SHADOW: THE 2016 ECLIPSE IN INDONESIA


 

My wife and I are dedicated eclipse chasers.  Yes, we are crazy folks (we prefer the adjective “interesting”) who go to the ends of the Earth and take a chance on the weather in order to see the Moon completely cover the Sun, one of my top four sights in nature.  By the ends of the Earth, I mean both poles, Pitcairn Island, all 7 continents, Siberia in March, and five times in Africa.

I have been fortunate enough to have been in many beautiful wilderness areas, and the other top three were a face-to-face encounter with a wolf on Isle Royale, nobody within ten trail miles of me; the annual migration of the Sandhill Cranes; and the closeness I’ve been to grizzlies in Alaska.

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Bears at Brooks Falls, Katmai

On our last chase, hoping to see my sixteenth total eclipse, we flew to Singapore, boarded the MS Volendam and sailed across the equator (my finally earning at long last “shellback” status) to Indonesia, first south, later east and finally northbound for the eclipse 8 days later.

I wasn’t particularly eager to take the trip. Long flights are difficult, I don’t sleep well, and I’m not a great people person, so cruises and Asia aren’t places I like to be.  Still, I will do what it takes to see an eclipse.  We took a tour in Jakarta, so I trod on the soil of my fiftieth country.  I’ve seen a lot of the Third World, only a few times actually immersing myself in it helping people, time measured in days, not months or years, and it is difficult to see how most of the people in the world live.

We often find special moments in unexpected places.  On Jakarta’s tour, I saw the usual monuments and museums that I guess I should see, although frankly I am not a monument or a museum person.  Maybe I should be, but I don’t judge harshly those who don’t share my love for the wilderness.  In Probblingo, we went into town for the sole reason to find a mall to buy a couple of cotton Indonesian shirts like the ones we had seen in Jakarta.  We found the mall, got the shirts, explored the place, and enjoyed ourselves.  The tour was on our own, lasted two hours, and we have fond memories of the place.

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National Monument in Jakarta

 

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Red Church in Probblingo

Several days later, heading north towards the eclipse track, we stopped in Makassar, a city on the southwest corner of the island of Sulawesi, across the strait from Borneo.  This was a place I never expected to see, a comment I make on every eclipse trip.  We saw Fort Rotterdam, avoided getting run over in traffic, and later returned aboard the ship, a little nervous about next day’s eclipse.

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Fort Rotterdam in Makassar

Eclipse chasing requires one to be at exactly the right place at the exactly right time, have decent skies, clear where the Sun happens to be.  This is a tall order in the tropics, especially during rainy season.  Sometimes, we have had to explain to a tour guide that “exact time” means to the second, not whenever one happens to arrive.  Exact time for eclipses does not mean mañana.  There is no mañana.  It is be there or miss it.  You can’t see it “some other time.”

With that attitude, I can perhaps be forgiven for not being overly polite to those who dawdle going to the eclipse path, thinking that my visiting one more museum or monument is important.  No, seeing the eclipse will make my trip.  If that means I miss a monument, an elephant ride, a temple, or a church, so be it.  My priority is seeing the eclipse.  I’ve heard stories of ships being 2 hours late to the eclipse track, of vehicles breaking down.

Fortunately, we had a good captain, who along with his bridge crew understood our needs.  He steamed a little further west in the Makassar Strait than originally planned, because cloudiness was less there.  It’s not only a matter of rain that may affect eclipses, but those puffy, pretty cumulus clouds become eclipse killers on eclipse day, and we needed to dodge them.

A good eclipse is directly proportional to the amount of sunscreen one uses.

My wife and I were up at 5 to get a place on the 9th deck on the starboard side at 5:10, where twenty people had already arrived.  Stars were visible, Jupiter dotting in and out of view between clouds to the west.  Well, I thought, there is hope, but I couldn’t yet see the sky well.  We didn’t have much equipment, but we still brought up two chairs from the deck below.  The Sun rose just after 6, and the clouds were not great, not bad.  We knew the Sun would be higher during eclipse, and we waited. Others arrived, bringing more deck chairs from below.

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People on deck before totality

At first contact, where the Moon takes a small bite out of the Sun, it was partly cloudy.  Eclipses last about two and a half hours, totality in the middle, a little less than 3 minutes for this eclipse, 7 minutes and 32 seconds maximum possible.  After first contact, the Sun often disappeared behind a cloud for a few minutes, which is no problem, unless those minutes are during totality.  As the eclipse progressed, weather prospects improved.  The clouds became fewer and thinner.  The Sun’s projection through the weave of our deck chairs showed a multitude of crescents on the deck below, scores of pinhole cameras.  This is one of our favorite times during every eclipse.

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Crescents made by eclipsed Sun’s shining through tiny holes in a deck chair

As the crescent shrank to nearly nothing, I looked behind me to the west.  I was first to call out the arrival of the Moon’s shadow, a huge, dark mass, approaching at 30 miles a minute, the Moon’s orbital speed.  I turned around in time to see the Diamond Ring, the last bit of sunlight, and then beautiful totality, lasting 2 minutes and 45 seconds, over the calm Makassar Strait.  After the second Diamond Ring, the end of totality, I quickly looked down and east, calling out the rapidly disappearing Moon’s shadow, leaving us at a half mile a second.  For some time now, I have regularly watched the disappearance of the Moon’s shadow.  It’s visible for about 5, maybe 10 seconds.  I don’t know anybody who has ever mentioned it in eclipse talks.

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Totality

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Maybe they never looked.  After all, when totality is over, most people leave to celebrate, unfortunately in our instance leaving their chairs on the deck, instead of putting them back where they got them.  That’s kind of rude, even on a cruise ship.

Then a man about my age nudged me.  “Thank you,” he said, with his wife’s standing by him, “for pointing out the shadow’s disappearance.  I saw it, and I had never seen that before.  It was really interesting.”  His wife nodded.

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Moon’s shadow’s disappearing.  It is subtle, but the darkness on the horizon is the shadow

All total solar eclipses are special.  Sometimes, what I remember best is not the black disk in the sky covering the Sun, but something else, quite unexpected, like a disappearing shadow.  The man’s comments made my day.  I taught him something, and he was glad.

Later, my wife and I picked up about four dozen chairs left behind and helped the crew return them.  Yes, the crew is there to serve the passengers, but put the chairs back.

It appeases the eclipse gods.

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