Pitcairn Island

Sunday, June 30. At last, Pitcairn Island—but crashing breakers prevented the Paul Gauguin from reaching shore and, for some reason, pickup by Pitcairner longboats wasn’t an option either. All were disappointed, and the younger, able-bodied cruise guests (who could have managed the descent into the longboats via treacherous rope ladder), were especially frustrated.

The Pitcairners (if you’re not sure what this means, read this) boarded the Paul Gauguin with their wares for sale, and I was delighted to purchase some unique gifts for friends back home, a pretty wood dish made by Randy Christian (Fletcher Christian’s great-great-great-great-great-grandson), and several first day covers. Commemorative Pitcairn stamps were what I was anxious to find onshore anyway. Pitcairn Island was slated for an 80% partial eclipse, so while they were aboard I gifted a few dozen leftover Blackout Rally shades to the islanders and their children.

Since the onshore Pitcairn experience failed, the captain announced that we would pull up the anchor and make for the eclipse site early. New coordinates just beyond the edge of a thick cloud band were charted by Feinberg and Jay Andersen, the popular eclipse meteorologist who was stationed safely on land somewhere sunny in Chile.

A last minute weather update the day before the eclipse was delivered to the anxious chasers packed into the Grand Salon. Details about viewing were announced (the pool will be drained, the bar will be open, etc.) and questions were answered. It’s looking good for eclipse day, and spirits were high. I overheard more than one passenger proclaim, “seeing the eclipse will make up for not getting to Pitcairn.”

(Captain Toni made daily shipwide intercom announcements that rattled everyone’s nerves as we got closer to eclipse day. “Ladies and Gentlemen,” he would begin, slowly and formally, in his Croation accent. “I have some information. Some information that will be of very much interest to you.” Long pause. “As you know, we are doing our best to find the best possible eclipse viewing position for you.” Oh no, what the fuck NOW we think collectively, and all souls aboard freeze, hanging on his every word. “We are cruising at eighteen knots away from our position,” he continues. “At twenty seven degrees south latitude to longitude one hundred thirty degrees to arrive five hundred seventy nautical miles from latitude minus fifteen…” and so forth. After two minutes of this level of out-of-context technical information, he concludes. “And so we are hoping for good outcome. And good day.”)

I made my eclipse phenomena “shot list”—see photo—including an essential tip from Filippenko: “make sure you go to the bathroom.” Others ready their custom solar viewers. 

Somehow I was contacted via Twitter by a producer for New Zealand Public Radio; asking if I would submit to an interview for their First Up morning show about our ship and the nutty eclipse chasing passengers, all steaming for somewhere in the middle of the sea to witness three minutes of totality. How hopeful and confident I sound in this interview. I was still convinced that my eighth TSE would be a slam dunk.

Photos:

Approaching Pitcairn Island

Pitcairners come aboard

Eclipse update: New coordinates, a hopeful weather map

Fashioning custom solar filters

A smashing sunset after navigating around the backside of Pitcairn, and sailing onward to the eclipse

Cruise to Totality on the M/S Paul Gauguin

On Wednesday June 26 I boarded the M/S Paul Gauguin for the TravelQuest “South Pacific Cruise to Totality”.

The Paul Gauguin is no stranger to eclipse chasing; she has been guided successfully into the umbra in the South Pacific four times before. Captain Toni Mirkovic from Croatia and the trip organizers were cautiously optimistic about our chances of seeing the corona, though we will be cruising straight into some dodgy weather. We’re facing several days at sea before our first destination, Pitcairn Island.

The ship is small—300 passengers—but there are nooks and crannies to discover, and the swell of the daily routine to settle into. La Pallette and Le Grill and the pool bar are on deck 8; L’etoile (the buffet) on 5 is on the way down the carpeted hall from nightly cocktails at the casino and piano bar. Pass the reception and guest desk to push open a heavy door and descend a tight stairwell to the dive marina on aft deck 4. La Veranda, a fancier restaurant, is near the spa and boutique on 6.

People LOVE the Paul Gauguin. My first impression was, “this tub is fusty.” The ship is now twenty, and she looks it. The brown and gold upholstery and draperies are unfrayed but dated. The staterooms are stately but feel well used by others who’ve slept there before. In contrast, the sparkling expedition ship Orion makes the Paul Gauguin look like my parents’ basement. 

I met another traveler who was cruising on the Paul Gauguin for the 15th time—not a typo. I thought, What the hell? By the end of the journey I understood completely and had fallen in love with the PG, too. The ship has a coziness and a congenial personality, and she’s just the right size—big enough to offer variety yet each space feels intimate. It quickly turned into home.

Those who’ve been on a cruise know that there are too many scheduled activities and it’s impossible to attend them all: movies, lectures, games, crafts, lessons, and live music. Snacks and drinks and singalongs and partying by the pool. Something for everyone. I spent the first day or so regrouping after the week on Rapa Nui; plus, it was raining (and continued to rain off and on until we reached Bora Bora). <FORESHADOWING>

The cruise astronomy program was led by Rick Feinberg, Editor (and new owner) of Sky and Telescope magazine; and Alex Filippenko, professor of astronomy at Cal Berkeley and well known for his appearances in the documentary series The Universe. Throughout the week science lectures included “Highlights of the Southern Sky”; “How and Why Eclipses Happen” (for the virgins); “What Happened to Pluto?” and “Flying Through Pluto’s Shadow on Sofia”; “Dark Energy and the Runaway Universe”; and “Big Bang and Cosmic Inflation”, among others. The content seemed to get more and more dense the longer we were at sea. Though Filippenko and Feinberg are delightful lecturers, the subject matter quickly went over my head. The other passengers, a disproportionate number of science nerds, paid rapt attention to the presentations and packed the Grand Salon auditorium.

Rainy day activities at sea included eating and drinking. Making pandanas bracelets and eclipse-themed souvenirs with the Polynesian staff. More eating, and more drinking. I made some drawings of ship life, and a solemn sketch of cloud-shrouded Gambier Island as we passed.

When the ship neared Pitcairn Island there were tender tickets to procure and a preparation lecture to attend. Captain Toni was unsure we’d be able to set foot on land as stormy weather could prevent an approach to the dock. It’s possible that the Pitcairners could employ their longboats to shuttle us to shore, but that would require descending from the ship via a sketchy 18-foot rope ladder. We’ll know more tomorrow. The 1984 film “The Bounty” was screened as a pop refresher of the details of Christian Fletcher’s famous mutiny on the HMS Bounty. We’ll meet his direct descendants and the families of some of the other mutineers when we reach Pitcairn.

Easter Island, pre-eclipse 2019

Summer, 2019. I attempted my eighth total solar eclipse—my third one at sea. (November 2012 I watched from the deck of the expedition ship Orion in the Great Barrier Reef. The February ’98 totality was actually viewed from the beach on Aruba; about half the eclipse group aboard the Carnival Fascination opted for luck on land, while the others sailed away in search of clear skies somewhere in the Southern Caribbean Sea.)

I was excited to see my eighth TSE, but more excited to finally travel to Easter Island, which hosted her own eclipse in 2010. (All venues were sold out when I tried, very late in the game, to make travel arrangements that year.)

Happy again to be chasing the shadow with TravelQuest International; Aram Kaprielian and his expedition teams are brand consistent in that they always offer the best available accommodations, science experts, local guides, and overall travel experience to bookend the corona, the jewel of the journey. (Hopefully. More on that later.)

Easter Island—Rapa Nui—was nothing like I imagined, and exactly as I imagined. It’s more populated, with a busy “city” center, Hanga Roa. The hotel chosen for the TravelQuest guests, the Hangaroa Eco Village, was far more upscale and comfortable than I could have dreamed. I expected heat and mosquitos—none. But the Moai, those famous Easter Island heads, dotted the deforested landscape in the way they are always pictured. Ancient. Eerie. Confusing. Tikigod-like, without the party vibe. One thousand or so of these statues, heads and squat bodies representing humanoid beings, range between six and 30 feet tall. Their weight is unimaginable; several tons. How on earth were they made? How were they transported? Who are they? WHY are they?

There’s only one flight to and from Tahiti each week, so if you approach Rapa Nui from Faa’a on LATAM (formerly LAN Airlines, based in Santiago, Chile), you’ll have to kill time until you’re returned to Tahiti. There’s plenty to keep a visitor busy on Easter Island without feeling rushed, and in a week you can comfortably see it all.

We saw the sacred site of Tahai: three ceremonial ahus (platforms) with restored Moai, including the only one with his coral eyes reinserted. (On our last evening we watched the sun set behind the Moai of Tahai—where we started on day one—from the hill above. A Polynesian “buried” feast was served, cooked in an earthen (umu) oven, followed by a folkloric performance.

We explored Ahu Tongariki, the largest ahu on Easter Island with 15 Moai, backs to the sea. The second one from the right wears a cylindrical red “pukao” on his head. Is it a hat, or does it represent a faddish hairstyle once worn by influential Rapa Nui males? Just one of the many Moai mysteries. (The red scoria stone used to carve the topknots was quarried at Puna Pau, 12 miles from the site where the heads and bodies were made.) Ahu Tongariki is the place to be at sunrise.

We crawled through lava tubes and caves. We admired the vistas at Rano Kau, an extinct volcano and crater lake. We posed for goofy pictures at Ahu Akivi, where the seven Moai stand who represent the seven original Polynesian explorers to Rapa Nui, led by Hotu Matua. (So they say.) We paid a visit to the Ahu Nau Nau Moai at Anakena, Rapa Nui’s only sandy, white coral beach.

We learned about the intense Birdman contest (follow the link to read about this, and join me in wondering why this is not a reality competition show RIGHT NOW). We wandered around Orongo Village, a network of clever semiunderground homes, where the competitors prepared for the race past Motu Iti to Motu Nui where they would grab sooty tern eggs and swim back through the waves with the prized eggs protected in little headband baskets.

We visited the strange and striking Iglesia Hanga Roa—Holy Cross Church—where carvings that decorate the sanctuary inside and out combine Rapa Nui and Christian symbols. At the church I remained on a bench in the garden to sketch the exterior while the rest of the group attended a short lecture inside. I got lost in the complicated drawing; when I finally looked up, to my horror, our tour bus was gone. The saints were with me though; I caught up with it down the street at the Artisan Market where later I’d buy a Moai souvenir carved from makoi wood.

The money shot of Easter Island is Rano Raraku, the quarry that supplied the stone for almost all of the Moai. Nearly 900 Moai are scattered about the site—many of the recognizable ones featured on postcards and seen on Instagram—including the 170 ton “El Gigante” who lies flat on his back, possibly abandoned during construction or intended to remain in eternal peace that way.

“Isla de Pascua”—Easter Island’s Spanish name—is part of Region de Valparaiso in Chile, and it was hard to keep up with the languages spoken there. One simple interaction could contain ia orana or maeva (hello and welcome in Tahitian), mesa para dos? (table for two in Spanish), ko ai to’u ‘injoa? (what is your name in Rapa Nui), and thank you, come again!

Even more confusing are the conflicting “facts” presented about the historical events of the island and the origin of the Rapa Nui people. Oral history and DNA and architectural and artifact clues all point in different directions, and the various theorists are generally adamant that their own interpretation is gospel. The official museum above Ahu Tahai houses interesting tools and artifacts as well as a video that discounted much of what our guide just told us in front of the Moai below, a half an hour earlier. 

“The island was deforested to make log conveyances for the Moai, a cultural obsession, made worse by competitive clan wars.” Wrong: “the demise of the once-lush vegetation on Rapa Nui wasn’t ecocide, it was genocide, perpetrated by Europeans.” “The Moai weren’t rolled, they were ‘walked’ into various resting places on the island.” Or they were moved some other way; there are three top theories. “The Tongariki 15 were toppled during the island’s civil wars” versus “No, they weren’t, they were gently ‘put to sleep’, carefully lowered with ropes, face down.” Do not get anyone started on what the red pukao on the Moai heads represent, or incite the neverending debate about where the Rapa Nui people originated. Ahu Vinapu reflects Incan architecture; Thor Heyerdahl’s Kon Tiki expedition concurs: they came from South America. Or did they sail Northwest from Polynesian islands? Modern anthropologists are sure they are Marquesan—until someone else digs up a different story. Rapa Nui is the most most isolated inhabited nation in the world, and it’s bizarre there were—are—people there at all.

After a farewell dinner at the Eco Lodge, we transferred back to the airport for a midnight flight back to the InterContinental Tahiti Resort to await the Cruise to Totality.

Photos below:

Arrival on Rapa Nui; passport stamp

Hotel Hanga Roa Eco Village

Tahai

Ahu Tongariki; Puna Pau topknot

Ahu Akivi

Ahu Nau-Nau Moai and Anakena Beach

The Birdman; Orongo Village; Birdman motus

Iglesia Hanga Roa; Artisan market

Rano Raraku

Cliff by cave; wild guava; post office; local beer; boats at the marina

 

 

Hello Darkness, MOF

Prepping again for the next TSE! The welders glasses I’ve used for the partial phases since The Big One (Baja, 1991) are scratched, worn, and a little broken, but they’ll block blinding Sol’s rays one more time with a little duct tape patch on the seam. I hope.

I’m currently overpacking (example: three bathing suits) for the South Pacific “Cruise to Totality”, a TravelQuest tour aboard the MS Paul Gauguin that will sail from Tahiti on June 27. Her passengers will witness 3 minutes and 16 seconds of totality at sea on July 2, 2019, somewhere between Pitcairn Island and Rangiroa. Clear skies are expected, and I’ll have my eighth total solar eclipse in the can.

I’m almost more excited about the add-on excursion to Easter Island (Rapa Nui), a destination I’ve always wanted to see for myself. Something about those massive Moai heads are calling—so much so that I made an effort during a road trip to the Midwest this month to find and take a selfie with the “Moai Dude” sculpture. He stands in a suburban playground in Altoona, Iowa. Can’t wait to meet a real one…next week!

Blackout Rally recap

300-plus Airstream trailer enthusiasts—many members of the Oregon Airstream Club, Greater Los Angeles and NorCal units of the Wally Byam Airstream Club—camped together at Lake Simtustus in Madras, Oregon to await the Great American Eclipse. To kill time before totality, a 3-day party was planned that included an eclipse presentation and evening telescope starparties with astronomer Brian Bellis from California, a drawing class, a geology lecture, catered meals each day, Cachaça spirit tasting at happy hour, live entertainment (Antsy McClain from Nashville!), and a “Day on the Dock” party hosted by Airstream Adventures Northwest (Airstream Inc.’s #1 dealer).

Day on the Dock included a fishing derby, water toy relay race (involving a hydrobike, kayaks, and an SUP), incredible prizes, a big ol’ freezer of free ice cream, and a “Hot dogs for Hot Shots” fundraiser for local firefighters who have been working overtime this season to prepare for the eclipse in Central Oregon. (The Oregon Airstream Club raised well over $2000!)

 

On Monday August 21 all eyes were on the sky as we gathered together to await totality, wearing our custom eclipse glasses. Several rocked tin-foil hats.

At dawn on eclipse day I glared at the thin haze in the sky, and the brownish accumulation wafting from a wildfire on Warm Springs reservation toward our viewing location. “I’m not a fan,” said astronomer Bellis, and the eclipse chasers and telescope buffs agreed that the advertised crystal blue sky of Central Oregon was not to be that day—but visibility was improving with each passing hour and everyone remained hopeful and excited.

Several telescopes were positioned to study the significant sun spot activity and the big prominences. Bellis brought a terrific “funnel projector” and an attendee made a nice pinhole headbox. Lots of folks brought colanders from their Airstream galleys to observe rows of neat and orderly crescent projections. After planning this event for seven years, it was finally going down.

The phenomena occurred on cue as 10:19 a.m. approached: sharpened shadows, eerie changes in the light, and even shadowbands—my first viewing ever, collected on a big piece of white foam core.

What a thrill and blessing to hear the gasps and cheers of 350 people when totally slid into place after a dazzling diamond ring. (Post-eclipse regret: why didn’t I make an audio recording? Hopefully someone else did.)

Something amazing WAS captured on video and in a still shot by one of the guests: during totality, a skydiver sailed right across the eclipsed sun. I hope that guy makes some good money selling the image to Astronomy magazine.

The coronal streamers were only slightly diminished by the haze, and at third contact the crowd cheered again and many brushed away a tear or two. I held it together until someone crying ran up to give me a hug. Sharing the beauty of our planet with other Earthlings and feeling our place in the solar system and the universe together always touches me deeply, and I try to carry that feeling forward until it refreshes during the next eclipse. (2019, ya’ll.)

After totality we enjoyed a catered brunch and a champagne toast delivered by special guest Thomas D. Jones, NASA astronaut/spacewalker. He delivered a fascinating presentation about the ongoing role of NASA missions, answered questions about what it’s like to live and work in space, and stuck around to autograph books and inspire kids.

Until next time, clear skies!

Above: The Oregon Airstreamers

Below: Pin the moon on the sun; eclipse style statement; eclipse cookies; ‘scope action; awaiting totality; third contact smiles; NASA astronaut Tom Jones; I’m seven for seven! (Hubs is two for two.)

Oregon Airstream Blackout Rally

Several years ago when The Great American Eclipse hit my radar, I mentioned it to some of my fellow Oregon Airstream owners at a Wally Byam Caravan Club annual meeting.

“Hey, you guys, we should have a big rally during the total eclipse of the sun that’s coming up!” I said.

“Awesome idea. When is it?”

“2017!”

<crickets>

Down, girl, was the initial (and reasonable) reaction but when I brought it up again later it really was time to plan, and almost past time; many campsites and blocks of hotels in Central Oregon were already booked.

A team of co-hosts and rally volunteers stepped up to help organize the event, and we secured two campgrounds in a prime viewing location in Madras, Oregon.

I know what you’re thinking—sorry, the Oregon Airstream Blackout Rally has been sold out for nearly two years.

I never thought August 2017 would arrive, but here we are, and the Blackout Rally will be nothing short of epic: a weekend for 300 Airstreamers and their friends and families, packed with live entertainment, catered food, science presentations, star parties, a marina bash—and totality on the final day.

We just have to get there (and hope the dire traffic predictions are Fake News), and cross our fingers and toes for clear skies.

NASA and the Science Channel are placing their bets on Madras, as well: the location has a 95 to 98% chance of unobstructed viewing on August 21, and Accuweather is predicting 83° with “abundant sunshine”.

Review a collection of top eclipse articles and web posts on Tumblr at Second Contact.

Above: Madras, Oregon: “Top ranked viewing spot in the United States.”

Below: Early planners review eclipse data; co-host plots the Airstream trailer sites; host huddle in the marina store; lakeside campsites; marina dock; Airstreamers on site last summer; Oregon eclipse path; lovely lake locale; grill guy tests eclipse glasses; sorry, sold out!

Eclipse FAQ

When it comes to learning about the upcoming Great American Eclipse, there are no stupid questions. Well, maybe these:

Isn’t it too dark at night to see the eclipse?

If the solar eclipse is so dangerous to look at, why are they having it?

And this, as seen on a t-shirt: “I wanted to watch the eclipse but the stupid moon got in the way.”

A real live astronomer will be a guest at the Oregon Airstream Blackout Rally, and will answer questions about the celestial event of the summer.

What would you like to know but are embarrassed to ask? I’ll find out and report back. Ain’t no shame if you’re wondering if you’ll see the moon like it looks on the stamp, why the path travels from west to east, how you’ll be able to see totality with your eclipse glasses on, and why sunglasses won’t keep you from going blind.

Here’s an example of an interesting question I found online, from an astrophotographer who’ll attempt to photograph totality:

Does the size of the sun vary from one place to another? If someone in Australia took an unzoomed, unmagnified picture of the sun, would the area of the sun be equal to a photo taken, say, in Norway?

I have no idea why this has any bearing on astrophotography, but okay. Hmm.

Related: and I’m not too proud to say this out loud. How does the lunar eclipse path differ from the normal process of the phases of the moon? NO LAUGHING. Someone demonstrated this to me once using a lime, a lemon, and a tennis ball. It made sense then, but it didn’t stick.

My favorite question—to which I’ve heard only unsatisfactory answers—is this: does a total eclipse take place on any other planet? Yes, two moons of Saturn in our own solar system might produce an extremely inferior version of what we experience on Earth—but to our knowledge there are no others. (“In the vastness of the universe certainly there must be” doesn’t count.) Now for the follow up question (chill, anti-intelligent designers): what are the odds? Earthlings rely on one sun and one moon—one is 400 times larger than the other, and the other is 400 times farther away—making their discs in the sky the same size, allowing for a total eclipse. Wait, there’s more: what are the continued odds that Earth is the only planet we know of on which sentient, self-aware beings reside, who are able to appreciate the spectacle? Mind blown.