When we are lucky, the skies are clear and if light pollution is low then the sky above is filled with stars. It is a spectacular view to see and if you look close you can see some important starts that have been used for navigation for a very long time.

The Big Dipper

The Big Dipper is an asterism, or a group of notable stars that form a pattern, in the constellation Ursa Major, also known as the Great Bear. Due to it’s prominent shape and brightness, it is one of the most familiar star shapes in the northern sky. It contains eight stars where seven are usually visible to most. The Big Dipper is named for the shape the stars appear in, a handle and a bowl. Each of these stars have a name. Starting from the handle and going around to the bottom of the bowl they are known as: Alkaid, Mizar-Alcor (the first double star to be discovered through a telescope), Aloith, Megrex, Phecda, Merak and Dubhe.

Polaris

Another important star to know is the North Star, Polaris. This star is very easy to find if you know where the Big Dipper is. If you draw a line through the two outer stars of the bowl it points right to it! Many sailors’ depended on this star to navigate because it points the direction of north.

Using the Big Dipper to find the North Star
References
https://www.space.com/27758-big-dipper.html
http://earthsky.org/tonight/use-big-dipper-to-locate-polaris-the-north-star

In early August 2018, I was lucky to have a friend take me whale watching with a chartered whale watching company in Depoe Bay, the whale-watching hub on the Oregon coast. We left from the docks on a zodiac with the owner of the business as our captain. The zodiac is a good boat to whale watch from because it’s fairly quiet and it’s easier to get closer to the whales without disturbing them.

We saw a spout pretty early on, so we waited to watch the whale. Our guide was able to tell us that this particular whale is part of the Pacific Coast Feeding Group, a pod of gray whales that does not migrate because of the abundance of food on the Oregon coast. He was also able to name a couple of the other whales we say because of his ability to identify them based on their tail markings. The guide had a small vial of krill to show us what the whales were feeding on, and he provided us with some information about the species and other marine animals.

Our guide did an excellent job of driving out to the right spot to see as many whales as possible. At one point, the zodiac was surrounded by six or seven different whales. Overall, the guide was an excellent captain and provided us with answers to our questions, careful not to bombard us with information as we carefully watched for spouts.