Eclipse Chasing

Total Solar Eclipse, Hawaii, July 11, 1991

Best total solar eclipse of our lifetime to occur in Hawaii on July 11 at 7:00 AM. Brewers decide to go for it. John, Robert, Ellen, and Bill rendezvous on the Big Island at the Hyatt Waikoloa with several hundred extremely eager amateur astronomers who have signed up to see the Big One with Scientific Expeditions. A weatherman (imported for the occasion) lectures group and says odds of good weather on the Kona side of the Big Island at this time of year are better than 99%. Technical lectures on astronomy each night. Tension builds, like the days before a Super Bowl game. The night before The Big Event the weatherman says an extraordinary inversion is occurring. Amateur astronomers spend all night selecting special locations for their telescopes. Day of eclipse--total cloud cover. Lifetime unique experience--a "celebratory" banquet (more like a wake) with several hundred very depressed astronomers.

Annular Eclipse and Jupiter Comet Impacts 1994

[May 12, 1994: Champaign-Urbana] On May 10th a beautiful annual eclipse of the sun occurs in C-U. Bill and Ellen are well equipped to view this (with welder's glasses left over from the failed Hawaii expedition). The shadows of the leaves make beautiful shifting circular patterns on the ground.

[July 21, 1994: Champaign-Urbana] For a week in July, Bill gets up for the 5:00 AM cable press briefings with the scientists studying the comet impacts on Jupiter. On the night of July 21 he drops by the old university observatory and sees for himself that this is not a NASA publicity stunt--there really were three new dark black spots on Jupiter.

Total Solar Eclipse, Black Sea, August 11, 1999

Well the eclipse gods were kind to us this time--we saw a gorgeous total eclipse of the sun on a cloud free day in calm water on the Black Sea. It could have been very different--most sites in England, France, and Germany were clouded out. One of the news stories we read about the eclipse interviewed a woman from Urbana (!) who had traveled to Hawaii for the 1991 eclipse and failed to see it and had traveled to southern England for this one and failed a second time. Our decision to play the weather odds and go as far east as we could stand paid off (of course the odds for clear weather for the eclipse on the Big Island in 1991 were about 97% and we saw only the bottoms of clouds--but I guess that is what probabilities are all about).

This time we joined up with a group from the Adler Planetarium for an eclipse cruise on the Stella Solaris. We arrived in Athens and were taken to the port of Piraeus to our home away from home--the Stella Solaris. This was our very first cruise so we spent most of the rest of the day trying to develop a script for how cruises work. We bonded with Socrates (really!) our cabin steward, we had lifeboat drill, we learned where our assigned dinner table was, we learned that the xylophone sound was the call to meals, etc. In the days before the eclipse we visited Istanbul and then went clockwise around the Black Sea stopping at Nessebur, Bulgaria, Odessa, Ukraine, and Yalta, Ukraine.

On the morning of August 11, the day of the eclipse, we were quite pleased when we woke up and looked out the window to see bright sunlight and a very calm sea. After breakfast Bill went out for a turn around the deck and saw a truly bizarre sight--we were part of a group of 5 cruise ships all sitting dead in the water in the middle of the Black Sea! (We were all at 43' 6" N and 29' 43" E about 60 miles east of Varna, Bulgaria.) All day long the tension built with the geeks setting up their telescopes. At noon there was a practice run so everyone could plan their eclipse viewing.

Finally at 12:49 we had first contact and using our welder's glasses we could see a little notch taken out of the right side of the sun. The notch got bigger and bigger and the light took on an eerie unreal quality. At some point the sky became dark enough that Venus became visible at about 8:00 o'clock and a number of solar diameters away. At 2:14 we had second contact and the show really began! There were shouts of joy all across the deck. Bill took down his welder's glass a few seconds early and was rewarded with a beautiful diamond ring effect with a last burst of dazzling white light forming the diamond and the corona around the eclipsed sun forming the band of the ring. Then we were both captivated by the ruby red prominences that showed at a number of points around the moon particularly at 2 to 4 o'clock (these were apparently due to the fact that the sun is close to its peak in the sun spot cycle). In fact, Bill spent so much time looking at the prominences that he only has a vague memory of the long white steamers of the solar corona. Bill wasted probably 30 seconds trying to get a picture of Ellen with the eclipsed sun in the background (the sun was too high in the sky--guess who didn't work out his script during the practice run) and forgot to use his binoculars until about half way through the eclipse.

In an impossibly short time it was 2:16 and third contact and the grand solar show was over. It was one of the shortest 2 min. and 21 sec of our lives. Ellen saw the diamond ring this time, but Bill didn't. At this point waiters appeared with glasses of cold champagne (we told you that Royal Olympic line really looked after us) and there was much merry making--including at least one astronomer being dunked into the swimming pool.

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Last updated June 4, 2000 by EFB