Eclipse 98

1998 Feb 26

Several possible sites for viewing the eclipse were evaluated in the four days preceding the big day. Factors to consider were accessibility with heavy and valuable equipment, the possibility of viewing the oncoming and leaving shadow, but more importantly a good clear view of all the planets which were going to be on show, from listening to eclipse veterans this was a rare spectacle, we could expect to see Venus, Jupiter, Mercury, Mars and Saturn, with the sun as a jewel in the middle of a necklace.

High, accessible vantage positions were obviously at a premium on this little island in paradise. Sites we had identified prior to departure were the first to be investigated, firstly Greencastle Hill, which was situated to the West of the island in the hilly region. A detailed map showed a stone circle, but we needed information, and this lead us to our contact in Antigua, Mr Desmond Nicholson, director of the museum in Nelson's Dockyard at English Harbour. However, Greencastle Hill proved to be inaccessible with all the equipment, and had we persisted with the plan once installed there was no possible way of moving considering bad weather on the day. Turtle beach was next on the list, a small beach on the south of the island to the west of Falmouth Harbour, all in all not a bad position, a good view of Monserrat, and therefore a chance to see the approaching shadow, all the planets would easily be visible. We decided if nothing else this site would be ok, and therefore plan "B". So it was back to the map. Standfast Point looked very promising. A peninsula that also looked to be the nearest land to the centre line on Antigua. This was disappointing and frustrating, after walking on a very hot day, we found the road to the point was private property.

Then Monk's Hill was then visited, to the north of Falmouth Harbour the prospect of this site was stunning. But, we also realised that this site would be popular, not as popular as Shirley Heights, and tomorrow was eclipse day, we walked back to English Harbour and had decided Monk's Hill was first choice and Turtle Beach second. Then Desmond found us and said he had thought of a site for us with good views and the possibility of being alone. It was on the small peninsula that separated English Harbour from Falmouth Harbour, the track to the place was no more than a goat trail, not marked on our ordnance survey map. The trail lead us to Fort Cuyler, all that remained of the fort was a semi-circular wall, we were approximately 350 feet above sea level, with clear views of Monserrat, all the planets would be easily visible, and we were almost guaranteed to be alone. This was it, our observation place and again thanks to Desmond.

We installed early in the morning of the 26th at Fort Cuyler, well supplied with bread, pineapples, and plenty of drink, this hopefully would be a hot day with clear skies. Cloud observation showed light cloud cover over Monserrat, and the clouds over the North-west of Antigua looked a little heavier. I was thankful Greencastle proved to be not so convenient. Although it was difficult to determine which way the clouds were moving, it seemed to be in a South-westerly direction, and the skies to the North-east of us were relatively clear. I positioned myself happily on an exposed rock about 10 feet in front of Patrick, with my camera, thermometer and binoculars with solar filters. Patrick had devised an experiment for me to take pictures at set time intervals to monitor changes in sky brightness and variations in colour, later these pictures will be evaluated with the temperature and light measurement values recorded by both Patrick and myself. Then all there was left to do was wait patiently for first contact.

So now it begins. First contact was at 1.05 pm local time. The first bite out of the sun was at about the 4 'o'clock position. I watched in wonder as the moon took more, and more of the sun. It was now easily to understand why ancient cultures were once afraid, even now knowing a little of the physics behind it, I felt it a little unsettling. Cloud conditions were basically the same throughout the eclipse, our sky in the south-east of the island remained clear. I observed first contact with two groups of sun spots, two beautiful groups. The first group was touched at 1.43 pm, at 1.58 pm Patrick spotted Venus, 34 minutes before totality. It was very low in the sky, and was sometimes hidden by the clouds over Monserrat. At 1.47 pm the second group of spots were touched. The sky zenith was noticeable darker. We made a quick observation for other stars, but none could be seen. It was then I noticed an ant's nest behind me had become active. The ants seemed disorientated instead of the usual well ordered behaviour expected in ant society. Temperatures before contact had been at my exposed position 34 degrees Celsius, at 2.20 pm, ten minutes before totality it had dropped to 25 degrees. But even more remarkable was the strangest yellow-golden light, it seemed surreal, dreamlike. Shadows had now become undefined, anticipation and emotion had now swept over me.

Patrick explained time would move quickly now as the crescent grew smaller and smaller. Then the diamond ring, just a quick glance, so not to spoil the adjustment of my eyes to the decrease in light. Pictures could not have prepared me for this sight. The quick glance was enough to imprint it in my mind. I removed the solar filters from the binoculars ready to view totality. Then I notice I was surrounded by a swarm of hornets, Patrick had asked me to observe wildlife, but this was unexpected and to be honest slightly concerning. Calmness prevailed, and I decided to ignore them and enjoy totality.

Observing first through the binoculars to enjoy the details. The corona was very symmetrical I thought, like two petals of a large flower overlapping, emerging from the sun from the North-west and the South-east. The polar plumes were very apparent, just below the North plumes a beautiful prominence could easily been seen. Then looking with the naked eye to enjoy the overall picture.

The colours again seemed the most impressive feature. The sky was a magenta-blue, not as dark as expected. The black moon surrounded by the corona. The horizon a twilight glow. Again so surreal, so dreamlike. But so so beautiful. Day had changed to night for 2 minutes and 46 seconds. Planets had become visible, animals had changed behaviour, and the sun was giving up her secrets. Temperatures had dropped to 22 degrees, this was the lowest temperature recorded. The boats in the surrounding harbours were sounding their horns, as if seeing in the new year. Steel drum music could be heard from Shirley Heights, the Caribbean people were celebrating this event in their own inevitable way.

Venus was again in cloud, Jupiter and Mercury were aligned on the ecliptic, immediately after the second diamond ring the hornets disappeared almost as quickly as they appeared. However, I did not spot Mars or Saturn, or any of the stars. I did not see the shadow approaching or the shadow bands, after and whilst walking back to base I also realised I did not see the bailey beads. But I cannot say I felt any disappointment. This was my first experience, and I already know from a professional aspect that observation takes experience. My own personal feeling is that the Earth's natural wonders are always the best, they fill you with wonderment. But this was a natural wonder of the universe, and I consider myself very fortunate to have been at the right place at the right time. Cloud cover of the sun began half an hour after totality.

I concluded this report by thanking Desmond Nicholson, with his hospitality our trip to Antigua was truly a wonderful experience and certainly far easier than expected, and also Patrick Poitevin for allowing me the privilege of travelling with him, I am always in his debt.

Joanne Edmonds (fwd by Patrick Poitevin; 1998 Mar 11