Eclipse 98

1998 Feb 26

Diamond ring near 2nd contact
With eclipses, it's either feast or famine. There are eclipses which must be chased in order to capture small bits of totality through the obscuring clouds, such as the March 9, 1997 Mongolian eclipse. There are others which come to you unobscured as did this February 26, 1998 Caribbean eclipse. It came to those of us on the front steps of the Cristo Rey Catholic Church in the little town of Judibana near the large oil refineries of Punta Fijo, Venezuela. The tall facade of this church provided blessed shelter from the heavy easterly trade winds that frequent this area of the Caribbean. El Niño played no noticeable part with this eclipse. Our tour group, ably led once again by Joel Harris, President of Twilight Tours, required three busses to transport 78 of us from Caracas to the Paraguana Peninsula for this historic event. At one time, Paraguana, just south of the island of Aruba, was an island but over the eons a 45-mile long sand bar evolved connecting it to the mainland of Venezuela.

Here tradewinds dominate the climate so we set out immediately to find shelter from these nemeses to high-power telescope operators. Several of us found a 15-foot high wall a block from our El Jardin Hotel that would provide the necessary shelter. Noting this locale as a good possibility, we continued to look for a more suitable location. We rode a van out to the main site on the beach at El Pico, 13 km north of Judibana. Venevision TV trucks there were preparing to record the next day's event. Over 30,000 viewers were expected to attend. After carefully considering this site, which provided little protection from the wind, Dr. Jacques Guertin and I decided we would stay in Judibana for the eclipse.

The next morning only about a dozen people stayed with us at the church site while most of the group traveled North to El Pico to enjoy the ambiance of the large crowd expected on the beach. There the time of totality was predicted to be 3 minutes and 41 seconds. At our church site we sacrificed 14 seconds of time for the more important protection from the wind afforded by the structure of the church. We also avoided the hassle of coping with traffic congestion and massive crowds.

Coronal streamers
The church site had been discovered on eclipse eve by Richard and Sandy Lambert of Lakewood, California as they attended Ash Wednesday services. The word of a windless site was passed on to Monsignor Royer who then met with the pastor of the church who allowed us to rope off a section of the front steps for our equipment. Our good fortune provided us not only with a great view of the sky in the direction of the anticipated eclipse but also the picturesque city square. Dr. Guertin and I chose to set our telescopes up near each other so we could share the count-down tape recording we had prepared to guide us to the very second for the beginning of totality and through its duration. Monsignor Ron Royer, Marty Poissant, a videographer and freelance producer, who was taping our every move at the church site, and Steve Pedilla, an astronomer at Mt. Wilson, elected to occupy near the north steps.

The morning of the eclipse, I met Harrison Ramirez, a 16-year old student who was enjoying a day off from school because of the eclipse. I hired him to help haul my equipment from the hotel to the church about a block and one-half to the east. He also helped fill my shipping crate with rocks, which I use to provide a stable base for the telescope and equipment. He needed little instruction on how to assemble my equipment, cabling and controls. Of course, when his buddies showed up for the "big show" they were envious, as Harrison had prime viewing through the telescope as the eclipse progressed.

When fully assembled, my system consisted of: the 3-way telescope (600mm, f/7) and mount (which I had developed for the 1973 Saharan Desert Eclipse and since modified many times), a C-90 telescope (1000mm, f/11) riding piggyback above the 3-way telescope, and a Canon ES-2000 camcorder, also riding piggyback. Over the years I have perfected a specially designed spot filter that I use in one port of my 3-way telescope. This filter, in conjunction with a Pentax ZX-5 camera and Kodak Royal Gold 400 print film, captures the delicate but beautiful streamers of the corona.

The C-90 telescope, a Pentax SF-10 camera and Fuji Provia-100 slide film were used to photograph the "Diamond Ring", countless Baily's Beads, flame like rose colored prominences, and the ever-so-astounding deep red chromosphere.

The camcorder is a new addition to my system. It provides a clock display on video of the local time accurate to within one second. I calibrated time with my Magellan GPS-2000 Satellite Navigator unit. I built a lens adapter, which accepts either a solar filter for partial eclipse taping, or a prism- defraction grating assembly to record the "flash spectrum" near 2nd or 3rd contact. The grating is removed for taping the eclipsed sun during totality.

Almost complete hands off operation of the high powered telescopes were accomplished by building special cabling to remote control the two cameras from a control box which also controls the right ascension and declination override motors.

The midmorning appearance of low broken clouds moving westward caused us some alarm, but we were assured that this was normal and would clear within the hour. Thank God it did.

The first bite of the moon at 1st contact occurred at 12:37:06 p.m. but it was an additional 7 seconds before we could detect it in our telescopes. The cement steps, the faade of the church, and no shade contributed to a temperature rise to 96F at around 12:30 p.m., then began a welcome cooling due to the diminishing sunlight from the eclipse. As time ticked away toward 2nd contact, I made corrections to my stepper motor drive, to keep the image of the crescent sun centered in my cameras and camcorder view finders. As the eclipse progresses, the thinning of the crescent sun makes it more difficult to keep the image centered.

Curious local Venezuelans gathered around our set-ups and enjoyed peering into our telescopes as the eclipsed progressed. Around 15 minutes before totality, the planet Venus became quite visible and stole the spotlight of events for the moment.

Dr. Guertin and I had spent at least two hours the night before studying his high resolution maps of the area and replotting contact times for the church site. A calculated loss of 14 seconds of totality meant removing 7 seconds from each side of the contact timings calculated for the original destination of the El Pico site. This also meant that our countdown tape had to start about 7 seconds later than originally planned. We started playing the tape at 2:00:13 p.m., exactly 8 minutes before 2nd contact of 2:08:13. Judging from the audio on our tape recording, the increased cheering of the crowd around our site, and the countdown of : "10,9,8,7,6,5,4,3,2,1, we have totality", coincided exactly!

During those last 10 seconds I removed the glass ND-4 filter from my C-90 telescope and ran off a barrage of 19 exposures. I captured every one of Baily's Beads (valleys on the moon where the last rays of sunlight shine through). The crowds around us roared as the "Diamond Ring" appeared momentarily, a large prominence appeared just above the diamond, a segment of the chromosphere flashed by too quickly, and the sun's pearly white corona blossomed to its fullest. What really amazed me was to see the planet Mercury appear as bright as Jupiter-the two just below the eclipsed sun-Mercury to the left and Jupiter to the right. I then removed the solar filter from the 3-way telescope and ran off a set of four exposures each at 1/8, 1/4, 1/2, and one- second durations for a total of 16 shots through my special streamer filter.

My only mishap came when I removed the prism-grating assembly from my camcorder, expecting to see an image of the eclipsed sun. The "flash spectrum" setting on my camcorder was set to wide angle. When I went to zoom in on totality nothing happened. As I discovered later, my "tally light" switch was shut off. I had turned it off several weeks previously when, during a photo copying session, the flashing red light during recording appeared on my video. The remote control will not work with the "tally light" switch in the off position. Knowing I was in trouble, I abandoned this phase of recording and went on to run another series of 16 exposures with the 3-way telescope and special filter. Had I brought my daughter Elaine along she would have operated the camcorder for me. She was a big help in Bolivia and would have been perfect on this trip.

The remaining shots were performed with the C-90 telescope. I captured every change that occurred during 3rd contact with a barrage of 14 exposures. My new cameras and remote controls worked to perfection and no camera vibrations were noticed. My photographic results were all quite pleasing. As usual, the eclipse went by too fast even though, after having to live with the 42 second eclipse in India in 1995, this eclipse of 207 seconds was pleasantly long!

The dry-wet bulb thermometer, mounted on the north side of my shipping crate pier, showed a temperature drop of 8 F measured just after 3rd contact.

The humidity rose from 40% at 12:30 to 45% at 3rd contact. During 17 of the 18 eclipses I have attended, the wind ceased during the eclipse. During this eclipse the wind decreased somewhat but was still noticeably strong. The other windy eclipse I measured was the early morning of the 1979 Northwest eclipse near Yakima, Washington. (There are things that eclipses will not do.)

I'm not much of a believer in good luck charms, but must say having Monsignor Royer (our direct connection to God ) with us makes a big difference. I've been with him on three eclipse trips and each time we've had clear skies and a great show!

I gather from other reports I've heard that everyone who went to the Caribbean saw the eclipse, even those in Aruba where it rained up to a few minutes before totality. Those who went to the main site at El Pico saw shadow bands both before and after totality. We at the church were so busy looking up at the marvelous show in the sky that we neglected to look down for shadow bands. Those light and dark bands of wavering light were probably running all around us and none of us bothered to take notice.

My wife Barbara is a Master Gardner. In 1997 when I went to the eclipse in Mongolia she asked me to bring her back some garden seeds. At the beginning of our 8-1/2 hour bus ride back to Caracas on the morning after the eclipse, I asked our tour guide, Alcira Maya, where I could shop for seeds. Alcira said she would ask around. I forgot about this and wondered why the caravan of three busses had pulled off the main highway, turned onto a side street, and parked near a nursery. Alcira announced, "Ernie, lets go buy your seeds." I hope Barbara appreciates the patience of 78 expeditioners and my total embarrassment in detaining them to shop for her seeds. To top it off, this nursery didn't sell seeds.

We enjoyed our last night at the Caracas Hilton with our usual gala post eclipse dinner party. At a previous dinner, Joel Harris had asked me if I would be writing a book about this eclipse. Joel has generously supported my book efforts in the past. At that time I said no, a book is too much work but that I was going to produce a 30 minute TV show, like I had for the Mongolian Eclipse. Another expeditioner, on his way out of the dining room, thanked me for a previous copy of one of my books that he had received. He enjoyed reading it and it is now a part of his library. Well, that was enough to convince me do it again; to write one about this eclipse trip. My personal editors, Joe Heim and May Coon, are willing to help. So what the heck-why not? Watch for it later this year.

E W Piini; 1998 Mar 26