1998 Feb 26   13° 39' 15" North
18:16:23 UT   67° 27' 30" West

5. To Stand in the Shadow of the Moon

On eclipse day, we awoke to partly cloudy skies. But I was never in doubt that we would see the eclipse. The events leading up to the time of totality should have tested my confidence but they didn't. Did that take away some of the excitement? Maybe, but I'll take that over the anxiety and disappointment we all felt in Hawaii in 1991.

So I calmly went about observing the partial phases. There were two nice sunspot groups to liven up the first hour. On any other day they would have been very interesting targets in themselves. As the Moon's limb apprached them its motion was clearly evident in real time thru the eyepiece. It was fun to see first one then the other group disappear in to the inky blackness of the Moon.

A few minutes before totality, crescent-shaped shadows were everywhere. We played around with making them by crossing and making little pinholes with our fingers. Maybe one minute before totality shadow bands were visible. I saw them on one of the ship's flat white bulkheads. They were very subtle and hard to see but there was no doubt that they were real. But unlike our otherwise disappointing experience in Hawaii, we did not see the Moon's shadow approach from the west. I remember that very clearly from 1991. But our location then on a hillside with a much more distant horizon made it easier (as did the fact that there wasn't anything else do see :-(

And then, at exactly the predicted time and place, the shadow of the Moon came upon us. As the corona shone in it full glory above us my dream of nearly forty years was realized. We saw it! We saw it! We saw it! The most sophisticated observation I heard during totality was: "Look at that!"; most of us were reduced to monosyllables. All my plans about what to do during totality were forgotten. The sheer beauty of it was just overwhelming.

Of course, no eclipse experience would be complete without a SNAFU or two. I had setup my scope just before 1st contact in a location well chosen for the duration of the event. But as the time of totality approached it the captian saw a big cloud coming our way that surely would have eaten our eclipse. So he turned the ship 30 or 40 degrees to port to get us into a big blue hole instead. This is exactly why I wanted to be on a ship! But, the turn changed the relationship between the Sun and my position with respect to the ship's superstructure. Though the turn was made 20 minutes before totality and I of course rotated my Pronto to compensate, I didn't notice that the Sun was very near one of the ship's communications towers. As Murphy would have it, the Sun slid behind the tower just seconds before totality. Just at the critical time the Sun disappeared from my eyepiece! I didn't quite panic, but I also don't really quite remember what happened. I remember some frantic scanning around with the tripod controls with no success. And I remember thinking, "well, I guess I'll just watch with the binos and unaided eye". I saw the 2nd contact diamond ring and the first moments of totality just looking up. Then I apparently realized what was wrong. After totality was over my tripod was in a different place, so I must have moved it. I do remember trying again to reaquire the Sun in the eyepiece after 2nd contact. Fortunately, it took only a few seconds. I must have removed the filter, too.

And I'll remember as long as I live that first glimpse of the corona at 12x thru the little Pronto. Of course, it was generally what I expected from pictures. But no image I've ever seen even comes close to the direct visual experience. The contrast is just too great for any of our ordinary media to reproduce. There was lots of structure visible in the corona from the solar limb out at least 2 solar diameters and maybe a little more. The corona as a whole took on a sort of "arrow" shape with one large prominent streamer on one side (the arrowhead) and two slightly smaller ones on the opposite side (the feathers). Many fine "brushes" were visible at both poles. It looked very much like a magnetic dipole pattern (which isn't as close to the truth as you might think). Whereas it takes several photographs at different exposure levels to capture all this detail, the eye can see it all at once. I just gawked.

And the colors! The corona was a very pale but brilliant blue, maybe a little like sunlight thru ice. There was one large deep red prominence near the top of the image and several smaller ones with a lighter pinkish hue. And, of course, the infinitely black Moon.

My first reaction was "Gee, it is awfully small." I had been looking thru the Pronto at 12x most of the partial phases, perhaps that affected my perceptions. Of course, in reality the corona was only about 2 degrees in the longest dimension. That is only about 1 percent of the visible hemisphere after all. Still, I expected it to look bigger.

One special feature of this eclipse was the presence of Mercury and Jupiter just a few degrees on either side of the Sun. Venus was obvious far to the west, too, but too far away to see at the same time as the Sun. Mars and Saturn were theoretically visible, too, but I didn't take any time to try to find them. (I also noticed while playing around with Starry Night before we left that my favorite globular cluster, 47 Tucanae, would also be visible during totality. But only a complete madman would waste precious seconds of totality searching for an object easily visible at other times.)

A total solar eclipse is an interesting lesson in humility for the modern man. We are so confident in our technology and our self-sufficiency. But when the Sun goes away in the middle of the day one is reminded in the most direct and obvious way how utterly dependent we are on it. Of course, we are all aware of this intellectually. But in the hour before totality the temperature dropped at least 10 degrees (F). I actually shivvered for a moment. Of course, it wasn't really cold (yet!) but my subconscious didn't like the situation one bit. As we watched the Moon slide in front of the Sun we were reminded that there are forces out there far, far beyond our puny power. My abstract intellectual knowledge was transformed into direct experience.

It is a sobering thought, too, that that apparently tiny prominence we saw at the Sun's limb was actually bigger than the Earth.

By 1820 UT it was all over. The call of "ten seconds to 3rd contact" felt like a death sentence. "No!" we cried, "not so soon." Fortunately, Nature has arranged that at that too soon moment of 3rd contact one of its beautiful events occurs -- another diamond ring to match the one at the onset of totality. But the second one much easier to observe since one's filters are off at the outset. I managed to watch the first second or two of it thru the Pronto. When it got too bright, I looked up at the Sun for another second or two before resorting to filters. The tiny but seemingly huge and overwhelmingly bright point of white was set in a perfect ring of deep but brilliant red. A star on a ring of fire. I've never seen a picture that cames anywhere close to the visual effect.

The funny thing is I don't really remember all the things I did during totality; that was the fastest 3:40 of my life. My favorite quip is: "no matter what the clock says totality always lasts 7 seconds".

The clouds that we had been dodging all afternoon finally won out just minutes after 3rd contact. It was actually very interesting to watch the thin crescent Sun thru the clouds which were often just the right density to permit easy viewing. Once again, we were glad for the ship's maneuverability and all the high-tech communications gear to guide it.

For the rest of the day all I could say was, "I'm so happy! We saw it!".

[ Can we do this again? ]

Bill Arnett; last updated: 1998 Mar 14