Eclipse 2006

On March 29 an estimated 8,000 tourists, astronomers, NASA scientists and Egyptian officials gathered in Sallum, a town on the Libyan border usually visited only by workers and truckers entering and exiting Egypt.

The hotel in Mersa Matruh was 2 1/2 hours from the eclipse site and we rose unspeakably early to the pre-dawn rumble of motorcoaches and diesel fumes outside the hotel. “This reminds me of the Marine Corps,” groaned Ralph as we staggered from bed to bus seats in the dark.

At half past noon the moon passed before the sun in a perfect and cloudless sky. I’m now five for five.

I noticed that the shape of the corona—which is different every TSE and has something to do with sunspots and the solar magnetic field—exactly and mysteriously mirrored the design of the winged sun carvings on the back of my chair in the Nile Hilton dining room. I kept this observation to myself.

Above: Shades

Below:

Path of totality, 2006

Back on the bus

Press tent

Observing at Sallum. (Ralph. Get UP.)

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Mubarak

The official viewing site for the eclipse was in Sallum at what appeared to be an abandoned air force base under heavy checkpoint surveillance near the Libyan border.

The early waiting and partial phase hours in Egypt were more entertaining than at any other eclipse: an elaborate preparation was underway for the arrival of then-president Hosni Mubarak. Young soldiers in smart parade uniforms were arranged in rank, then in file, then re-aligned. Superior officers inspected and fussed and dusted: tunics were jerked, collars straightened, caps adjusted to the perfect angle. The soldiers finally stood in solemn formation in anticipation of their leader.

A large, multicolored seating area was assembled with gilt furniture, gold-potted plants, and a red carpet stairway leading to a massive portrait of the president’s big ol’ face.

Events took a turn in the minutes before his motorcade pulled up: a team of men in jumpsuits scrambled to dismantle the stage and hustle the red carpet and other decor to a low and modest tent adjacent to the showy grandstand—which I’m assuming was a decoy all along, presumably to deter an assassination attempt (!) Travelers to the site that day, was that your impression?

Mubarak, his wife, and several Ministers, Egyptian officials and various governmental hangers-on soon pulled up in their sleek motorcade and observed the eclipse from the lesser enclosure. Mubarek boarded a black sedan shortly after third contact and waved “wadaeaan” from the window.

Above: That’s him

Below:

Welcome to Salloum—however you spell it

Egyptian military at the ready

Mubarak’s viewing area—not Mubarak’s viewing area—Mubarak’s new viewing area

Bye now, gotta go stand trial

Close call

White puffy clouds filled the blue sky on eclipse day, and we eyed them nervously. The odds of the eclipse being obscured looked higher than 50-50, and prompted much discussion among the organizers.

Ashore, chances for good weather were fair—but if cumulus clouds formed, we were SOL unless it was sufficiently windy. Those on land would at least be ensured a fun day playing on the beach, or we could shop in the clean, touristy, Netherlandic town while we waited for totality.

Option 2: remain aboard the maneuverable ship that could be positioned under a cloudless patch in the sky at 2:09. The downside was a drag, though: no special area was reserved by the tour group—meaning jostling for position with the 2000 non-astronomers also on board—and there would be fewer diversions during the long hours of partiality.

I pitted out over this decision, and in the end Susan and I decided to roll the dice and accept the offer to stake out a section of beach in Oranjestad, Aruba, where we could snorkel DePalm Island. At 7:30 a.m. we waved goodbye to the Fascination, sailing south toward improved chances (and a longer TSE near the centerline).

It was definitely a nail-biter with clouds overhead all day, but the sky cleared beautifully for totality. There were happy smiles all around when the ship docked to pick us up; skies were clear at sea as well.

Above: Ominous clouds (cue the theme from Jaws)

Below:

Welcome to have fun at DePalm Island

Partial viewing

Three for three!

The Carnival Cruise eclipse

The “Millennium Eclipse” over the central Pacific and Atlantic oceans on Feb 26, 1998 promised to be a “tropical festival of science” (reported the AP). After the hardships of Bolivia an easy cruise sounded nice—and the Caribbean, in February? Escape rainy Portland? Heck yeah.

The 93-mile wide umbra was to pass over a string of Caribbean islands, including Aruba, Curacao, Guadeloupe and Antigua. I chose travel coordinator Gary Spears’ Astronomical League Eclipse Cruise on the Carnival ship Fascination for my next TSE, and conned my poor friend Susan to come along.

Hey, Carnival haters! I know you’re there. KMA. If you can’t have fun on a cruise, no matter the accommodations, you simply don’t know how to have a good time.

My second Astronomical League tour was again organized by Ken Willcox (may he rest in peace; Ken passed from cancer exactly one year after the Caribbean eclipse). Also in attendance was Mr. Eclipse himself, Fred Espenak of the NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center, and Mark Littman, author of Totality, Eclipses of the Sun.

Susan, poised and pretty and definitely a non-nerd, was a good sport and a blast to travel with. She stuck out like a hothouse orchid during all the corny ship activities, though—and in the dining room, surrounded by astronomy geeks in polo shirts, patiently listening to their chatter about lens grinding.

The Fascination carried us from San Juan Puerto Rico to six ports of call. In St. Thomas we sunbathed on the beach with a three-foot iguana under our chairs. In Guadeloupe we tasted rum and bought spice necklaces; in Grenada we hiked in the rain forest. We were afraid to disembark in Caracas, Venezuela—and totality occurred over Aruba (where the group was scheduled to be deposited ashore for an eclipse viewing beach party).

You know the Caribbean drill: touring the rum factory, booze cruising, steel drum bands. Except for the eclipse, the most exhilarating event was renting a car on the island of Guadeloupe and driving it out to hike to a waterfall where Susan and I lost track of time and distance. Running critically late for re-embarkation with no time to return the car, we simply abandoned it at the dock, keys in the ignition, and ran laughing up the gangplank as the ship sounded its deafening horn. (Astonishingly, my credit card statement later showed a debit for the car rental, no extra charges, no penalty. Some benevolent Guadeloupian must have returned it.)

Above: Dames at Sea

Below:

Path of totality, 1998 (via NASA)

Billboards

Formal night. Are you in this photo? Drop me a line!

 

 

Eclipse at 16,000 feet

To be accurate, 15,702 feet; a private train took us to view totality on the Altiplano along the Rio Mulatos-Potosi railway line, the world’s ninth highest.

The train was beyond rustic. Eight hours of squeaking metal, with hard seats in cold and cramped compartments. To get to the dining car (for yet another meal of pollo and fries) we had to take a giant step between the cars, the rushing tracks visible in the yawning, swaying crack below.

We boarded the evening before the eclipse and the train clattered through towns and remote villages for hours, higher and higher into the night. We handed our freebie paper eclipse shades and filters out to villagers when the train stopped. We moved through a huge All Souls Day celebration with covered tents and couples dancing, bands playing caporal and cumbia music, people holding up their beers to toast us as we pass.

All the trains to the centerline were coordinated from below and embarked from the station two miles apart, and the nighttime passage and early arrival time ensured that no smoke, light or vibration would pollute the eclipse viewing areas.

The train screeched to a stop at 4 a.m. where the weather satellite said to, somewhere outside Sevaroyo. With the trains filled with groggy travelers suddenly silently in place, it was hushed and dark and cold before dawn on eclipse morning.

No flashlights or flash photography were allowed. We were advised to dress in warm layers—there would be no heat, no generator—and prepare to be on camera: an accompanying film crew hired by National Geographic was about to go to work.

After a hurried breakfast we all piled out onto the dark desert with our scopes and cameras; we were late arriving, and there wasn’t much time for observing before sunrise at 6:30. I saw Crux, the Southern Cross for the first time—a stargazer’s milestone and proof that a North American traveler is very far from home.

I was excited to be observing at a high-altitude site—about as far from my sea level first eclipse as possible—where the coronal streamers were expected to be long and bright (as light from the corona wouldn’t be dulled by Earth’s atmosphere). The air was thin and the wind was chilly. Local children, families, and military guards armed with machine guns materialized to view partiality through our solar scopes and eclipse glasses. I later learned that only 600 souls were present on the Altiplano.

The short three-minute totality began at 8:22 a.m. at 35.80 degrees above horizon. As predicted, the delicate corona was detailed and luminous. I got a good look at Baily’s Beads (for those who don’t know, these are the dots of light in a ring formed by SUNLIGHT SHINING THROUGH THE MOUNTAINS ON THE MOON, sorry, I can hardly fathom it), and this time, both diamond rings.

Above: Sunrise on the Altiplano

Below:

Boarding the ENFE train

Viewing site

Locals and travelers witness together

Group shot at the train

 

 

A word about photography.

My photographer boyfriend, like all amateurs, tried and failed to capture the image and feeling of totality, though he got some good cookie bites (cast orange by the solar filter). The eclipse is just too far away, too contrasty, and too complex. Unless you’re a pro, it will never fill your camera the way it fills your eyes, heart, and memory.

Some advice for others who will try nonetheless: the only effective way (I’m told) is to expose for the corona, overlay a shot of the black disc of the moon, and create a final image of the two. Right, astrophotographers? Please comment and tell me how you do it, if you care to share.

Fred Espenak, aka “Mr. Eclipse”, offered his photo tips through a recent webinar; a recording may still be available online.

You do have access to “the finest collection of images of a total solar eclipse ever assembled”: order a backcopy of the November 1991 issue of Astronomy’s Great Eclipse Photo Contest.

Mexico epilogue: The boyfriend? He was a character but is now a thing of the past. I moved on to experience five more eclipses with a short parade of subsequent husbands, and ventured out on my own as well. It took three years to save for the next adventure: an unforgettable odyssey in Bolivia.

Above: Non-pro photo of the diamond ring

Below:

Cookie bites (with visible sunspots)

Pro shots: Local photographer Carrizosa (check it out, he got Buzz Aldrin’s autograph); Totality via Fred Espenak; Diamond ring via Snapfish.

Totality and beyond

Afraid to damage my eyes, I wore my welder’s glasses too long and missed the beginning of the diamond ring, but whipped them off in time to see totality pop into place. The solar corona quickly brightened to reveal a shocking black hole, delicate white streamers, and red flames of the sun. A splendor, a marvel, a miracle. It seemed to make a sound in my head, and fill the sky. Tears stung my eyes.

My guy and I grabbed a quick smooch for luck (like you do), and he shot a few frenzied photos, but mostly we gawped, wordless. A few people near us whooped and cheered; others stood in stunned silence, grinning. Six minutes and 53 seconds passed in an instant, and at third contact we lunged for the calendar of upcoming eclipses to start planning the next one.

As with all drugs, the first time is the best time and leaves you craving more.

Afterwards we joined a street party where I drank something dark yellow—probably mescal—from a plastic jug being passed among the crowd. Did not die.

My first eclipse experience—from the time we landed in Cabo to the end of fourth contact —was nothing short of magical. Reports of totality included phrases like “for sheer beauty, it ranks among the best”; the large, detailed corona “had a three-dimensional appearance”; a “pink chromosphere wrapped all around the south”; a naked-eye “crimson pair of huge, glowing prominences” extended to the east and west; and “it seemed like someone tied a ghostly bow around the sun.”

A writer in Sky said, after third contact, “The light returned. The wind off the sea returned…everything was as it was before, only everything had changed. Maybe I had changed.”

The Great One as seen from Baja did not disappoint—and it launched a very expensive hobby.

Above: Totality (not my photo)

Below:

Celestial bodies visible during totality on July 11, 1991

Trying to photograph the eclipse. (Tip: don’t bother.)

Thumb’s up at third contact

A toast

Plotting number two