers and a prolific astrophotographer, served as President of the Royal Astronomical Society of New Zealand, and developed his own observatory. Friend and mentor Bill McLachlan, who John refers to as a “genius” had built a rotating observatory in the 1970s. The clever invention spun around on a pea combine harvester ring, and when Bill died, he left it to John. Eventually John bought land at Patutahi and moved Bill’s observatory there, and “Possum Observatory'' was born. Over the years Possum has expanded to include four powerful telescopes. Its rural location offers even better viewing than the now defunct Cook Observatory, which was declared an earthquake risk and closed in 2015.
John’s photos have won a number of national awards, have appeared in books and magazines around the world, and have even featured on postage stamps. They also serve an important research purpose. When astrophotographers around the world share their images and measurements, they can figure out the trajectory or path of the photographed comet or asteroid and determine if it might hit Earth.
Astrophotography requires a combination of passion and patience. In the days before DSLR photography, the process required looking through the crosshairs on the lens and physically guiding it on a guide star, often for hours. John is primarily self-taught, via trial and error. Every time he took an exposure, he’d record all the details in a notebook, which allowed him to review and replicate what worked best. He jokes, “the best book on astrophotography is the one I wrote.”
A big underlying motivation for John is discovering the undiscovered. For almost a decade he has been part of an international team, working through Ohio State University, that has been searching for exoplanets (planets that orbit other stars). So far they’ve discovered 20 of them, including one significant finding, which caused astronomers to question their modeling of how solar systems form.
Once John came painfully close to discovering a comet. In July 1999, he was comet hunting and came across a fuzzy blob. He was excited to examine further when two friends, Robbie Dobbie and Glen Furness, knocked on the door for a chat and a look around. By the time they left, the object had set. Days later came the announcement of a new comet discovery in Australia, and when John traced it back, he realized it was that blob he had seen. If he hadn’t opened the door to his friends, there could have been a Comet Drummond!
John’s studies continue, currently for a doctorate through the University of Southern Queensland. His thesis will focus on the history of astronomy, on New Zealand’s historical role in the study of comets, starting with indigenous Māori through until 2007 AD. Careful observers of the sky, they viewed comets as portents of doom, and had names for different appearing comets and even types of comet tails. John has a lot of research ahead of him and reckons he’ll probably finish around the time he retires. Luckily, he’s got an unwavering passion for the subject to carry him through, and it’s still the night sky that lights him up. John is notorious for falling asleep during a movie, but he can walk outside, dead tired, and the sight of the stars wakes him right back up with energy and enthusiasm.
In the meantime, John has brought to life an idea to share his knowledge and tools with the community via his business Gisborne Astro Tours. “I want people to feel the ‘wow’ and wonder of the universe”. He constructed a roll-off roof observatory at Possum Observatory, and opened for astro tours just before the first Level 4 lockdown in 2020. This has not been an easy time to launch a tourism business, but it’s now taking off. He also hosts school groups, and offers a more in-depth 6-week astronomy course open to anyone. For the astro tour details head to gisborneastrotours.com
A Gisborne Astro Tour includes a short lecture and slideshow by John, before moving outdoors to identify constellations by laser and look through the telescopes, which include one of the largest astro tourism telescopes in the country. Gisborne is nearly as dark as the famed Tekapo. But on this point, John has a request: please tilt your household security lights down! Many of these lights are placed in a way that shines upward into the sky, which defeats their purpose and cumulatively compromises our dark sky viewing.
Winter provides the best viewing, when the nights are long and the heart of the galaxy is overhead, but Summer offers some delights as well. Very soon we may be treated to a sighting of Comet Leonard, which could even be visible to the naked eye through early January. Unlike a shooting star, the comet will appear to sit in the sky, and possibly show a tail. John will be on watch photographing and welcoming visitors at Possum Observatory who want a better look.
For John, it really is about looking, and the reflection that it inspires. “My best day is a good day's surfing followed by a good night’s astronomy. When I surf I'm looking at the ocean, the beautiful landscape, and then at night I can just carry on looking, further out into the universe.”
One of his goals is to help people realise we are not the centre of the universe. We’re more like a speck of dust in the universe. John believes in God, but he doesn’t preach, “I let the stars speak for themselves.”
Story by Victoria Williams
Portrait by John Flatt
Astro Photography by John Drummond