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Chasing totality

On August 21, a solar eclipse will return to the continental United States for the first time since 1979. A new generation of eclipse chasers will discover the magic of totality. My story begins much earlier.

As a child of the space race I followed man’s quest to land on the moon. Watching that story unfold, I developed an interest in astronomy. Viewing celestial occurrences became a highlight of my early years. Planets and comets (from Kohoutek to Halley’s) were viewed with some regularity, but a total solar eclipse was my Holy Grail. At age nine I saw a partial solar eclipse. It was nice – however in the world of the eclipse chasing elite, partials don’t count. You need to see and experience totality. It would be 22 years later before I saw my first total solar eclipse.

A total solar eclipse occurs when the moon passes between the sun and Earth, and the moon completely blocks the sun. This happens only when the sun and the moon are in alignment. Since the moon’s orbit is tilted relative to the Earth’s orbit around the sun, its shadow at new moon usually misses Earth, making any eclipse – let alone a total one – a relatively rare event.

Most eclipses look pretty much the same – it is the destination that makes them more interesting. Over the next few decades since that first experience, I have managed to travel to all seven continents in search of totality.

North America 1991 – My first experience with totality would be one of the longest eclipses ever. In July of 1991 I boarded Carnival Cruise lines MS Jubilee for a journey along the Mexican Riviera. Astronaut Buzz Aldrin, second man to step foot on the moon, was guest host and lecturer on this voyage, making it even more interesting – as if I needed another incentive. This eclipse was billed as the “Eclipse of the Century” as it would last 6 minutes and 53 seconds at the optimal viewing point. The next eclipse to outlast this one will not happen until June 13, 2132.

As clouds engulfed the Baja peninsula it appeared we might not see it after all. Eclipse viewing from a ship gives you the mobility to change course and move into a prime viewing spot depending on weather conditions, albeit slowly. Tensions onboard began to rise, as many passengers had wanted to be ashore for better photography. The vibration of the ship, no matter how subtle would make great photography difficult. A handful of passengers protested, and the captain decided to put them ashore. We pulled into Mazatlán, dropped them off and then raced towards totality as fast as we could sail in the direction that would ultimately help us escape the cloud cover. It proved to be the best decision as we had a cloud free view of the eclipse while those ashore were clouded out.

The experience of seeing totality was beyond belief. Even though this eclipse lasted over six minutes it went by quickly. Veteran eclipse chasers will tell you, no matter how long or short an eclipse is, totality always flies by. Immediately after the eclipse as the sun reappeared, dolphins swarmed the bow of the ship and “danced” in its wake. Animals often react to an eclipse thinking it was night and then day once again, but this was inexplicable. The dolphins made the experience poetic and I was hooked on seeing future eclipses – no matter how far the destination or exotic.

Europe 1999 – Since the moon’s shadow, or umbra, moves eastward across the Earth’s surface at over a thousand miles an hour, eclipses are by nature short-lived events. For this brief totality, eclipse chasing aboard Concorde with its supersonic speed would extend the eclipse times six; an event of slightly over one minute in duration would be extend to over 6 minutes. However, viewing the eclipse through Concorde’s 5-inch windows was a challenge.

Antarctica 2003 –Quark Expeditions chartered Russian Icebreaker Kapitan Khlebnikov to take us to edge of the Davis Sea to view the first eclipse in Antarctica viewed by humans. This cruise sold out immediately to the most seasoned eclipse chasers. Weather was problematic as gale force winds made us move to another viewing site hours before totality. Soon we were flanked by giant grounded icebergs and the icebreaker was “garaged” in the ice in a location that looked like it was right out of a Hollywood film. Luckily we saw totality before clouds moved in. Once the clouds took over we focused on the golden horizon which I captured with my 360 camera – the Globuscope – creating an iconic image during totality, which would then be my special way to document eclipses in the future.

Asia 2008 – For the journey to China, security was on high alert due to Uyghur unrest in Yiwu, an outer region of China. We traveled the old Silk Road to Hami, where we departed for an “eclipse city” built especially for this Chinese eclipse. A passport and a $100 ticket was required to visit this attraction erected in the Gobi desert. It featured many different exhibits on the sun and space, a makeshift science museum in the middle of nowhere. Another scare of clouds came at the last minute, however they parted in just enough time and we were bathed in totality.

South America 2010 – Easter Island’s population swelled for this eclipse; hotels sold out years in advance and tent cities were erected to handle the overflow. My coveted viewing location was in front of Moai statues at Ahu Tahai – at the edge of Hanga Roa, the island’s largest town. After viewing Halley’s Comet in 1986 from the citadel of Machu Picchu, seeing a solar eclipse under the watchful eyes of Moai could not have been more stirring. Many ancient people worldwide did not understand eclipses and as we stood in front of these silent stone sentinels I wondered what they would have thought of Mother Nature’s spectacle in the sky.

Africa 2013 –The path of totality started on one side of the African continent and finished on the other. From Gabon on the west coast it would be about two minutes of totality, with the end point shrinking to a total of four seconds of totality on Africa’s east coast. My choice was Gabon with a group of fellow eclipse chasers. After landing in the capital of Libreville it would be a day’s drive to our hotel in the jungle and then another two hour drive to view totality from the small village of Mikongo. I am not sure the villagers knew what this crazy band of visitors were up to with tons of telescopes and camera equipment. We made friends and set up for the big show. It was a beautiful eclipse viewed from one of the most remote locations on Earth.

Australia 2012 – Weather projections to view this eclipse determined the best place to view it would be at sea. We were off the coast of Australia onboard MS Oosterdam and in a strategic position to view this one. No clouds in the sky except a small patch in the distance. As we got closer, passengers warned the captain that we would miss totality if we were directly under that cloud bank. He did not listen, as he was following the original coordinates and sure enough we saw the first few seconds of totality and then we were clouded out for the balance of totality. Minutes later we were back in completely clear skies much to the dismay of the passengers. At least we saw some totality as many of the observers on land were clouded out entirely. These trips are never without some stress.

Finally, totality returns to the United States on August 21. No long international flights required for this experience. The path will cut across 14 states from Lincoln Beach, OR, to Charleston, SC. For myself it will be a five hour drive to Casper, WY. It’s almost in my backyard, and it will be totally worth it.  

Travel to the path of totality to experience it, because it won’t be back in the USA until 2024.

See you in Casper!

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By Everen T. Brown