Why Chasing a Total Solar Eclipse Is a Truly Awesome Experience

In 2009, writer Jeff Greenwald joined a group of eclipse-seeing fanatics on a race to the middle of the South Pacific. It turns out, the adventure is about so much more than a two-minute shadow.

Why Chasing a Total Solar Eclipse Is a Truly Awesome Experience

Photo by skyseeker/Flickr

“Don’t say it!” Charlie McCollister, a former General Hospital actor whom I vaguely recognize from an old Gillette commercial, pokes me in the ribs. We’ve descended the gangway and are crossing the tarmac toward the small air terminal on the atoll of Tarawa, the capital of Kiribati, a tiny island nation in the South Pacific. I’m squinting nervously at the sky, which is filling with dark clouds. Charlie sees where this is going and stops me. I’m not about to jinx his eighth total solar eclipse with a foul-weather vibe.

Most of our group of 34, which includes some of the planet’s most fanatical eclipse chasers, arrived in Fiji only yesterday. Today we awakened at dawn and were herded onto a three-hour, 1,300-mile flight to this bona fide backwater: a lonely World War II battleground straddling the equator.

The motive inspiring us to travel halfway around the world—from as far away as Iran, Germany, and Japan—is one of nature’s most fantastic light shows. Though astronomers have been predicting total solar eclipses for four millennia, the idea of chasing them didn’t take hold until early in the 18th century. During the past 25 years, viewing eclipses has become an elite obsession—like collecting single-malt whiskeys, or seeing every Bruce Springsteen concert. The passion is understandable; witnessing a total solar eclipse is like being transported to another world. As the moon’s disc covers the sun, day morphs instantly into night. The sun’s corona, which is the hottest thing visible to the naked eye, appears to explode outward, a nimbus of black silhouette. For some, it’s a scientific epiphany; for others, a spiritual catharsis. But nobody who’s seen one ever forgets the experience.

Driving into Bikenibeu, Tarawa’s largest town, we pass scraggly coconut palms, pigs lounging in leaf piles, and boys on a muddy soccer pitch. We won’t have the chance to see much else. Our goal—much like that of Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, who planned the U.S. Navy’s ill-fated 1943 invasion of Japanese-occupied Tarawa—is to “get the hell in and get the hell out.” Early tomorrow we’ll board a ship and travel another eight hours to the even smaller Kiribatian island of Marakei. This will bring us right into the “path of totality”: the narrow band of total darkness cast by the moon’s shadow.

As we approach our hotel, the rain comes down. More squalls are visible out to sea. The group’s anxiety is palpable. We’ve each paid a small fortune to reach remote Kiribati, which is one of the few locations in the path of this eclipse with reliably good weather. Totality will actually last two minutes longer in China and Japan, but meteorological predictions gave Kiribati a 10 percent better chance of clear skies.

IT TAKES A SPECIAL KIND of person to pursue such expensive uncertainty, time and again. Jen Winter, the founder of Astronomical Tours and our buoyant leader, sees it as a blend of childlike wonder and mild dysfunction.

“We can recognize them in the airport,” she whispers gleefully. “If a person has eight highlighters in their pocket and a 45-pound telescope in their carry-on, they’re usually one of ours.”

Jen introduces me to some of our trip mates, many of whom have traveled together before. Her towering partner, Fred Bruenjes, is a gifted electronics engineer and a renowned eclipse photographer. There’s Mike Reynolds, a Florida State College dean and tenor sax player who abandoned a career in music to teach astronomy. The bearded and animated William Phelps is a California-based yoga buff, and the world’s expert on calibrating high-end video projection systems—a process he will gladly explain, in detail. He’s the polar opposite of Phil Plante, a gnomic Ohio steelworker who, one weekend in 2003, paid $5,000 to fly over Antarctica, view the eclipse from his airplane seat, see the South Pole, and return home.

But even in this ardent crowd, few can match Hamid Djodeiri-Khodashenas, a 46-year-old attorney from Tehran. Hamid’s obsession began in January of 1999, when he thumbed open his daily planner and beheld a staggering vision.

“The pages were full of water,” he says. “Like the sea. And as I watched, a diamond ring of light glittered from under the water, then rose and hovered in the sky.”

Hamid slammed the book shut and fell unconscious for half an hour. When he awoke, he opened the book again, and everything looked normal. The date on the page was August 12, 1999. Across the bottom was a small note: Total Solar Eclipse.

Hamid realized that the “diamond ring” in his vision is actually visible during a total eclipse. It occurs a split second before and after totality, when a final, brilliant bead of sunlight blazes between the mountains of the moon. But witnessing this as the sun rose—above a body of water, no less—would be tricky. Hamid traveled to Iran’s Lake Gahar for the August 1999 eclipse, hoping for a miracle. But though he saw the diamond ring, it didn’t appear to rise out of the water. Ten years later, he’s still searching for his vision.

Hamid is slender, with a black goatee and piercing eyes. “Women can’t be with me,” he sighs. “I love only eclipses. As long as I have life, I will see every eclipse. Maybe, one day, I see my diamond. On that day, my eclipse chasing is finished, and I join with God.”

AFTER SPENDING THE AFTERNOON seeing what we could of the island, we reconvene for dinner. It feels like a reunion of the Foreign Legion. Seasoned eclipse hounds recall their totalities like battles: “Suriname, 1973.” “Chisamba, 2001.” “Wuhai, 2008.” Also popular is the batting-average approach, measuring successes against tries. “I’m five for six,” William declares. “Eight for eight,” says Charlie. “Fifteen for fifteen,” shrugs Mike, trumping all.

Ten minutes into the meal the electricity fails, plunging the shadow hunters into premature darkness. Candles are lit, but the heat and bugs threaten to derail our evening. That’s when Jen stands up, challenging people to share their most remarkable stories about eclipse chasing. It’s a brilliant tactic; the room revives at once. Charlie leads off, describing his amazement when, during the 1994 eclipse in Bolivia, all the cows and chickens laid down and went to sleep—waking up the moment the eclipse ended. William follows, with a tale of nearly being rained out on Hawaii’s Big Island in 1991. At the final moment, of course, the clouds miraculously parted.

Phil rises and admits that he’s obsessed with photographing eclipses but forever foiled by glitches. In Mexico in ’91, his motor drive malfunctioned; flying over Antarctica in 2003, he forgot to remove the solar filter. “Finally, in Egypt, 2006, everything came together. My cameras were lined up perfectly.” A beat. “And my film got lost in the mail.”

The portly Mike Reynolds takes the floor. “Africa, 2002,” he says. “A few days before totality, we saw the International Space Station racing across the sky, with the space shuttle, which had just been launched, trailing behind. Meanwhile, lions were roaring in the background.” He wipes his forehead. “Unbelievable.”

I glance around for Hamid, but the fervent Persian is in the hotel’s office, uploading a lengthy blog entry on his own eclipse Web site.

Jen clears her throat. “Antarctica, 2003,” she recounts. “I was determined to put a trip together. So I flew to Cape Town, got on a Russian cargo plane, and visited Antarctica to inspect the viewing site. When I returned home to Missouri, I found out I was pregnant. The due date was November 23, the exact day of the eclipse.”

The doctors were afraid that Jen would deliver on the ice, like a seal. But on November 10, the doctors decided to induce labor and her youngest daughter—Shadow—was born. The following week, leaving Shadow with a nanny, Jen flew to Antarctica.

“The moon and sun chased each other around the horizon like two bowling balls, just rolling into each other,” Jen says. “It was the most colorful and dramatic eclipse I’ve ever seen. One minute and 18 seconds of absolute heaven.”

Jen is a tough act to follow, and it’s just as well. Tomorrow is eclipse day, with a wake-up call at 3:30 a.m.

DARKNESS AND DRIZZLE surround us as we bump along rutted roads to the Tarawa dock. We’re groggy, but chatty. I’m crammed in a minivan between Phil and Hamid. Behind us is Eva-Lynne Liebman, who owns a Judaica store in San Francisco. She looks like Charlie Brown’s crush, the Little Red-Haired Girl, but all grown up.

“So,” I ask, “how did you get obsessed with eclipses?”

“My first one was in Mexico, in 1991,” Eva-Lynne recalls. “It was . . . awesome. And I never use that word, except for eclipses. There was a hole in the sky! Even though you know the sun is still there, it’s a visceral thing. You can totally understand how ancient cultures sacrificed people to bring it back. Of course,” she adds dryly, “the sacrifices always worked.”

Jen, sitting beside her, nods. “It’s hard for a person who hasn’t seen one to understand,” Jen says. “It feels like a view into a spiritual world that doesn’t exist anywhere outside of that short time. Even the scientific minded, and those who don’t have a strong faith, are drawn in.”

As the van’s wipers squeak, the question is: will we get that view at all?

THE LCT SUPER CARRIER is 220 feet long, a military-inspired transport with a huge canvas awning strung over its wooden deck. Lines of bamboo-leaf streamers—like you might see around a used-car lot on Gilligan’s Island—frame the deck, which is already piled with our luggage: tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of cameras, telescopes, and sunscreen.

Our destination is Marakei, an atoll some eight hours northeast. The trip begins well enough. The rain has stopped and a crimson sunrise saturates the eastern sky. The gearheads busy themselves with their photography equipment.

There are three sleeping rooms on the ship, each with four bunks. I find an empty cot, flop onto my back, and fall instantly asleep.

I awaken to a collective scream. We’ve sailed directly into a squall, and the awning over the deck has ripped free. All hands spring into action, some holding the wild canvas in place while others rush our gear inside.

By early afternoon, there’s a break in the weather. We anchor off Marakei, a palm-covered island so flat that it looks, from a distance, like a lily pad. The equatorial sun is foundry hot. Under Jen’s direction, we break into groups and motor ashore in dinghies. Our welcome is sensational. The island’s headmen have lined up to meet us, dressed in dazzling white shirts and ties. A caravan of pickup trucks shuttles us to an open field where a local troupe, dressed in floral tiaras and palm-frond skirts, performs traditional dances, some of which re-enact in pantomime the aerial bombings of World War II.

We place chewing gum and tobacco on an altar to a female guardian of the island, Nei Nantekiman. Jen (with crowd control provided by a few Marakei teachers) hands out some 700 eclipse-viewing filters to the local children. Our plan is to stay on the island and watch the eclipse with the Kiribatians. But at 2:47 p.m., the moment of “first contact” (when the moon’s disc first touches the edge of the sun), clouds gather offshore. They’re heading toward us. What to do? Totality is at 3:50. If we remain on Marakei, we might get clouded out. But if we reboard the super carrier to search for clear skies, the ship’s motion will make photography all but impossible.

Everything depends on an immediate decision, and our group spirals into chaos. It would be amazing to see the eclipse with the locals . . . But we have a better chance on the ship . . . Finally, Jen takes command: We must flee the island. Her edict is accepted by everyone but Hamid. At first, he insists on staying, alone, but after a few minutes of tai chi meditation (“to better understand the natural world”), his intuition matches Jen’s. The local kids wave gaily as we zoom back toward the super carrier, our hopes tenuous under rapidly darkening skies.

FIFTEEN MINUTES BEFORE TOTALITY, anvil clouds bear down from the east. Storms line the northwest horizon. Weather seems to be closing in on us from every direction. Marakei itself is completely clouded over.

The sun is now a crescent, the moon creeping steadily across its face. The sky has a weird titanium sheen. Fred and Jen confer with the captain in urgent tones; he turns the super carrier sharply, seeking a break in the weather.

“Ten minutes to totality!” Fred’s big voice booms across the ship. Everyone is on deck, fixed to the eyepieces of their camcorders, cameras, and telescopes, which are fitted with Mylar solar filters. Daylight has dimmed dramatically, though it’s not yet dark. The sun seems to be ailing, anemic.

“Three minutes!” Fred shouts. We veer to starboard and enter an open patch beneath the roiling sky. The sun, when I find it through my filter, is as thin as an eyelash.

“One minute!”

The solar sliver shrinks rapidly, until there is only a single point of light, blazing between the moon’s distant mountains. We drop our filters and behold the “diamond ring”: the emerging corona, crowned by a pinprick of golden flame. An instant later, the bead of light winks out, and the sun’s full corona flares around the moon’s silhouette. Dusk arrives instantly, as a 360-degree sunset surrounds us. A jubilant cheer rises from the deck; then, silence.

My first eclipse, in a crowded Iranian park in 1999, was a giddy, social event, greeted with cries of awe and wonder. This one is quiet, meditative. I stare at the usually forbidden sun, beholding the curtain of flames leaping from behind the moon’s disc. Stars and planets shimmer in the violet sky, their constant presence revealed by the sudden darkness. I’m overwhelmed by the infinite beauty of the cosmos, expressed in such simple, almost melodic rhythms.

Totality lasts 247 seconds: time enough for awe, but barely for contemplation. The moon moves on—and long before we’re ready, the sec- ond diamond ring appears. The sky ignites again. We grope for our solar filters. This marks the end of totality—and of the shortest four minutes of bliss since I lost my virginity in high school.

“AWESOME,” MUTTERS EVA-LYNNE, shaking her head. The eclipse chasers are scattered across the deck, depleted but fulfilled. “Another spec- tacular, totally different, totally awesome eclipse! Just amazing.”

Phil is not as cheerful. “It was good visually,” he says. “I actually saw the diamond ring and totality. But the ship was moving too much. Photographically, it was a bust. And my main purpose was to make photographs.” Foiled again.

On the far side of the ship, Fred and Jen are linked to the Web. Reports are filtering in from across Asia. In much of China and Japan, the view was skunked out. Jen’s Kiribati gamble paid off—a fact that seems to delight her as much as the eclipse itself.

“We were lucky,” I remark.

“We weren’t lucky,” Jen replies, grinning. “We were good.”

I find my Iranian friend sitting alone, his head in his hands. “Hamid?” He looks up, eyes aflame. His cheeks are streaked with tears. “Always beautiful,” he says softly. “But again: not like my vision. So I spoke with God, after the eclipse. And I said, ‘God, I must go into space. That is the only place I can see the diamond ring in my vision, rising out of the sea.’ And God told me, ‘OK, Hamid! Don’t worry! You will go to space! Very soon.’”

How this might happen, Hamid cannot say—but with Virgin Galactic set to begin commercial spaceflights in 2012, God’s assurance might not be so far-fetched.

On my way back to the cots, I pass Charlie, who’s watching with equanimity as clouds move in. “Looks like rain,” he says, and winks.

Mike and William are still studying the sun—now a fat crescent—through their filters.

“It’s amazing,” says William. “I really feel like I’m on ‘Spaceship Earth’—a globe in outer space, orbiting a star.”

“Think about it,” says Mike. “The earth is the only place in our solar system where you could even see an eclipse like this. Venus has no moon. From Mars, Jupiter, or Saturn, the sun is so small that their moons would block it out completely. There’d be no corona; no diamond ring. It truly is miraculous,” he says, shaking his head. “I look up and understand our setting in the universe.”

>>Next: Why You Should Experience the National Parks After Dark

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