ANOTHER ECLIPSE, ANOTHER ADVENTURE


Ten minutes before totality, and I finally realized that my planned way of viewing the solar eclipse from the air wasn’t going to work. Not at all. I needed to change all my plans, and I didn’t have a lot of time to do it.  I was dead tired from two consecutive nights of overnight flights, as we lifted off from Easter Island to view the solar eclipse at its maximum point of totality, then fly along the path to gain several more minutes of totality than possible on the ground.  This was a crazy trip, and I wondered why I still kept viewing eclipses.  But I have said those words at some point on each of the 27 eclipse trips I have taken.  Eclipse chasers are a crazy lot, going to the ends of the Earth to gain the special currency measured in seconds of totality, seconds under the umbral shadow of the Moon.

I arrived in Santiago, Chile, a day late because of weather and plane issues on the way to Dallas.  When I arrived, the person who was supposed to pick me up wasn’t there, and I paid way too much a cab, which took me to the wrong hotel (PanAmericano does not equal PanAmericana.)  I was joining a group, and I figured I would know somebody—I always do on eclipse trips—but maybe nobody I could visually recognize.

After arriving at the right hotel, I took a long walk in the city, had lunch, then took another long walk.  That helped.  We held a pre-eclipse meeting that afternoon, and nobody recognized me, but I did recognize one Japanese woman from the 2010 eclipse and four others from eclipses 15 and 20 years ago. 

We left the hotel at 10 pm, taking off at 3 am for Easter Island, arriving at 6:30.  At least I slept most of the flight, although I needed more.  I was awakened for breakfast, and I couldn’t decide if that was good or bad.  I did need the sleep, but it was getting difficult to find food, too. I ate, then fell back asleep. It was like being on call in medicine, and I couldn’t figure out how I did that for so many years.

We flew to the eclipse path, circling to let the eclipse come to us.  I had sat quietly away from the others a half hour earlier, meditating, relaxing, and telling myself I was here to see the eclipse any way I could, and I was very fortunate to be here. It helped.  I had difficulty taking pictures of the crescent Sun, because it was high above the horizon and I could barely view it through the window. I wouldn’t be able to get a picture, a video, or even my neck to let me look where I needed to.  Time was passing, totality was coming, and I finally realized I wasn’t going to take any videos, any photos of the shadow, or even use the small binoculars I brought.

Five minutes before totality, I made all the required mental changes. Because we were traveling at a quarter of the Moon’s speed, we would be in contact with the shadow twice as long as on ground—8 1/2 minutes—and for once, I would have as much time as I could want to look at an eclipse, the way I have told hundreds of first timers: “Just look and soak it up. You may never get another chance.”

I lay on my back, sprawled across 23 A, B, and C, used my foam pillow, looked up with my head extended only slightly, and I could see the crescent Sun—and, whoa, Venus too!—calling it out loud.  I take it as a point of pride if I see Venus early.  The Sun was to my left and Venus to the right, but directions made no sense, because I was upside down and below the equator as well.  Maybe everything was right side up. 

Eight minutes passed like eight seconds

The Sun became such a thin crescent that I could no longer see it through a filter.  This is the best way perhaps of looking, no binoculars, and when nothing more was visible through the filter, I removed it and saw the diamond ring, the last bit of sunlight around the now covered Sun, in the dark sky above me. It was fabulous.  The diamond ring slowly faded into totality, and I saw the black disk of the Moon with bright Venus to the right.  We were at 41,000 feet, and this was a really dark eclipse.

I looked for what I thought was 15 seconds, but it was probably two minutes, burning the image of the black disk and Venus into my mind.  Then I reached for the camera, which was right where my hand landed. I used the telephoto to look at the solar disk and the corona in more detail, then put the camera down to look some more.

I got up, as planned, crossed the plane to the starboard side and viewed the shadow stretching to the west before it became light from where the eclipse had ended far west of us.  I got pictures with the plane’s wing present, providing perspective.  I came back to my seat which someone from the press pool had invaded.  He quickly left, and the person in front of me had his reading light go on, which along with flashes from cameras, is a monstrous no-no in eclipses.  He ended up taping it over with a candy bar wrapper, because figuring out how to turn off an aircraft reading light takes a lot longer than taking tape and a wrapper and smashing the two together over the light.

Taped reading light over Row 22

I took a quick look at my watch and then flipped back over on row 23 again, knowing I had two minutes, and knowing I was done with photographs.  I saw the remarkably bright chromosphere and its lavender-orange color that I swear isn’t found anywhere else on Earth, marveled at its extent about a third of the way around the Sun, and realized we were about to see 3rd contact, the second diamond ring.  And there it was, kind of a small bubble, until WOW, the large blob of light that is exposed sunlight, became visible. Three of us commented loudly on the double Diamond Ring.  I looked way too long, 5, 10, maybe 15 seconds after the appearance, not ideal for my eyes, but ideal to remember.  Totality was over, and it was time to return to Easter Island.  

Earlier, one of the flight attendants asked what I did in real life, and I told her in Spanish. She apparently knew one of the journalists, an Argentine, a former neurologist and now a journalist, and introduced us earlier.  After totality, he came by with cameraman in tow, asking to interview me for Argentine television.  

“I am very fortunate,” I began in English, answering a few questions about how I got interested in eclipses.  He asked my why I traveled to see them.  The quick answer is that they are beautiful.  They are—they are one of the top 3 things I’ve seen in nature.  

But there is a second kind of beauty, and that is in the understanding of the resonance of the three lunar cycles: synodic, anomalistic, and draconic, how they come into line every 18 years and 10 or 11 days, 1/3 of the way west around the world.  I had last seen this family of eclipses, Saros 127, north of Lusaka, Zambia, on 21 June 2001.  

I looked at the journalist and said there was a third reason: seeing eclipses ties me to humanity and to those before me going back tens, hundreds, thousands, and yes, tens of thousands of years who have viewed the same stars, the same planets, the same Moon and Sun which occasionally come into conjunction for a spectacular show that can be as frightening as it is beautiful. 

Eclipses can charge a person up to see the next one.  I came down to Chile suspecting that this was my last international eclipse trip.  The trip down certainly didn’t dissuade me from quitting.  But I think my meditation and changing my mental focus were good things.  I looked, not for the perfect picture or video, but at viewing something I’ve seen before in a very different situation and coming away just as awestruck as ever.

787 that flew the eclipse

Sunset from Easter Island
Totality from my back over my head.

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