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Absolutely the last eclipse article you have to read this year

A gaggle of astronomy nuts on the tip of Baja

Anticipation grew as the moon covered more of the sun
  • Anticipation grew as the moon covered more of the sun
  • Image by Evan Zucker

The July 11 total eclipse was an absolutely magnificent spectacle of nature, and the Hawaiians and Mexicans who were fortunate enough to have the moon’s shadow pass overhead did everything they could to profit from the event.

Mexican federales, soldiers in full uniform armed with rifles, patrolling the sand amongst the telescopes

Mexican federales, soldiers in full uniform armed with rifles, patrolling the sand amongst the telescopes

Tens of thousands of Americans drove and flew to the southern tip of Baja California to observe the longest total solar eclipse until the year 2132. (Although the eclipse was also visible from the Big Island of Hawaii, totality only lasted about four minutes there, so most serious eclipse chasers opted for Baja instead.) For an opportunity to see the jet-black lunar disk cover the sun for nearly seven minutes, many of the eclipse chasers — otherwise known as ecliptophiles — spent thousands of dollars for transportation, food, and lodging, not to mention telescopes, cameras, film, and solar filters.

There were some scary moments in San Jose del Cabo when a thick cloud deck passed overhead

There were some scary moments in San Jose del Cabo when a thick cloud deck passed overhead

La Paz, Cabo San Lucas, and San Jose del Cabo were the prime observing locations in Baja, and the local businesses were ready for the onslaught of scientists, turistos, and pesos. Although the Mexican government had long been planning to provide services for the largest number of people to descend upon Baja California Sur, the hotels and airlines probably spent most of that time deciding how high they could raise their prices for the week of financial opportunity.

A few people emitted crazed laughter in anticipation of what was to come

A few people emitted crazed laughter in anticipation of what was to come

Although these businesses may not employ astronomers on their staffs, sometime around 1988 they learned that the eclipse was coming their way, and they realized it would be a gold mine. With a limited supply for accommodations and transportation and with massive demand from professional, amateur, and novice astronomers, hotels and airlines figured they could name their price.

Total solar eclipses are more common than most people realize, occurring about once every year and a half somewhere in the world. The reason that the average citizen thinks they are so rare is that the paths of totality are very narrow and have a fondness for inaccessible locations such as Siberia, the middle of the Pacific Ocean, and Antarctica.

Furthermore, even when dedicated astronomers travel to the ends of the earth to stand within the moon’s shadow, totality typically lasts from two to three minutes. In dollars per second, eclipse excursions have been described as the most expensive expeditions in the world.

The Big One

July 11, however, was not your typical total eclipse. For the past 18 years, astronomers around the world have been referring to the July 11 eclipse simply as “The Big One.” Rather than trekking to the wilds of Timbuktu, risking heavy cloud cover, just for a couple of minutes of totality, astronomers could view The Big One from world-class resort areas noted for their sunny skies and easy access from the United States. Most important. The Big One offered totality of a long duration, ranging from about four minutes on the Big Island to six minutes, 58 seconds near the coast of mainland Mexico.

Eclipses occur in approximately 18-year cycles known as the saros cycle. (Saros is a Babylonian word, because the ancient Babylonians were among the first to recognize and document the recurrence of similar eclipses every 18 years.) Approximately 18 years after any eclipse comes the next eclipse in the same saros cycle. Since both eclipses are from the same saros cycle, they will have similar characteristics, such as the duration of totality, the width and curvature of the path of totality, and the location of the sun and moon in the sky.

The Big One is a member of saros cycle 136, which is the most pre-eminent in modem history. On June 8, 1937, an eclipse over the Pacific Ocean lasted seven minutes and four seconds, the first eclipse in nearly 1000 years to last more than seven minutes. The next eclipse in saros 136, on June 20, 1955, was the longest eclipse of the millenium, lasting seven minutes and eight seconds over Southeast Asia, just 23 seconds shorter than the maximum possible duration. Though the next eclipse in this cycle, on June 30, 1973, was four seconds shorter, it is still considered among the longest eclipses of the millenium. The next eclipse in saros 136 was The Big One.

The Eclipse Business

From the 17th Century until 1970, total solar eclipses have held special appeal primarily for professional astronomers. Only during a total eclipse can astronomers directly observe the sun’s outer atmosphere, or corona. For several hundred years, the only people who would chase the moon’s shadow for a few precious seconds of totality were scientists.

All that changed on March 7, 1970, when a total solar eclipse swept up the East Coast of the United States. Millions of people lived within a day’s drive of the path of totality, and thousands of them traveled to the eclipse. Once there, they experienced the intense psychological high that a total solar eclipse bestows. Just as with any addict, as soon as the high wears off, the first reaction of an eclipse observer is, “When can I get my next fix?” In other words, “When and where is the next total eclipse?” Thus was born the industry of eclipse chasing.

Many of the people who saw the 1970 eclipse traveled to southern Canada in 1972, Africa in 1973, Montana and southern Canada in 1979, Indonesia in 1985, and the Philippines in 1988 for subsequent total eclipses. Except for the North American eclipses in 1972 and 1979, these locations were somewhat off the beaten path, and so most of the eclipse buffs joined tours to take them to the path of totality.

Although the majority of ecliptophiles attempt to view eclipses from land, an increasing number opt for the increased mobility (and increased comfort) of observing from a ship or airplane. Since the foremost enemy of skywatchers is clouds, the ability to fly above or to sail away from bad weather enhances the possibility of seeing the moon pass in front of the sun. Eclipses that in previous centuries would have occurred unobserved by human eyes are now chased by zealous amateurs willing to pay almost any price for even a few seconds of totality. The epitome of such eclipse mania took place on October 3, 1986, when nine fanatics chartered a jet and flew in the path of totality off the coast of Iceland for an eclipse predicted to be total for 0.2 seconds in a path less than one mile wide.

In the context of such extremes, it should not be surprising that thousands of people would travel to Hawaii and Baja to see up to seven minutes of totality on July 11, 1991. Fearful that the expected crowds would make it difficult to obtain eclipse2plane or hotel reservations for the days around the eclipse, most eclipse chasers joined tours to take them to the 160-mile-wide path of totality. If any of those tour members thought that would avoid inflated prices by being part of a group, they were mistaken. If anything, the tour members might have paid higher prices.

Many ecliptophiles signed up for tours and made sizable deposits as early as three years before the eclipse. Unfortunately, as July 1991 approached, the estimated costs of these tours increased. Tour operators said they were not responsible for the prices charged by the airlines and hotels, but nobody knows what percentage went into the operators’ pockets.

Two of the larger tour groups lodged eclipse enthusiasts in the Stouffer’s El Presidente Hotel in San Jose del Cabo, Baja California Sur, Mexico. Scientific Expeditions, Inc., of Venice, Florida, was perhaps the most widely known tour operator because its tours to Hawaii and Mexico were sponsored by Sky and Telescope magazine, the foremost astronomy periodical. The other tour operator, Travelbug International of San Diego, offered both one-week and one-day eclipse excursions to Baja.

Some of the routings arranged by the tour operators were comical — unless, of course, they happened to you. One San Diego couple was assigned to travel from San Diego to Dallas, then from Dallas to Guadalajara, where they were required to spend the night at their own expense, and then from Guadalajara to La Paz. When they complained. Scientific Expeditions told them they could get a direct flight from San Diego to Los Cabos, but only if they were willing to spend an extra $300 because the El Presidente Hotel was requiring a minimum seven-night stay, compared with the five nights required by other hotels. When the couple decided to pay the extra money, Scientific Expeditions directed them to fly back from Los Cabos to Los Angeles, where the couple had to purchase their own airline tickets back to San Diego. Such stories were not uncommon among other tour members, some of whom were still waiting for their airline tickets on the eve of their departure to an eclipse they’d been planning to see for three years.

Weather, Security, and a Wall of Sheets

Fortunately, no amount of profiteering or inconvenience could interfere with the glory of nature; only clouds could do that, and they did block the view in Hawaii for many disappointed ecliptophiles. In Baja, however, the weather was generally clear, although there were some scary moments in San Jose del Cabo when a thick cloud deck passed overhead shortly after sunrise. By 5:30 a.m., the beach at El Presidente was already crowded with astronomers and their equipment, even though the partial phase of the eclipse would not begin until 10:25 a.m.

The crowd consisted of two main categories: those who planned to photograph the eclipse on either film or videotape and those who simply intended to watch with their own eyes (perhaps aided by binoculars or one of the few telescopes that did not have a camera attached). The latter group largely consisted of eclipse “virgins” — people who had never seen a total eclipse before. The virgins relied on the eclipse veterans for guidance as to what to expect and what to look for.

There was one other group on the shore of the Gulf of California that morning: Mexican federales, soldiers in full uniform armed with rifles, patrolling the sand amongst the telescopes. Presumably the government wanted to ensure that things stayed under control, due to the emotional pandemonium that eclipses can cause. The young soldiers appeared hot and uncomfortable as the still-uneclipsed sun rose higher in the sky, and one ecliptophile gave them an extra pair of filters so they could join the crowd in watching the moon cover the sun.

Some eclipse chasers spotted a boat offshore and assumed it was one of the cruise ships sailing into the moon’s shadow. When they turned their telescopes to view the ship, however, they found they were staring at a Mexican military gunboat. The government wasn’t taking any chances.

The management of El Presidente was also concerned. They thought somebody might look at the reflection of the eclipsed sun in the hotel’s giant doughnut-shaped swimming pool. True, a person could burn his retina by staring at the reflection of the partially eclipsed sun. It didn’t occur to the hotel’s management that the eclipse would take place high overhead and that the only way somebody could see the sun reflected in the pool would be from directly above the pool. Nevertheless, hotel workers erected a six-foot-high wall of white sheets all around the perimeter of the pool, thereby dissuading any overheated astronomers from cooling off in the pool as the temperature rose.

Tour members generally found the locals to be courteous and friendly, if not a bit curious about all the Americans coming to look at the sky. The hotel allowed most of the staff to observe the eclipse, though a few kitchen workers were not allowed outdoors. They couldn’t be distracted from preparing the guests’ post-eclipse cold-cut buffet lunch (at the bargain price of $15 per person, drinks not included). At least the management allowed those workers to watch the eclipse on television, which is something like kissing your sister.

Despite a flier that the Mexican government distributed informing Mexicans how to safely observe the eclipse, some Mexicans chose to watch the eclipse on television, presumably to avoid any possibility of eye damage. While viewing the partial phase can be dangerous if proper filters are not used, no filters are necessary during the total phase, which is completely safe to observe with the naked eye or telescopes. Veteran eclipse viewers are pained by the thought that people who are so lucky to live in the path of totality would miss an amazing experience taking place right above their roofs.

A Sight to Behold

The temperature was in the 80s when the moon first made a notch in the top of the sun at 10:25 a.m. Excitement gripped the crowd, especially the virgins.

Photographers started snapping and videotapers started filming. Many observers carried portable tape recorders to make an audible record of reactions. To people who have never seen a total solar eclipse, audiotapes are the best way to convey the experience (of course, videotapes with an audio soundtrack are even better). Everybody has seen photographs of a total eclipse, with the black disk of the moon surrounded by the white corona of the sun. Pictures don’t carry as great an impact as an audio recording of gasps of astonishment and cries of delight.

Anticipation grew as the moon covered more of the sun. Virgins and veterans alike spent much of the time playing shadow games, watching images of the solar crescent projected onto the sand through anything from palm fronds and straw hats to circles made with the thumb and index finger.

At about 11:45 a.m., five minutes before totality, the crowd came alive. The northwest sky, from where the moon’s shadow was coming, was noticeably darker. The light took on an eerie color and tone unique to eclipses, just as there is a special quality of the light that immediately precedes tornadoes. A few people emitted crazed laughter in anticipation of what was to come. Conftised birds hovered overhead in the sea breeze, not knowing whether it was day or night.

Observers at the west end of the beach saw the mountains and clouds in the distance suddenly darken as the moon’s shadow rushed by at 1400 miles per hour. The shadow turned the entire northwestern sky dark as it drew nearer and larger by the second. Veterans pulled filters off their telescopes; virgins cried, “Oh, my God!” Everybody looked up.

In a heartbeat, the shadow crossed the beach. A single brilliant ray of sunlight flared out of the bottom of the sun — the Diamond Ring effect. Then, as if sucked by a vacuum cleaner, the Diamond Ring suddenly faded from view and the jet-black disc of the moon snapped into existence, surrounded by the wispy, pearly white corona.

Cheers, laughs, cries of delight — the beach was full of noise. “Unbelievable!” “There’s Venus, there’s Jupiter and Mercury!” No one could believe their eyes. Veterans reminded virgins to tear their eyes away from the eclipse and look through binoculars and telescopes for a better view. What they saw was astonishing — gigantic prominences, red sheets of burning gas hundreds of thousands of miles high, shooting out from the sun’s surface on three sides. “It’s on fire all around,” one woman exclaimed.

Because the moon appeared so much larger than the sun at this eclipse (which is one of the reasons why the eclipse lasted so long and was called The Big One), most astronomers had predicted that prominences might not be visible except, perhaps, at the very beginning and end of totality. Yet for the entire duration of the eclipse, tremendous prominences could be seen. One was detached from the sun’s surface and appeared to hover above the black lunar disc.

Although the sky was dark, many noted that it wasn’t as dark as some previous eclipses. People could read their watches and see camera settings without using flashlights. Because the moon’s shadow was especially large, it was assumed this would be a particularly dark eclipse. But the orange and pink glow all around on the horizon (about 50 miles away to the south, 110 miles to the north) helped make the day as light as a San Diego beach 15 minutes after sunset.

Six minutes and 19 seconds passed as if a single moment, and the northwestern sky turned lighter as the moon’s shadow headed southeast. “Take a final look,” veterans implored, as the trailing edge of the shadow approached. Suddenly, a second Diamond Ring erupted from the top of the sun. Fearful of eye damage, people stared at the dazzling burst of sunlight for only a moment before turning away and watching the dark shadow appear to lift from the ground and darken the ocean and sky to the southeast.

Spontaneously, people began to applaud. More joined in until the entire beach was clapping and cheering, thanking Mother Nature for the most overwhelming sky show imaginable. After a few moments, the applause died away, and the crowd became hushed and subdued.

When Is the Next One?

Before the moon has completed its path in front of the sun, everybody is asking, “When can we do it again?” There are two answers, and one of them involves San Diego.

Solar eclipses can be either partial or central. A partial eclipse occurs when the moon covers only a portion of the sun, resulting in a crescent-shaped sun. San Diego experienced such an eclipse on July 11, when 74 percent of the sun was obscured by the moon.

A central solar eclipse occurs when the moon passes directly in front of the sun. A total eclipse is the best example of a central eclipse, and it takes place when the moon appears at least as large as the sun. However, there is another type of central eclipse, known as an “annular” eclipse, where the moon passes directly in front of the sun, but the sun appears larger than the moon. Thus, die moon cannot block all of the sun’s bright light, and a ring, or annulus, of sunlight appears all around the moon. Although dramatic and unusual, an annular eclipse does not convey the psychological impact of a total eclipse.

The next solar eclipse anywhere in the world will occur on Saturday, January 4, 1992. It will be annular, not total, and the “path of annularity” begins and ends in the Pacific Ocean without crossing any significant bodies of land. The path of maximum eclipse will barely miss San Diego, ending approximately 70 nautical miles southwest of our coast. That’s the bad news.

The good news is that the entire first half of the eclipse can be seen from San Diego, clouds permitting. We’ll be treated to the rare sight of the full eclipsed sun, consisting of a symmetrical ring of sunlight, setting into the ocean at 4:55 p.m. PST. If the coast is cloudy, the eclipse can still be viewed inland, but the farther east one goes, the less of the eclipse one sees. The central eclipse can be seen from Malibu south to Ensenada, but the best view will be from the northern coast of San Diego County around Encinitas.

One of the unique aspects of this event is that viewers should be able to view the central eclipse without the aid of filters. Normally, an annular eclipse can only be viewed with the aid of very dark filters to protect the eyes from infrared or ultraviolet damage. Because the January 4 eclipse will be central at sunset, it will be no more dangerous to observe than any other sunset. Perhaps some lucky San Diegan will see two green flashes simultaneously, at the top and bottom of the ring of sun.

The next total solar eclipse will occur on June 30, 1992. It will begin at sunrise in Uruguay, but the rest of the path of totality will pass over the South Atlantic Ocean, reaching a maximum duration of five minutes, 20 seconds. The eclipse will end at sunset south of South Africa.

Not surprisingly, the eclipse chasers are already making plans to view the June 30 total eclipse. The two main options are an afternoon cruise out of South Africa or a chartered airplane flight along the path of totality. One proposed flight would extend totality to nine minutes. Either option is sure to be expensive, particularly the airplane flight, because the plane only carries one person per row, as everybody has to have a window seat on the eclipse side of the plane. On the other hand, the eclipse occurs at the beginning of the southern hemisphere winter, so a cruise is likely to be a cold ocean voyage.

Devoted ecliptophiles will be there just the same, and South African businesses will probably do whatever they can to make a profit from the eclipse. And on January 4, 1992, it will be our turn to make a buck from the enthusiasts crowding our shoreline to see The Next One.

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