I’ve spent a lot of time and money chasing solar eclipses. Most of us have seen a partial solar eclipse, where the moon turns the sun into a crescent shape. That’s interesting, but nothing in comparison with what happens in a total solar eclipse.
In a total solar eclipse, the disc of the new moon passes exactly in front of the solar disc. By a mathematical “coincidence,” the visible diameter of the moon is exactly the same as the visible diameter of the sun. So, on those relatively rare occasions when the orbits of earth and moon coincide, the sun is blocked for up to several minutes. When this happens, the small part of the earth beneath the moon’s shadow gets dark, the solar disc is obscured (eclipsed) and the solar corona, an area of super-heated gases surrounding the sun, is visible.
I’m not the only one who chases these things. I’ve stood alongside other disappointed eclipse chasers in Africa, France, California, and Iceland. Did I mention that, even though I’ve chased these things, I’ve never actually seen one? I’ve seen the dark below, but not the show above.
My fortunes changed last March. An eclipse was predicted to occur in a path from the east coast of Brazil, across the Atlantic, up Africa to the Mediterranean, through Turkey and finally exhausting itself in mid-Siberia. Chrissie and I signed up for a cruise out of Athens, thinking that a ship in the middle of the Mediterranean could shift beneath the clouds and find a clear spot (for once) where we could finally see a total eclipse in its totality.
First of all, the cruise was a “cruise.” I’ve been on Carnival, and this wasn’t exactly comparable. Yet it was a pleasant experience by choice, since we had prepared ourselves for the kind of Greek ship we’d sailed on other occasions. Others had expected more. The tour, put on by Sky & Telescope Magazine, consisted entirely of amateur and professional astronomers. But most of them had been on better cruise lines and were busily comparing things.
An added frustration was that we had been scheduled on a larger ship that had developed engine problems. So, we had to take a smaller ship just out of drydock, with a neophyte crew. In order to accommodate everyone, one-third of its normal crew complement had been left ashore and many of us were assigned rooms in crew quarters (I’d never before heard of a shipboard suite with a sign on the bathroom mirror saying “Be sure to shower twice daily.” One passenger swore that he’d seen the captain doubling as a magician’s assistant in the ship’s theater.)
By day three, the day of the eclipse, problems had been worked out and, sadly for them, the most frustrated passengers had disembarked, trading the experience of a total eclipse for a refund. The eclipse would start just after noon.
More than three hundred of us—telescopes and all—were gathered on the forward and after decks. There was a grand air of excitement as the moment drew near. Five minutes before the eclipse an order went out over the PA system for everyone to stop moving around. Once it got dark, anyone moving around was likely to knock over equipment and spoil observations. Soon, someone called out “I’ve got Venus!” It was dark enough now to see a planet at noon. Then people began to call out star names, then it was the instant before totality.
Waiting for the Eclipse