The March 29, 2006, total solar eclipse in Salloum, Egypt. Photo by I. Joson and E. Aguirre.
Chasing the Moon’s Shadow
A total eclipse of the Sun is Nature’s most spectacular celestial phenomenon. Nothing quite matches the experience of seeing the ink-black disk of the Moon set against the Sun’s diaphanous, pearly white corona; the solar prominences arranged like a necklace of rubies along the rugged lunar limb; or the spectacular “diamond ring” bursting forth from a deep lunar valley. These images can remain forever etched in one’s memory.
A total solar eclipse is a life-changing, almost religious, experience that a person should partake in at least once in his or her lifetime. Be forewarned, though, that once you catch the eclipse fever, there is no known cure for it.
Countless people willingly pay large sums of money and travel thousands of miles across the globe just to be able to spend a few fleeting moments immersed in the shadow cast by the Moon a quarter of a million miles away. This special breed of people has been called eclipse chasers, eclipse fanatics, eclipse junkies, or, as astronomer Glenn Schneider calls them, umbraphiles, or “shadow lovers.”
The business of chasing solar eclipses to the far reaches of the world has become a booming, multi-million-dollar commercial travel and tourism industry. During the last 50 years, the availability of economical land, sea, and air transportation has made eclipse sites (including Antarctica) accessible to practically anyone — from serious observers to plain sightseers. It’s no wonder that people are spending more and more time under the Moon’s shadow than during any period in history.
For example, our dear friends Derald Nye and his late wife, Denise, started chasing eclipses in the early 1970s. Together, they had a combined total of more than 30 total and annular eclipses, spending over an hour under the Moon’s shadow.
(For her part, Imelda fondly remembers seeing her very first solar eclipse as a youngster on February 16, 1980, with her mom and dad. The three of them watched the event from behind the Quirino Grandstand in Luneta. They saw the Sun slowly set in partial eclipse over Manila Bay, with several cargo ships and tankers silhouetted in the foreground. Also anchored in the bay that afternoon were the presidential yacht Ang Pangulo and the cruise ship Queen Elizabeth II. This scene is strikingly similar to the sunset eclipse that graced Manila Bay almost exactly 29 years later — on January 26, 2009.)
It was Father Francis J. Heyden, S.J., then director of the Manila Observatory’s Solar (Optical) Division, who inspired both of us to become serious eclipse chasers. It happened around mid-1983, during one of our countless visits to Father Heyden’s office.
While chatting with him, we saw on his desk a copy of the U.S. Naval Observatory eclipse circular written by Dr. Alan D. Fiala that gave details about that year’s upcoming eclipse — on June 11th — in Southeast Asia. According to Dr. Fiala, the best spot to see it from land would be the island of Java in Indonesia. Totality there would last about five minutes.
Father Heyden briefed us on the logistics needed to go and see the eclipse, and shared with us his own experiences of leading several expeditions for the U.S. Air Force back in the 1950s and 60s. He even showed us a 16-mm film footage he had shot of totality.
Within weeks, we applied for our passports (it was our very first trip outside the Philippines), obtained free roundtrip airline tickets to Jakarta (courtesy of Philippine Airlines chairman Roman Cruz), and, lugging a Nikon SLR film camera with a 500-millimeter telephoto lens, joined fellow Philippine Astronomical Society (PAS) member John L. Nassr on a three-person expedition to Java. Needless to say, we got hooked for life on eclipse chasing!
Since then, our eclipse chasing has brought us to even more distant and exotic destinations — from Baja California Sur and Egypt to the vast, open waters of the Caribbean Sea, between Aruba and Curacao.
We count ourselves fortunate to have witnessed the last total solar eclipse of the 20th century — on August 10, 1999 — from a mountaintop in Harput, between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers in eastern Turkey, as well as the first total solar eclipse of the 21st century (and the new millennium) — on June 21, 2001 — from a private farm on the outskirts of Lusaka, Zambia.
No two eclipses are exactly alike. Like people, each one has its own unique beauty and character. And enhancing the visual experience are the wonderful people you get to meet, the different cultures you get to know, the scrumptious cuisine you get to enjoy, and the new vistas you get to explore. Eclipse chasing is an experience that can completely overwhelm your senses!
Countdown to the 2010 South Pacific Eclipse
Although we missed seeing totality during the July 22, 2009, solar eclipse in China due to inclement weather (see our detailed account at the end of this page), next year we'll get another chance to view the Sun's corona. The same company — Astronomical Tours — that had invited us to lead its tour to China, has asked us once again to lead another tour, this time for the July 11, 2010, total solar eclipse in the South Pacific.
Diagram courtesy Fred Espenak and Jay Anderson.
We will be observing with our tour group from Tatakoto, a small island (actually an atoll) in the Tuamotu Archipelago in French Polynesia. We'll be staying overnight in Tahiti before boarding our chartered turboprop plane to Tatakoto, which lies about 1,200 kilometers (700 miles) east of Tahiti. The tour was offered to the public only in late May 2009, but it filled up very quickly and is now sold out. The tour is limited to only 35 people since this is the plane's passenger capacity.
The Tatakoto atoll as viewed from Earth orbit. Courtesy NASA.
Tatakoto lies very close to the eclipse centerline. Totality here is expected to last 4 minutes 25 seconds on the early morning of July 11th. (Tatakoto is the last major landmass before the Moon's shadow reaches Easter Island.) Tatakoto features white sand beaches, coral reefs, a blue lagoon, a small airstrip, a village with about 255 native people, copra plantations, and clam farms.
After the eclipse, our group will stay overnight in Tatakoto before flying back to Papeete in Tahiti. From Tahiti we'll take a ferry to the nearby island of Moorea and spend a day relaxing and exploring this tropical paradise before returning to Papeete the next day to catch our flight back home. Here's the link to the tour's itinerary:
Let's hope for clear skies on Eclipse Day!
The Saros Cycle
Like people, eclipses are grouped in families called the saros. Saros refers to the 18.03-year period when a solar (or lunar) eclipse appears to repeat itself (with a 120° westward shift in the longitude where it is visible). This cycle may have been known to ancient Babylonian skywatchers. Eclipses belonging to a particular saros series, or family, share very similar orbital geometry of the Sun, Moon, and Earth.
There are about 80 different saros families (solar and lunar) currently active, and several of them are taking place at any given time. Each series typically lasts 12 to 15 centuries and produces 70 to 85 eclipses. As old families end, new ones begin and take their places.
The total solar eclipse in 2009 belongs to saros 136, the same family that produced the super-long totalities on June 20, 1955 (duration: 7 minutes 7.7 seconds at maximum); June 30, 1973 (7 minutes 3.6 seconds); and July 11, 1991 (6 minutes 53.1 seconds).
The 1955 eclipse is the longest on record in the 20th century. The eclipse path actually passed through the Philippine cities of Manila, Quezon City, and Pasay, as well as the provinces of Zambales, Bataan, Pampanga, Bulacan, Rizal, Laguna, Cavite, Batangas, Quezon, Camarines Norte, Camarines Sur, Sorsogon, Catanduanes, Mindoro, Marinduque, Masbate, and Samar. (Unfortunately, this happened well before we were born!) The first time we witnessed an eclipse from saros 136 was in 1991, from Baja California.
The reason for the family’s long duration of totalities is the fact that the eclipses occur around the time of Earth’s aphelion, or farthest distance from the Sun, and the Moon’s perigee, or closest distance to Earth. This combination results in an extraordinarily small solar disk and large lunar disk as seen in the sky, which means the Moon can cover the Sun’s face for a much longer period of time.
Saros 136 is still active, but the family is already on a steady decline, with the duration of totality getting shorter at each successive eclipse. After 2009, the next eclipse in the series will happen on August 2, 2027, over northern Africa (duration: 6 minutes 22.6 seconds). This is followed by the eclipse on August 12, 2045, mainly over central and southeastern United States (6 minutes 5.7 seconds).
We hope we’ll still be around to see the 2045 eclipse so we can complete three full cycles of saros 136. This interval, spanning some 54 years, is called a “triple saros” or an exeligmos. By then, the eclipse will have come full circle, returning to the same general part of North America where the 1991 event took place.
In the meantime, here are some excerpts and photos from our travel journals from our previous eclipse expeditions. We hope you will enjoy reading them and will likewise get inspired to undertake your own eclipse adventure!
1988: Nightfall over Mindanao
Photo courtesy High Altitude Observatory.
The total solar eclipse on March 16, 1988, was the first to occur over the Philippines in nearly 33 years, so everyone was excited to see it.
In order to help coordinate preparations for the event, we suggested to Dr. Roman Kintanar of the Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical, and Astronomical Services Administration (PAGASA) the creation of a Solar Eclipse National Committee.
Dr. Kintanar headed the committee, with us as technical consultants. Other members included representatives from the Philippine Astronomical Society, the Manila Observatory, the National Museum Planetarium, the Departments of Science & Technology, Tourism, and Foreign Affairs, and the Armed Forces of the Philippines.
In September 1987, the Committee sent us to the southern Philippine island of Mindanao to survey possible observing sites and to personally assess the local peace and order situation. We traveled widely in General Santos City (Dandiangas) in South Cotabato and took a passenger bus through the countryside to Davao City in Davao del Sur.
We also held a series of meetings with Lt. Col. Dominador Resos Jr., then Provincial Commander of the Philippine Constabulary based in General Santos, and with representatives from the “Alsa-Masa” movement, an anti-Communist paramilitary group that operated in Davao City. We briefed them on the details of the eclipse and the expected influx of foreign visitors into their respective cities.
We felt it would be such a shame that foreign guests would be able to see and enjoy this eclipse, and yet Filipino astronomers might have to miss the event, happening in their own country, because they couldn’t afford to go to Mindanao. So we decided to raise funds single-handedly for many members of the Philippine Astronomical Society expedition team.
We were able to obtain generous support and cooperation from oil companies like Pilipinas Shell and Caltex Philippines, as well as corporations and individuals such as IBM Philippines, San Miguel Corporation, Coca-Cola Bottlers Philippines, Ayala Corporation, Mondragon Industries International, Mrs. Patricia S. Gonzales, Senator Edgardo J. Angara, Mr. Irving Ackerman, and many others. In the end, we were able to raise enough funds to send 14 members of the PAS team to fly to General Santos and see their very first eclipse.
Greyline International, through its marketing manager, Mr. Marcelino C. Chua, became the “Official Outfitter” of the PAS team. The company provided our group with Blazing Products-brand camping gear and outdoor apparel for use during the trip.
The observing site we had chosen was the concrete roof deck of the General Santos City Hall. Joining us there were 81-year-old Father Heyden and three physicists from the National Institute of Physics at U.P. Diliman, led by Dr. Jose A. Magpantay.
Sharing the site with us was the four-member team from the High Altitude Observatory (HAO), led by Dr. Richard Fisher of the U.S. National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado. The HAO team’s setup, which included a white-light coronal camera, a green-line eclipse camera, and a CCD video system, weighed more than 1,300 pounds.
Scientists are interested in eclipses since they offer the best opportunity to observe in great detail the Sun’s corona — its hot, million-degree outer atmosphere composed entirely of ionized gas, called plasma. (Special telescopes, called coronagraphs, which are equipped with an occulting disk to block the Sun’s photosphere, or visible face, to produce an artificial eclipse, do not show the inner corona down to the solar limb.)
Studying the physics of the corona and the solar magnetic field that governs it (a branch of research called magnetohydrodynamics) is essential to understanding the inner workings of our nearest star.
The Sun’s level of sunspot and magnetic activity peaks and wanes in an approximately 11-year cycle. During maximum activity, there’s a dramatic increase in sunspots and bright patches (called faculae) on the Sun’s surface, as well the frequency and magnitude of powerful, X-class solar flares. The corona’s overall shape at this time is roughly circular (radially symmetrical). But during solar minimum, it’s the opposite — there are very few or no sunpots and flares at all, and the corona appears “butterfly shaped,” with long equatorial streamers and fine, hairlike polar brushes.
Solar flares can trigger massive eruptions on the Sun, called coronal mass ejections, which hurl immense clouds of charged particles through the solar system at high speed. When one of these clouds hits Earth, it compresses our planet’s magnetosphere, producing a severe geomagnetic storm.
A coronal mass ejection (CME) from the Sun. Courtesy SOHO.
In addition to spawning widespread auroras, such storms can disrupt shortwave radio communications in the ionosphere, cripple the onboard electronics of orbiting satellites, and pose serious radiation hazard to spacewalking astronauts.
A bright red aurora display as seen from our driveway in the
suburbs of Boston following a CME in October 2003.
The storms also cause the upper atmosphere to heat up and swell, which, in turn, causes the orbits of low-altitude satellites to “decay,” forcing the satellites to re-enter the atmosphere prematurely and burn up. The storms can even overload power grids on the ground by inducing tremendous surges of electric current.
Researchers are using satellites to study how the Sun’s variability affects Earth’s climate, and whether the increased solar output in visible and ultraviolet light and X-rays during solar maximum contributes to our planet’s current global warming.
The High Altitude Observatory’s instruments were designed to document the brightness and morphology of the solar corona and its K and F components, and to study the chemical abundances and large-scale velocity flows in the inner corona.
President Cory Aquino
More than a thousand amateur and professional astronomers from the U.S., Canada, Great Britain, West Germany, France, Switzerland, The Netherlands, Spain, Belgium, Japan, China, and other countries flocked to General Santos City and Davao City to witness the event.
Even Philippine President Corazon (“Cory”) C. Aquino took time off from her hectic schedule at Malacañang Palace in Manila to fly to South Cotabato to see the eclipse for herself.
The observing site chosen by her Presidential Security Group was the San Miguel Corporation Hybrid Corn Seed Processing Center in Polomolok, about nine kilometers northwest of General Santos City. This site, which was situated almost exactly on the eclipse’s centerline, was one of those we had recommended to the Solar Eclipse National Committee during our inspection trip in 1987.
Joining President Aquino at the corn farm were three of her children and several of her Cabinet secretaries, along with local government officials, Dr. Kintanar, Father Badillo, and several foreign astronomers from the U.S. and the People’s Republic of China.
We were supposed to be with the President and her party in Polomolok. However, we politely declined the offer of Dr. Kintanar to join them because, as expedition leaders, we couldn’t abandon our team at General Santos.
We were especially elated and proud, though, of the President’s visit to Mindanao since Dr. Kintanar had asked us to draft the letter inviting the President to join in observing the eclipse. (We hand delivered the invitation to the office of Cabinet Secretary Jose de Jesus in Malacañang just weeks prior to the event.)
We thought all along that, due to her busy schedule and the security risks involved in traveling to Mindanao, the President would just settle on seeing the partial phases of the eclipse from the Palace grounds in Manila on the morning of March 18th. So it came as a pleasant surprise to us when she decided to personally go to South Cotabato.
The President and her party in Polomolok were able to watch the partial stages of the eclipse. However, a few minutes before totality, thick clouds completely obscured the view. They did experience the darkness that engulfed their surroundings. Despite her disappointment, President Aquino reportedly found the event “quite an experience.”
One of the American astronomers who got clouded out along with President Aquino was the late Roger W. Tuthill of New Jersey, maker of the Solar Skreen aluminized Mylar filter. Roger was one of the foreign guests we had hand picked to take our place with the President that morning.
Although Roger missed seeing totality, he was nonetheless very happy. According to him, he could still see many more eclipses, but this was the first time he had a chance to watch one with a head of state! (Roger’s brother, Chester, and his friend, who were observing with us at General Santos, saw the eclipse.)
To mark the historic event, in 1987 we proposed to the Philippine Postal Services Office for the issuance of a special commemorative eclipse stamp. The Office did come out with the stamps (in 1.00 and 5.50 peso denominations) and first-day covers, which were postmarked on the date of the eclipse in General Santos City as well as the main Postal Office in Intramuros, Manila.
For all the much-publicized security risks in Mindanao, the foreign astronomers and tourists were able to watch the eclipse safely, without any untoward incident. This was notwithstanding the fact that the March 18th eclipse coincided with the 20th founding anniversary of the Moro National Liberation Front, a Muslim secessionist movement based in Mindanao. The credit went to the local military authorities in General Santos City and Davao City for effectively maintaining peace and order throughout the region.
A Golden Odyssey
Three days after the eclipse, Royal Cruise Lines’ Golden Odyssey docked at Manila’s South Harbor for a one-day sightseeing tour of the city. The ship then was on the homeward leg of its trip, after successfully intercepting the Moon’s shadow in the Celebes Sea.
At the pier, we welcomed Stephen J. Edberg and his wife, Janet, and son Aaron Jacob, as well as Jay Anderson and his wife, Judy. Steve, whom we had met in 1985 at the comet workshop in Tucson, was the coordinator for amateur observations for the International Halley Watch’s Western Hemisphere Lead Center at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.
Jay, on the other hand, was a Canadian meteorologist with the Pacific Weather Centre’s Atmospheric Environment Service in Vancouver, British Columbia. He was the one who did the weather study for the March 18th eclipse in the U.S. Naval Observatory Circular No. 172.
We took the Edbergs and the Andersons on a quick tour of the Manila Observatory. While we were there, renowned British astronomers Patrick Moore and H. J. P. Arnold also dropped by for a visit. The two had just arrived from Mindanao, where they observed the eclipse from Talikud Island in Davao. We all had a great time at this impromptu gathering.
Science writer Daniel Fischer and three other fellow amateur astronomers from West Germany had toured the observatory earlier with Father Badillo. Daniel and his team saw the eclipse with us on the roof deck of the General Santos City Hall.
It was late afternoon when we drove Steve, Jay, and their families back to the Golden Odyssey. There we had a happy reunion with other friends: renowned Los Angeles astrophotographer Ben Mayer and his wife, Lucille, and Derald and Denise Nye of Tucson, Arizona, whom we had met at the 1985 comet workshop.
We also had the chance to meet in person Sky & Telescope Editor in Chief Leif J. Robinson. (Little did we know that, in less than seven years, he would be our boss at S&T!)
Although the Golden Odyssey was getting ready for departure, her captain gave us permission to come on board for a quick tour of the ship. It was our first time to set foot inside a luxury liner, so we were very excited. While there, we had the rare privilege of meeting a real, live astronaut — Michael Collins, who piloted the Command Module Columbia duting the Apollo 11 lunar-landing mission in July 1969.
What an incredible week!
1991: A Mid-Summer’s Day Eclipse
The great total eclipse of the Sun on July 11, 1991, was the longest we would ever see in our lifetime. Along the western coast of mainland Mexico, near Mazatlan, totality there lasted an incredible 6 minutes 58 seconds at maximum.
The Moon’s umbra traced a path from Hawaii to Mexico, and then to Central America, Colombia, and Brazil. Choosing our observing site was tough — it was either the Big Island of Hawaii or the southern tip of Mexico’s Baja California peninsula. Both sites had its advantages and disadvantages.
The Big Island offered not only an exceptional duration of 4 minutes 12 seconds, but the nearly 14,000-foot summit of Mauna Kea was also situated within the path of totality. Mauna Kea, an extinct shield volcano, is home to some of the world’s largest professional telescopes. We haven’t been to the summit yet, so this eclipse would have been a good reason for us to go.
But we believed that Baja California offered better weather prospects than Hawaii. Although Baja didn’t boast of any major observatories, it did offer a much longer duration (by about 2½ minutes). The Sun’s altitude in the sky also was higher over Baja (83°) compared to Hawaii (21°). And since the eclipse in Baja occurred very near the zenith, the naked-eye planets (Mercury, Venus, Mars, and Jupiter) were well above the eastern horizon. In Hawaii, no bright planets were visible during totality.
So we decided to head to Baja. Joining us on this expedition were our dear friends from the China Lake Astronomical Society in Ridgecrest, California: Ron Hise and his wife, Billie, and their 10-year-old grandson, Chris.
All of Baja’s major hotels in La Paz and Cabo San Lucas were solidly booked months ahead of the eclipse. Fortunately, the Hises were able make accommodation arrangements with a family friend who owned a property at Rancho Las Barracas in Cabo Pulmo.
Cabo Pulmo is located on the peninsula’s eastern coast, facing the deep-blue waters of the Sea of Cortez (Gulf of California). At latitude 23° 28′.25 north, the ranch is situated very close to the Tropic of Cancer and was less than a mile from the eclipse path’s centerline.
Since we were anticipating hordes of eclipse chasers on the road around eclipse time, to avoid the traffic our group decided to arrive at our observing site a week before the eclipse.
We left Los Angeles on the morning of July 1st in a two-vehicle convoy. We packed all our equipment, food, and water supplies into the car and pickup truck, including about 15 gallons of diesel and 20 gallons of unleaded gasoline as emergency fuel reserve.
We traveled along the Baja Transpeninsular Highway 1, the narrow, two-lane road that is the only major artery running through the entire length of the peninsula. We really enjoyed the beautiful vistas along the way, especially the deserts, coastlines, mountain ranges, volcanoes, and lava fields.
Finally, after three days on the road and covering 940 miles (1,500 kilometers), we arrived at the ranch late in the afternoon, exhausted but very happy.
Rancho Las Barracas is actually a retirement community mainly for American expatriates and consisted of about 20 to 30 thatched-roof houses along the coast, which is lined with beautiful, white-sand beaches.
The house where we stayed was very rustic — it had no TV, radio, or telephone, but it had running water, showers, propane-powered refrigerator and range, and a small swimming pool. Solar panels recharged lead-acid batteries during the day so we had fluorescent lighting at night.
We spent the next week assembling, checking, testing, and calibrating our photographic and video set-ups. We also practiced our observing sequence. Three days before E-Day, we gave a talk to some 30 residents of the ranch, informing them of what to expect during the eclipse.
The day of the eclipse dawned perfectly clear. The sky remained cloudless throughout the morning. It was a sunny but very hot day, so we appreciated the 10.5° drop in ambient temperature as the partial phase progressed.
Totality came at 11:50 a.m. local time, when the Moon’s 163-mile (260-km) wide shadow swept over our site from the west. Marking second contact was a glorious, long-lasting diamond ring. By then, the Sun was only a mere 7° from the zenith.
The Sun’s corona was well structured and more or less radially symmetrical. This was typical of the corona during maximum solar activity. We could see at least three pronounced streamers that extended approximately 1.5 to 2 solar diameters (0.8° to 1.1°), as well as two groups of prominences. Overall, the corona appeared bright and milky white in color, and was in stark contrast to the pitch-black silhouette of the Moon. This gave us the impression of a gigantic “black hole” in the middle of the sky!
The sky over Baja became dark blue at totality, but the surroundings remained fairly bright as if twilight had just begun. We could still discern details in distant objects around us and we could even read our notes and camera controls without using a flashlight. The color of the 360° sunset was very vivid, especially over the Sea of Cortez, which had assumed a deep-blue hue during totality.
Strangely, the approach and recession of the Moon’s shadow over our site was not very apparent. Also, no obvious shadow bands were seen before or after totality. (This was contrary to what was published in Astronomy and Sky & Telescope magazines, which predicted of very prominent shadow bands.) Only our video camcorder was able to capture this phenomenon right after third contact. The bands appeared as very faint, barely visible parallel wavy lines moving rapidly almost west to east on the white sheet we laid out on the ground.
In comparison, the passage of the lunar shadow during the March 1988 total solar eclipse in Mindanao was very abrupt and dramatic; even the shadow bands then were more prominent and longer lasting.
We suspected the reason for the unusually bright eclipse on July 11th to be the huge volume of volcanic ash and aerosols ejected into the stratosphere during the eruption of Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines the month before.
This long-dormant volcano on Luzon Island northwest of Manila, which last erupted some 500 years ago, suddenly came alive, unleashing a series of powerful explosions from June 12th to the 15th that threw cubic miles of debris up to heights of 16 to 20 miles (25 to 30 km) above sea level.
Although Pinatubo is some 10,600 miles (17,000 km) away from Baja, its ashes were carried eastward by the jet stream across the Pacific and into Hawaii and Baja. The suspended fine particles in the stratosphere, measuring less than 0.1 mm. in size, probably caused a lot of scattering of the corona’s light during totality, producing a relatively bright eclipse. This might also account for the umbra and shadow bands not being very prominent on July 11th.
Our observing program was a resounding success. We were able to accomplish 99 percent of our objectives, capturing high-resolution images of the corona with our 4-inch f/10 Meade Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope and Ron’s Celestron C-5, as well as documenting the entire event on video. Everything worked perfectly, including our weather-monitoring station and shortwave time-signal receiver.
After fourth contact, we dismantled our equipment, packed them, and loaded everything into the vehicles for the trip home. That night, we attended a farewell party hosted by the Rancho Las Barracas community in our honor and had a wonderful dinner with new friends. A perfect eclipse from a perfect site, under perfect weather and with perfect company. We couldn’t ask for anything more!
We arrived in Los Angeles on the night of July 13th. Based on our odometer readings, for the Baja expedition we traveled a total distance of 2,652 miles (4,268 km) roundtrip. This was comparable to driving from Manila to Bangkok, and back.
1998: Voyage into Darkness
As youngsters growing up in the 1970s, one of our favorite shows on TV was “The Love Boat.” This popular weekly series featured fictional love stories involving the passengers and crew of the cruise ship Pacific Princess. We often wondered what it would be like to sail to a distant, exotic destination aboard such a luxury floating hotel.
In 1998, that dream became a reality when Sky Publishing Corporation, publisher of Sky & Telescope magazine, assigned the two of us to be among the company’s tour leaders for the February 26, 1998, total solar eclipse in the Caribbean Sea.
Sky Publishing, in partnership with Virginia Roth’s Scientific Expeditions, organized five eclipse tours that year, one on land (Aruba) and four aboard cruise ships (Holland America’s Veendam, Statendam, and Ryndam, and Cunard’s Vistafjord). Our ship was the ms Veendam.
A month before the eclipse, we, together with Virginia, S&T Editor in Chief Leif Robinson, and Sky Publishing President Rick Fienberg, flew to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, to meet with the staff of our respective ships and discuss eclipse preparations. We can’t forget the first time we laid eyes on the Veendam docked alongside the harbor. She was magnificent, regal, and truly elegant.
The Veendam is 720 feet long, about 12 stories high, and weighs 55,450 gross tons. The ship can carry up to 1,258 guests plus crew, and features 10 guest decks, eight guest elevators, 15 public restrooms, three restaurants, two outdoor swimming pools, a health fitness center and spa, a movie theater, show lounge and balcony, duty-free shops, library, casino, jogging track, and basketball and tennis courts. It was everything what we had imagined a cruise ship to be, and much more!
Joining us on this voyage as part of our astronomy-enrichment staff were Fred Hess, a retired lecturer at New York’s Charles Hayden Planetarium; Robert Hitt, director of the Chesapeake Planetarium in Virginia; Kent Blackwell, a veteran eclipse chaser and deep-sky observer; C. Robert O’Dell, a Rice University professor and astronomer and former director of Yerkes Observatory; Alan Whitman, a meteorologist at Canada’s Prince George Weather Office; and Stephen Berr, an educator and lecturer with the Starlab portable planetarium.
Our 10-day eclipse cruise began on February 23rd, when the Veendam departed Fort Lauderdale. Our itinerary called for sailing for three straight days to a spot in the Caribbean Sea between Aruba and Curacao, where we would intercept the Moon’s shadow.
Afterward, the ship would make ports of call at Willemstad, Curacao; Kralendijk, Bonaire; St. Georges, Grenada; Roseau, Dominica; St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands; and Half Moon Cay, Bahamas, before returning to Florida.
Veendam’s hard-working, dedicated, and very friendly crew consisted mainly of Filipinos and Indonesians, so we felt right at home. The Filipino cooks at the Lido Restaurant even prepared some special Filipino dishes for us during the trip.
One memorable part of the cruise was the movie we saw in the theater, “Out to Sea,” which starred Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau. The actors played the role of two friends who got a free cruise aboard Holland America’s Maasdam by taking jobs as dance hosts. Coincidentally, the ship in the story was also taking passengers to see a fictional total eclipse of the Sun in Mexico! (It’s a good thing the Veendam didn’t show “Titanic” or “The Poseidon Adventure”!)
As you can see in the Veendam’s navigation chart below, our rendezvous with the Moon’s shadow was literally and figuratively an eclipse “chase.” Our ship had to make a series of maneuvers to dodge clouds and escape high winds. Our kudos go to Captain Jonathan Mercer for being such a pro. He was really looking after the passengers’ interest by making sure we arrived at our intended site at least three hours early, which made a huge difference on Eclipse Day.
The Veendam's navigational chart shows how the ship maneuvered in the open waters between
the islands of Aruba (at left) and Curacao (at lower right) to escape clouds on eclipse morning.
We woke up at 6 a.m. and immediately went up the deck to check out the sky conditions. This was the first time in all our expeditions thus far to find so much cloud around us. The wind, constantly blowing from the east at more than 22 knots (25 miles per hour), also would make it difficult to setup cameras and tripods on the deck. (According to the captain, these trade winds are normal for this part of the world.)
(Edwin didn’t realize that he would be making one of the biggest decisions of his life that morning. Alan Whitman, Captain Mercer, Chief Officer Peter Harris, and Imelda were huddled in the ship’s bridge when Alan presented us with the situation: either we stay at our designated rendezvous point in the open sea and get clobbered by the wind, or venture close to Curacao, where the Statendam was based, and use the island as a shield. But the latter would entail the risk of not only running into the cloud masses forming over the island, but also losing precious seconds from the duration of totality.
Finally, Alan said, “Edwin, you’re the ship’s eclipse tour leader, so it’s your call.” The captain seconded, saying, “We’re willing to do whatever needs to be done, but somebody has to decide. So it’s up to you, Edwin.” With perspiration forming over his eyebrows, he looked around him and there was nobody else to turn to. He was it!
With the 1,200 passengers in his mind, Edwin decided to go with the second option and sail eastward, away from the eclipse’s centerline and head toward Curacao. Edwin took the risk since the captain assured him we had enough time — and fuel — to go back to our original plan if needed, and still make it to port in Willemstad that afternoon.)
We started steaming toward the northern tip of Curacao when we encountered a 20-mile-long cloud bank heading toward us from the island. We turned north, crossed the centerline, and kept going until we cleared the clouds. That’s when we veered east and then made a U turn so we could ride with the wind, running roughly parallel to the eclipse path. (We must have driven those passengers armed with handheld GPS units crazy!)
The gamble paid off. We were able to see the eclipse — all 3 minutes and 40 seconds of it — in perfectly clear sky. Since we were only less than 10 miles north of the centerline, we lost a mere five or six seconds of totality.
Throughout the eclipse the ship was coasting along at 5.5 knots (6 mph). By this time the wind had subsided to about 10 knots, so the breeze across the deck was only about 4 knots (5 mph).
Eclipse observers pack the Veendam’s fore deck.
(Imelda was in charge of keeping track of the constantly changing contact times throughout the eclipse. The captain extrapolated the Veendam’s position well before first contact, based on the ship’s heading and speed. Imelda then used a laptop PC with the program our colleague, Roger Sinnott, had developed to convert the ship’s coordinates into local time and determine the precise moments of second and third contacts.)
Initially, there was concern among several passengers about vibrations from the ship’s massive engines during the critical moment of totality. They demanded the captain turn off the engines before second contact, and just let the Veendam float dead in the water.
According to the captain, he couldn’t shut down all the engines because he would need at least two of them to run the generators for electricity. Also, if all engines were turned off, it would take the crew a few hours to get the ship going again. That would have sacrificed our mobility!
On our final run for totality, the captain extended the ship’s fin stabilizers. They worked smoothly — no vibration could be detected on the decks so even those using telescopes and super-long telephoto lenses had no complaints. Passengers were amazed at how steady and stable the ship was during totality. (We were expecting to see the Sun’s image drift in and out of our telescope’s field, but we were wrong.) Everyone was so happy and relieved.
Shortly after the eclipse ended, the Veendam headed straight to Curacao. At Willemstad, our ship docked in port for a few hours, along with other cruise ships. We met with Leif after he disembarked from his ship, the ms Statendam, and later met with Patrick Moore, who was in another ship, the Stella Solaris. It was a fitting evening after a successful eclipse chase in the Caribbean!
2001: An Eclipse Odyssey
An African bull elephant (Loxodonta africana) photographed by Imelda Joson and Edwin
Aguirre at the Thornybush Game Reserve in South Africa.
The first total solar eclipse of the 21st Century and the Third Millennium — on June 21, 2001 — marked the first time we set foot on the Dark Continent.
(Imelda accompanied Edwin, who was a member of the astronomy-enrichment staff for the 11-day eclipse expedition organized by Sky & Telescope and Virginia Roth’s Scientific Expeditions. In addition to S&T editor in chief Leif Robinson, who was the tour leader, the other members of the astronomy-enrichment program included senior editors Dennis di Cicco and Roger Sinnott, contributing editors Steve O’Meara, David Levy, and Johnny Horne, as well as renowned Taiwanese photojournalist P. K. Chen and Prof. David Block of the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa.)
Giraffe (Giraffa camelopardalis)
During the months leading up to our departure, our minds were filled with visions of wondrous wildlife, majestic panoramas, and magical nights under the far-southern sky. Since the eclipse coincided with the solstice, this trip afforded us the opportunity to go through all four seasons in a span of less than two weeks. (When we left New York on June 15th, it was still spring in the Northern Hemisphere. After an overnight flight, we arrived on the 16th in Johannesburg, where it was still autumn in the Southern Hemisphere. After the eclipse, it officially became winter in the south. By the time we returned to New York on the 25th, it was already summer in the north!)
But before we can leave for Africa, as a precaution we had to get inoculated for yellow fever, hepatitis A and B, typhoid, and tetanus. In addition, we had to take anti-malaria pills before, during, and after the trip, and we brought along some antibiotics in case of severe diarrhea.
(We read that waterborne parasites were common in the continent, which was why we were very careful with the water, especially in Zambia and Zimbabwe. We drank only sealed bottled water, fresh fruit juice, and soft drinks, and avoided ice, tap water, coffee, and tea. We were also very careful when taking a shower, and used only bottled water when brushing our teeth.)
The South African Airways overnight flight from New York to Johannesburg was a grueling, 15-hour nonstop trans-Atlantic crossing, but we were too excited to feel tired. From the airport we were transferred to the Sandton Sun & Towers Intercontinental Hotel in Sandton. Established in 1969, the city of Sandton is the cosmopolitan center of Greater Johannesburg. That night we had a welcome dinner for our 270 tour members, as well as briefings from our inbound tour operators and a lecture by Dr. Block.
The following morning, we were taken to the airport to board our private chartered jet (the airline’s name was “Intensive Air”) for our flight to Hoedspruit for a 2-night stay in some of Africa’s finest private game reserves. Upon arrival, the passengers were subdivided into groups according to their assigned game lodges
Our private cabin at the Thornybush Game Reserve in South Africa.
Our group was assigned to the Thornybush Game Reserve. Situated adjacent to the Greater Kruger National Park, Thornybush offers luxurious accommodations as well as 11,500 hectares of pristine African bushveld that is home to a great diversity of mammals, reptiles, and birds.
Edwin busy photographing wild birds in the campground, including the
Red-billed Hornbill (Tockus erythrorhynchus) above. Imelda enjoys a
leisurely breakfast at Thornybush.
A Safari Adventure
“As all eclipse chasers know,” said Leif, “the eclipse is the highlight, but the tour is the experience.”
Thornybush’s 4 X 4 open Land Rovers are perfect for viewing animals
during early morning and late-afternoon game drives.
For the next two days, our group was treated to unforgettable safari game drives on open-air, four-wheel-drive Land Rovers in search of Africa’s elusive “Big Five” — the lion, leopard, elephant, rhinoceros, and Cape buffalo. (Professional big-game hunters consider them to be the most dangerous adversaries.) The game drives are usually done very early in the morning and late in the afternoon or early evening, when the animals are most active.
Some of the animals we encountered during the game drives include a
female lion and her cubs (Panthera leo), the African Bush Elephant
(Loxodonta africana), and the White Rhinoceros (Ceratotherium simum).
Photos by Imelda Joson and Edwin Aguirre.
Racing through the savanna lined with thorny acacia trees, scrubs, and bleached grasses was an adrenalin-rushing experience. Thanks to the expertise of our armed ranger and tracker, we spotted the Big Five up close, in all their raw, untamed beauty. It was absolutely breathtaking to be so close to these magnificent beasts without any steel cage, wire mesh, or plexiglass standing in the way.
In addition to the Big Five, we also spotted giraffes, impalas, kudus, oryx, wildebeests, warthogs, baboons, and a host of birds, all in their natural, unspoiled habitats.
Top: Impala (Aepyceros melampus). Middle: Blue Wildebeest (Connochaetes
taurinus). Bottom: Warthog (Phacochoerus africanus). Photos by Imelda Joson
and Edwin Aguirre.
On the morning of our first full day of game drives, we went with our tracker on a foot safari along the dried up Monwana River; in the mid-afternoon, we had high tea at the lodge; and during the evening game drive, we also had sundowner wines and snacks under the stars, in the middle of the African bush. It was incredible to feel such a close connection with Nature!
Since there was very little light pollution at Thornybush, on one night we held a stargazing session for our tour guests and the staff on the park’s airstrip. At latitude 24.5° south, the most spectacular vistas of the far-southern sky blazed in all their glory. We saw the ghostly spine of the Milky Way span across the heavens from horizon to horizon.
Breaking the stillness of the pitch-black night were the eerie giggles of hyenas and the distant roars of lions, but these didn’t deter us from using our telescopes and big binoculars to tour the sky, from Canis Major setting in the west, across the rich star fields of Carina, Crux, and Centaurus, to Scorpius and Sagittarius. We had a grand time admiring such stunning visual gems as Omega Centauri, Eta Carinae, the Coalsack, and the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds. Later that night, the red planet Mars and the center of our galaxy passed almost directly overhead!
From Hoedspruit, we returned to Johannesburg to catch our South African Airways flight to Lusaka, Zambia. The flight was overbooked, but the airline staff at the airport counter offered the two of us free upgrades to First Class. (As you might have guessed, we didn’t have any complaints!) It was our first time to travel First Class on an international flight and aboard a Boeing 747-300 jumbo jet. We enjoyed every minute of it!
Our plane’s arrival in Lusaka, Zambia.
Zambia, in contrast to South Africa, is a poor country. During our ride from the airport to the city, we saw firsthand the poverty that pervaded this land as we passed by mud huts and rundown shacks. But the people there were very warm and friendly, and seemed quite happy.
Our hotel was the Holiday Inn in the capital city of Lusaka. Its accommodations were modest by Western standards, but the hotel staff made our stay as comfortable and enjoyable as possible. Adding to the excitement and anticipation was the fact that the Zambian government had just declared Eclipse Day, June 21st, as a special national holiday.
Our welcome party at the Holiday Inn hotel.
The night before the eclipse, we held a stargazing session for our group on a grassy field outside the city. As we were setting up our telescopes, one of us (Edwin!) had accidentally dropped our pocket compass to the ground. Since we needed that compass to polar-align our telescope mount in daytime, we went down on our knees and, armed with small flashlights, started feeling around the grasses (despite our fear of getting bitten by a cobra or black mamba.) Luckily, Imelda found it soon enough and we continued with the stargazing. By around midnight we were back at the hotel, safe and sound.
Top: Edwin (right) talks to Williams College astronomer Jay Pasachoff
about his eclipse experiment that was setup on the roof deck of the Inter-
continental Hotel in Lusaka. Looking on at left is then-S&T contributing
editor Stephen James O’Meara. Bottom: Edwin (left) and fellow S&T editors
Roger Sinnott, Johnny Horne, Dennis di Cicco (seated), and Steve O’Meara
went to a nearby Internet café to file their reports to the S&T offices in
On the morning of the eclipse, a convoy of buses took us 35 kilometers northeast of the city to our observing site at Chartonel Estates, a secure, 6,000-acre private farm that was very close to the eclipse’s centerline.
As our buses made its way down the long dirt road leading to the site, we passed by groups of youngsters begging us for eclipse-viewing glasses. We collected all the extra glasses our group could spare, asked the driver to slow down, and tossed the glasses out the windows along with candies and T shirts. Sharing these items brought tremendous joy to the children, and we could not forget their smiling faces.
The eclipse began when the Moon took its first “bite” of the Sun at 1:42 p.m. local time. As the Sun dwindled to a very slender crescent, an eerie silence descended upon the land. With totality just a few minutes away, flocks of birds in the surrounding trees started to chirp loudly and fly about as if confused. A few seconds before second contact, the Sun, now reduced to a hairline, began to breakup into the beautiful Baily’s beads.
A deep valley along the Moon’s rugged edge produced a magnificent and long-lasting diamond ring, heralding the onset of totality. Then the corona itself blazed forth in all its glory. People around us started shouting, screaming, and applauding wildly; a few even cried.
These and the following still frames show the eclipse’s diamond rings
and inner corona. They were captured from the video that Imelda had
recorded using a Sony Digital 8 camcorder.
To the naked eye, the corona appeared evenly round, bright, and incredibly complex. Streams were extending out all the way around the Sun, tracing its intricate magnetic field. Adding to the celestial spectacle was an immense detached prominence at the 2 o’clock position and the planet Jupiter blazing at magnitude –1.5 just 5° west of the eclipsed Sun.
Looking around us, we could see the vivid edge of the Moon’s shadow along the entire horizon as night hung eerily across the land for about 3 ½ minutes, with the Sun standing 31° above the western horizon. The event ended at 4:27 p.m. with another glorious diamond ring.
After fourth contact, we packed our gear and returned to our hotel. That evening we joined the other tour groups at the Intercontinental Hotel for dinner and all the post-eclipse celebrations and “Show & Tell” sessions. It was a lot of fun!
The next morning, we boarded our flight to Victoria Falls via Johannesburg. Our group’s accommodation was at the Elephant Hills Intercontinental Hotel on the Zimbabwe side of the falls. Late that afternoon, we had a peaceful, relaxing cruise on the Zambezi River, watching hippos and crocodiles bask along the banks and having drinks and canapés as the golden Sun was slowly setting in the west.
Top: A Nile crocodile (Crocodylus niloticus) basks under the African Sun.
Bottom: Our sunset cruise down the Zambezi River. Photos by Imelda Joson
and Edwin Aguirre.
We spent the following morning exploring the impressive Victoria Falls, considered the seventh natural wonder of the world. We imagined following the footsteps of famed British explorer of Africa, David Livingstone, who first sighted the falls in 1855 and named them for Queen Victoria.
Top: The magnificent Victoria Falls as seen from the Zimbabwean side.
Bottom: This steel bridge that spans the Zambezi River and connects
Zimbabwe to Zambia is a popular platform for bungee jumpers. Photos
by Imelda Joson and Edwin Aguirre.
The falls is more than 5,500 feet (1,700 meters) wide. Water from the Zambezi River tumbles into a 420-foot-deep (120-meter) chasm, crashing into the floor below and producing immense clouds of mist that form beautiful rainbows and keep the vegetation lush and green year round. Native Africans call the falls Mosioa-tunya, meaning “the smoke that thunders.”
That afternoon, we visited an African native market selling wood sculptures and masks, woven baskets, and other handicraft. We also had champagne and hors d’oeuvres at the train station with tour members who were boarding the luxurious Rovos Rail for their locomotive ride to Pretoria, South Africa.
The following morning, we flew back to Johannesburg for an overnight stay at the beautiful and elegant Palazzo Monte Casino Hotel before heading back to the States. Our 11-day African adventure exceeded our wildest dreams. It was truly a soul-reawakening odyssey of a lifetime!
2006: In the Land of the Pharaohs
The ageless beauty of the Great Sphinx and the Pyramid of Khafre in Giza, Egypt.
Photo by Imelda Joson and Edwin Aguirre.
Just the mere mention of the name “Egypt” conjures up visions of spectacular ancient temples and monuments, fabulous treasures, and, of course, the Pyramids and the Great Sphinx of Giza. So when the opportunity came to see a long total eclipse of the Sun and explore Egypt at the same time, we didn’t have any second thoughts about signing up for the trip.
That opportunity happened during the March 29, 2006, total solar eclipse, when the Moon’s umbral shadow swept across northern Africa, traversing Nigeria, Niger, Chad and Libya, and clipping the extreme northwestern corner of Egypt before crossing the Mediterranean Sea and into Turkey and beyond.
For this trip to Egypt, our second sojourn to the African continent, we joined the expedition organized by the Amateur Telescope Makers of Boston (ATMoB) in partnership with TravelQuest International. Our group, numbering about 80, left Boston on the evening of March 25th for an Air France overnight flight to Cairo via Paris.
Imelda and Edwin pose with a statue of Anubis, the jackal-headed Egyptian
god of the afterlife, at the Sofitel Hotel in Giza.
At the Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris, we were joined by Imelda’s aunt, the late Remedios (“Tita Meding”) San Miguel, who had also signed up for the ATMoB trip. Later in the evening, at the Sofitel Hotel in Giza, we hooked up with fellow Astronomical League of the Philippines member, Francisco (“Jun”) Lao, Jr. It was so nice to finally have Filipinos on an eclipse expedition. This was our second eclipse with Jun, the first one being in 1988 in Mindanao. We had a lot of fun!
Timeless Splendors of the Nile
Viewing the ancient wonders of Egypt was like stepping back in time and exploring five thousand years of history, religious rituals, symbolisms, legends, and lore.
Tourism has been a major industry in the country, and this was evident in the busloads of people being disgorged at various historical sites, especially Giza. Security was tight, with police and soldiers stationed practically everywhere. (Our bus even had an armed undercover escort everywhere we went.)
Although we had several concerns in the months leading up to the eclipse (there were a couple of major sandstorms that enveloped the country; a terrorist attack at a popular Red Sea resort; and a reported outbreak of bird flu), everything went smoothly and without any incident.
The first stop on our first full day of archeological exploration was the ancient city of Memphis, on the western bank of the Nile 29 miles (47 km) south of Cairo. It was the capital of Egypt during the Old Kingdom, and was founded around 3100 BC.
The statue and sphinx of the pharaoh Ramesses the Great in Memphis.
Photos by Imelda Joson and Edwin Aguirre.
In the village of Mit Rahina we went to a small museum/pavilion that houses a colossal, 40-foot red granite statue of the great builder, warrior, and Pharaoh Ramesses II (also known as “Ramesses the Great”) lying on its back. We marveled at the superb craftsmanship of ancient sculptors in creating the likeness of their great king who ruled Upper and Lower Egypt for 66 years, starting in 1279 BC. In the palm-fringed garden are more statues of Ramesses II, including a giant, 80-ton calcite sphinx (a statue of a reclining lion with a human head).
Next, we stopped by Memphis’s ancient royal necropolis, Saqqara. Its centerpiece is the Step Pyramid, the oldest of such structures in all of Egypt. This massive limestone pyramid, which towers 60 meters (200 feet) above the surrounding desert, was built for the Third Dynasty ruler King Djoser by his architect and high priest Imhotep in the 27th century BC.
Edwin and Imelda in the necropolis of Saqqara, with King Djoser’s Step
Pyramid in the background.
Under the watchful eye of camel-mounted police, we also visited the nearby partially buried tomb of Ptah-Hotep, a vizier who lived around 2400 BC. His tomb is famous for the intricately carved and painted reliefs that cover its interior walls, depicting scenes from the life of the deceased.
From Saqqara, we stopped for lunch at a local restaurant and then swung by the Egypt Carpet Institute to see handmade rugs and tapestries. Afterward, we headed to the Giza Plateau and got our first close-up view of the legendary Pyramids and Sphinx bathed in the glow of the late-afternoon Sun. They were simply breathtaking!
These immense masses of limestone are the only edifices that remained of the seven wonders of the ancient world, having survived the ravages of time, the elements, and wars. They never fail to dazzle the countless generations of visitors who have gazed upon them. They are imposing testimonies to the exceptionally advanced civilization that flourished in the fertile Nile Valley between the fourth and third millennia BC.
These photos of the Great Pyramid of Khufu show its massive building
blocks of solid limestone. Photos by Imelda Joson and Edwin Aguirre.
The Giza funerary complex consists of four main structures: the Great Pyramid of Khufu (Cheops), the pyramids of Khafre (Chephren) and Menkaure (Mycerinus), and the Great Sphinx.
The Great Pyramid measures about 140 meters (460 feet) high and 230 meters (760 feet) wide at the base. It is estimated that 2.3 million blocks of limestone were used for its construction, each block weighing an average of 2½ tons. (The blocks fit so precisely that a piece of paper could not pass in between them.)
The Pyramids of Khafre (top) and Menkaure at Giza. Photos by Imelda
Joson and Edwin Aguirre.
The pyramids of Khafre and Menkaure are smaller, at 136 meters and 66 meters in height, respectively. The question as to how the ancient Egyptian laborers, using only the most rudimentary tools and building techniques, could transport the massive blocks from the quarry and erect them into such engineering and architectural marvels remains an enduring mystery.
Guarding the entrance to the Pyramid complex since the Third Millennium BC, the Great Sphinx towers 65 feet (20 meters) high and faces the rising of the Sun to the east. This monolith, with its missing nose, is the most famous and recognizable sphinx in the world.
The Great Sphinx at Giza has faced the rising Sun in the east for
nearly five thousand years. Photo by Imelda Joson and Edwin Aguirre.
On March 28th, the eve of the eclipse, we left the hotel early in the morning for the long bus ride across the vast expanse of the Western Desert to Marsa Matrouh. This seaside resort, which is a popular summer destination among Egyptians, was the halfway point to our observing site in Salloum. It is situated about 180 miles (290 km) west of Alexandria.
Crossing Egypt’s vast Western Desert en route to the seaside resort
of Marsa Matrouh. The deep-blue waters of the Mediterranean Sea can
be seen in the distance.
En route to Marsa Matrouh, we passed by the coastal village of El-Alamein, a major battleground during World War II between the Eighth Army under British General Bernard Montgomery and the Afrika Korps commanded by the “Desert Fox,” Nazi Field Marshal Erwin Rommel. More than 11,000 soldiers died during the week and a half of fierce fighting in 1942, which resulted in Rommel’s troops retreating to Tunis and altering the course of the campaign in North Africa.
The war museum and cemetery for Allied troops at El Alamein. Photos
by Imelda Joson and Edwin Aguirre.
We visited El Alamein’s poignant peace memorial, viewed the artifacts, tanks, and artillery pieces on display at the War Museum, and paid our respects at the Commonwealth War Cemetery, where rows upon rows of simple, identical gravestones mark the final desert resting place of the thousands of soldiers who paid the ultimate sacrifice during the war.
It was already late afternoon when we finally arrived at Marsa Matrouh. A huge, colorful tent was erected on the beach where the welcome reception and dinner was held. There we hooked up with other Sky & Telescope editors and their respective tours, as well as our old friends from the 1988 eclipse, Jay Anderson and his wife, Judy. (Jay and another friend, Goddard Space Flight Center astronomer Fred Espenak, are doing the weather and eclipse predictions, respectively, in the NASA eclipse bulletins.)
Top: Our hotel, the Beau Site, in Marsa Matrouh. Bottom: Imelda and Edwin
with their good friends and fellow eclipse chasers Jay and Judy Anderson.
The morning of the eclipse, March 29th, dawned perfectly clear. After a quick breakfast, our bus convoy took us on the final leg of our journey to the observing site in Salloum, an important Bedouin trading town 137 miles (222 km) to the west.
The allure of seeing the eclipse in a land that worshipped the Sun during Pharaonic times was simply too hard to resist. That was why more than 2,000 eclipse chasers from all over the world converged on Salloum, which sits high on a plateau near the Libyan border and overlooks the Mediterranean Sea.
Top: The entrance to Salloum, our designated eclipse observing site.
Bottom: A delicate fogbow adorns the sky on the morning of the eclipse.
When we arrived there, thick early morning fog hugged the summit, producing a very nice fogbow. The fog quickly burned off as the Sun rose, giving way to a perfectly clear, blue sky. Totality was expected to last 3 minutes 55 seconds, with the Sun hanging 62° above the southern horizon.
The observing site was jam packed and the security was extremely tight, as black-clad soldiers armed with automatic weapons cordoned off the site where Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, U.S. ambassador Francis Ricciardone Jr. and other dignitaries had gathered to witness the historic event firsthand.
More than 2,000 people packed the observing site in Salloum.
As the Moon’s 176-kilometer-wide shadow swiftly and silently swept across this ancient land, a prolonged, slow-motion diamond ring marked the last vestige of the Sun. And then the corona — the Sun’s ethereal outer atmosphere — suddenly burst into view. People cheered, whooped, and cried; many devout Muslims also said a special prayer to Allah.
The corona was surprisingly full of structure even though the Sun was at its minimum activity — displaying at least six long, beautiful coronal streamers that extended almost symmetrically in opposite directions like a bow tie or pair of butterfly wings, tapering off into the deep, velvety-blue sky. And prominent hairlike brushes delicately traced magnetic-field lines above the Sun’s polar regions.
Photo by Imelda Joson and Edwin Aguirre.
Adding to the mesmerizing visual drama above were Venus gleaming 46° to the lower right of the darkened Sun and fainter Mercury halfway between them. And on the ground, the eclipse’s 360° sunset bathed the entire horizon in a vivid, yellow-orange glow.
At least two prominences — those electric pink, flamelike eruptions projecting from the solar limb — were visible to the naked eye. In the past, the visual appearance of prominences would come as a complete surprise to observers at the onset of totality. But now, with the advent of portable hydrogen-alpha telescopes, that suspense is gone. Many people so equipped could see the shapes, sizes, and positions of prominences well before totality!
Top: Our long-time friend Francisco “Jun” Lao Jr. of the Astronomical League
of the Philippines observing with us in Salloum. Bottom: A pack of Eclipse
chewing gum that Imelda and Edwin had brought especially for the occasion
for good luck. (It worked!)
Another intriguing aspect of total eclipses are the shadow bands — those irregular, flickering ripples of light and dark a few centimeters wide and up to a meter apart, racing along the ground just before second contact and immediately after third contact. They are caused by heat waves in the atmosphere refracting light from the thin solar crescent — the same effect that causes stars to twinkle at night.
Observers in Libya and Turkey reported long-lasting and prominent shadow bands. But in Egypt, we didn’t notice any personally. (Libya is becoming a prime tourist destination since the U.S. government lifted an 18-year trade embargo and travel ban to the country in 2004.)
Our imaging gear consisted of a Canon EOS 20D
digital SLR camera coupled to a Takahashi FS-78
apochromatic refractor as well as a Sony Digital 8
camcorder. Both were mounted side by side on a
Meade LXD-75 German equatorial mount.
(Edwin almost became a permanent part of the Egyptian archeological landscape because of an incident that happened during the middle of totality: while momentarily taking his eye off the camera to look for Venus, his elbow accidentally pressed on the telescope mount’s hand controller resting on the chair. This caused the mount to slew to one side and the Sun to disappear from the fields of view of the digital SLR camera and video camcorder. Fortunately, Imelda, who was in charge of operating the camcorder, noticed right away what was happening and immediately called Edwin’s attention. He quickly reacquired the Sun in the field and was able to resume shooting still photos, but the video footage was partly ruined.)
Joining us in viewing the eclipse was Ambassador Francis Ricciardone and his wife, Marie (above). Incidentally, before being assigned by the State Department to be the top U.S. diplomat to Egypt, Ricciardone served as ambassador to the Philippines and was based at the American Embassy in Manila. So the couple was quite happy to see the Philippine and U.S. flags we had brought with us for the event. The Philippine flag had been with us on six previous eclipse expeditions: in 1988, 1991, 1994, 1998, 1999, and 2001.
By late afternoon we were back in Marsa Matrouh, exhausted but happy. We joined the other guests in the tent for dinner and post-eclipse celebration, complete with a cultural show that featured Egyptian music and folk dances. It had been one incredible day!
Cairo: The City of a Thousand Minarets
The day after the eclipse, we left Marsa Matrouh early for the bus ride back to Cairo. The Egyptian capital and its outlying metropolitan area is one of the most densely populated cities in the world and is home to more than 17 million souls.
Cairo is a noisy, chaotic, crowded but vibrant, colorful oasis where the ancient and the modern coexist in perfect harmony. It also represents a crossroad of the world’s major faiths, where you can see mosques, churches, and synagogues within its borders.
Cairo’s narrow streets and alleys are congested with buses, cars, taxis, trucks, bicycles, carts, motorcycles and pedestrians. Driving in the city is not for the fainthearted — drivers often ignore lane markings, red lights, and road signs. Motorists communicate by blowing their horns and gesturing with their hands, and at night they use headlights only for signaling, even on the highway! Amazingly, we didn’t see any accidents or fender benders during our entire stay there.
We checked in at the Grand Hyatt Hotel in the Central Cairo district, along the banks of the mighty Nile River. As we sipped our cool, refreshing welcome drinks, from the balcony we saw feluccas (traditional sailboats) against the city’s modern towers and edifices, gliding lazily along the river just as they had for thousands of years. It was a marvelous sight.
Top: A felucca sails lazily down the Nile. Bottom: Imelda and Edwin toast
their arrival in Cairo.
That night, our group went on an evening dinner cruise on the Nile aboard the hotel’s sleek yacht. We admired Cairo’s illuminated skyline as it passed by and feasted on authentic Egyptian cuisine. We also enjoyed the ship’s live entertainment (complete with belly dancing).
The next morning, after a good night’s rest, we drew open the drapes in our hotel room to let the sunshine in and to gaze at the scenery outside through our room’s huge, floor-to-ceiling windows. From the 39th floor, we had a bird’s eye view of the bluish green Nile below and Cairo’s tightly packed buildings and houses. And in the hazy distance we were pleasantly surprised to see the trio of Pyramids at Giza. This scene reminded us of one of our favorite songs — Jo Stafford’s 1952 hit ballad, “You Belong to Me” — and its opening line: “See the pyramids along the Nile . . .”
After breakfast, our group went back to the Giza Plateau to spend a half day exploring the Pyramids and the Sphinx. We also had our first camel ride in the shadow of the Pyramids.
Later in the afternoon, we visited the Citadel (Al-Qalaa), a fortified complex that was home to Egypt’s rulers for nearly seven centuries and offers spectacular views of Cairo. There we toured the mid-19th century Mosque of Mohammed Ali, who is regarded the founder of modern Egypt. This beautiful mosque (below) features a great central dome, a pair of towering, slender minarets, and a wide, open colonnaded courtyard.
Photo by Imelda Joson and Edwin Aguirre.
In the evening, we had dinner at the famous Khan al-Khalili, one of the largest bazaars in the Middle East where merchants cram its dark, narrow alleyways with a wide variety of goods such as gold, silver, and precious stone jewelry, brass and copper ware, exotic spices, fabrics, trinkets, souvenirs, and handicraft.
Encounter with the Boy King
One of the highlights of our stay in Cairo was a visit to the world-famous Museum of Egyptian Antiquities. There we explored its incomparable collections of Pharaonic mummies, sarcophagi, funerary furnishings, reliefs, statues, jewelry, papyrus writings, and other priceless artifacts dating as far back as 3100 BC. More than 150,000 items are on public display, with tens of thousands more reportedly kept in basement storerooms.
The pride of the museum are the more than 1,700 pieces of treasures and artifacts collected from the tomb of the boy king, Tutankhamen, which are on display in special galleries in the upper floor, in the museum’s north and east wings.
It was the story of the discovery of King Tut’s tomb by British archeologist Howard Carter in 1922 in the Valley of the Kings, and the resulting “mummy’s curse” that supposedly claimed the lives of many of the people connected with the discovery, including Carter’s sponsor, Lord Carnarvon, that sparked our lifelong interest and fascination with Egyptology.
Although King Tut reigned during the New Kingdom’s 18th Dynasty for less than 10 years (1336 to 1327 BC) and died at an early age, his claim to immortal fame and glory comes from the fact that his tomb is the most complete, best-preserved ancient royal tomb ever found in Egypt.
King Tutankhamen's scarab pendant on display at the Cairo
Museum. Photo courtesy Jon Bodsworth.
On display in climate-controlled glass cases are the king’s treasures and his other worldly possessions to help him in the afterlife. These include exquisitely crafted daggers, hunting implements, board games, gilded thrones, chairs, couches, shrines, chariots, coffins, beds, and two life-size statues of the king, as well as jewelries of gold inlaid with ivory and precious stones, amulets, Canopic alabaster urns, sandals, canes, chests, boats, statuettes, coffers, and much, much more.
Our dream was to come face to face with King Tutankhamen, in the form of his gold funerary mask, which sits on a pedestal toward the rear of the room and encased in glass. (The king’s actual mummy rests in KV62, his burial chamber in the Valley of the Kings, on the west bank of the Nile.) Unfortunately, the museum had imposed a rule that prohibited any photography inside the premises, so we don't have any souvenir pictures from our visit.
King Tutankhamen's gold death mask at the Cairo Museum.
Photo courtesy Jon Bodsworth.
The mask is made of solid gold 21 inches high and weighing 24.5 pounds, and inlaid with lapis lazuli, semiprecious stones, and colored glass paste. We stared for a long time at this famous mask, enchanted by its regal beauty and captivated by the intricate, masterful work of its ancient goldsmiths. The mask’s facial features, especially the eyes, nose, and lips are so lifelike!
We also came face to face with the mummies of some of ancient Egypt’s legendary Pharaohs in the nearby Royal Mummy Room. These include Thutmosis II, Seti I, and Ramesses II, all serenely lying in state. Because of the well-preserved condition of the bodies, it was hard to imagine that these monarchs had been dead for more than 3,000 years.
Ramesses II, who died in his 90s, is often regarded as ancient Egypt’s greatest, most celebrated, and most powerful Pharaoh. (In Cecil B. DeMille’s 1956 epic The Ten Commandments, Ramesses II — portrayed by actor Yul Brynner — was depicted to be the reigning Pharaoh during the time of the Biblical Exodus.) His mummy features a prominent beak-shaped nose and strong jaw; there still are tufts of reddish hair on its head! Even in death, he looked very regal.
Finally, on April 3rd, we returned home to the United States with a new understanding and better appreciation of this mystical land.
2009: A Challenging Eclipse
The Great Wall of China. Photo by Imelda Joson and Edwin Aguirre.
The total solar eclipse on Wednesday, July 22, 2009, was the longest this century. Its path of totality began in India and crossed Nepal, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Myanmar, and China before ending in the Pacific Ocean.
Jen Winter, owner of Astronomical Tours, an astronomy travel company based in Warrensburg, Missouri, invited us to co-lead its tour to mainland China, along with Astronomy magazine senior editor Michael Bakich and Jackie Beucher, former executive secretary of the Astronomical League. This was our chance to watch the Sun’s celestial spectacle unfold amid the splendor of China’s rich ancient civilization and imperial dynasties, so we were very excited!
Members of the 2009 Astronomical Tours China eclipse tour.
When our tour group arrived in Shanghai on the afternoon of Monday (July 20th), the sky was hazy but sunny. The same was true on Tuesday (July 21st) — we enjoyed abundant hazy sunshine throughout the day so everyone was optimistic about the prospects of seeing Wednesday’s eclipse. But we were concerned about a cold front we saw in weather satellite images that was moving slowly toward our area. We were hoping that it would not reach us until well after the eclipse.
However, during our group's dinner at the hotel’s restaurant in Jiaxing, we heard a series of thunderclaps followed by brilliant flashes of lightning. Not a very good sign. Shortly afterward, the wind picked up and rain came pouring down. By midnight the rain had subsided to a light drizzle but the sky was still overcast.
We were now getting really worried about the weather condition, so we, together with Michael, reviewed the latest forecasts for the area and downloaded/analyzed the most recent weather satellite images. It looked like the massive front had already moved in and got stalled along the eclipse path, bringing in lots of clouds and thunderstorms over the entire eastern half of China.
Imelda took this photo of Edwin and Michael Bakich (left) in Jiaxing on
the eve of the eclipse. They were studying the latest weather satellite
images together with tour member John Veevaert.
We considered moving to another site — to Huzhou to the west or across the Yangtze River Delta to the south — but predicting where the wind would blow and the clouds would move during the next 12 hours proved very tricky. The consensus was to check the satellite images again one last time before dawn and decide whether to stay at our original intended spot or relocate elsewhere to try and search for a hole in the cloud cover.
Everyone in our group was up early that Wednesday morning. We checked the satellite images again, but there was no significant change in the front's cloud and wind pattern. We asked our local tour guide to call his Chinese contacts in Hangzhou and Shanghai, but it turned out the weather conditions at those locations also were not very promising. The weather office in Jiaxing predicted that the wind would shift from the northwest to the northeast by the time of the eclipse. If it did, then the sea breeze would help push the cloud band far enough south that it might give us some clear skies.
Satellite image courtesy NOAA.
So ultimately, the three of us (Imelda, Edwin, and Michael) decided to try our luck at our original observing site — the Nine Dragons Hill Resort, which is right on the coast. This beautiful private facility lies very close to the eclipse centerline and is about an hour's drive east of Jiaxing. Totality here was expected to last approximately 5½ minutes, starting at 9:35 a.m. local time, with the Sun 56° above the eastern horizon.
When we got there, the sky actually started to improve during the partial phase. The clouds began to thin out, allowing us glimpses of the rapidly dwindling crescent Sun. But about a minute or so before totality, it started to rain and it didn't let up until well after third contact.
Although we missed seeing the diamond ring and the corona, the darkness that prevailed that morning was no less than dramatic. It was as if the sky's light switch was suddenly turned off at second contact. It got so dark that we could barely see our hands held in front of us. All the lights in the marina turned on automatically during totality. Everyone in our tour group just stood transfixed in the rain, gazing skyward in complete silence and admiring the eerie, unearthly darkness. Soon afterward, totality was over and daylight came back quite abruptly.
This was the first time we had watched an eclipse under an umbrella. (Luckily we brought large plastic bags for cover so our telescope and camera gear didn't get wet.) The eclipse of 2009 broke our personal record of eight out of eight successful eclipses. But we didn't feel too bad about what had happened. We knew from the beginning that the weather prospects in China was poor since it was the middle of the country's monsoon season, and that we only had a 50/50 chance of seeing totality. Still, we were hoping for the best.
The rest of our nine-day stay in China more than made up for the eclipse. In Shanghai we took a night cruise along the Huangpu River, climbed the futuristic Oriental Pearl TV Tower in Pudong, visited the ancient water town of Zhujiajiao (also known as the "Venice of the East"), and toured Shanghai's Yuan Gardens and Bazaar and the Jade Buddha Temple.
Shanghai’s top tourist attractions include the Oriental
Pearl TV Tower in Pudong (top), the Jade Buddha Temple
(shown here with one of its golden Buddhas), and the Yuan
Gardens and Bazaar. Photos by Imelda Joson and Edwin Aguirre.
We also took the Maglev (magnetic levitation) high-speed bullet train from downtown Shanghai to the PVG airport (the train attained a top speed of 431 kilometers per hour, or 270 mph!).
Edwin and Imelda disembark the Maglev high-speed train at Shanghai
From Shanghai, our tour group flew to Xi’an in Shaanxi Province to see the world-famous army of terra cotta warriors guarding the tomb of Emperor Qin Shi Huangdi for more than 2,000 years. (Imelda even obtained the autograph and had her photo taken with the Chinese peasant farmer who accidentally discovered the tomb in 1974 while digging a well).
Imelda poses with Yang Quan Yi, the discoverer of Xi’an’s cache of terra
cotta warriors and horses.
More than 7,000 of these life-size, individually sculpted clay foot soldiers, archers, and horses are on display at the on-site museums.
Top and middle: The ancient terra cotta warriors on display at the archeo-
logical site, which has now been turned into a sprawling public museum.
Photos by Imelda Joson and Edwin Aguirre. Bottom: Edwin and Imelda
pose with full-scale replicas of the clay army at the museum’s gift shop.
We also saw the Golden Buddha at the Greater Wild Goose Pagoda built in A.D. 652 during the Tang Dynasty, as well as Xi'an's Islamic mosque and the City Wall's South Gate.
The Greater Wild Goose Pagoda and Buddha in Xi’an.
Photos by Imelda Joson and Edwin Aguirre.
From Xi’an, our group proceeded to Beijing to explore the capital city’s museums and take a pedicab ride through the narrow hutongs (alleys). No visit to Beijing would be complete without a tour of its iconic sites: Tian’an Men Square, the largest public plaza in the world, and the Forbidden City, whose acres of splendid 15th-century halls and pavilions graced with imperial treasures now comprise the Palace Museum.
Imelda and Edwin at Tian’An Men Square (top) and the Forbidden City
(Palace Museum) in the heart of Beijing.
Our tour also included visits to the beautiful Temple of Heaven, arguably the most popular symbol of China, as well as the Summer Palace, a complex of pavilions, temples, and galleries situated along a manmade lake. We even saw the Giant Pandas at the Beijing Zoo.
Top: The Qinian Dian, or Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests,
is the most recognizable structure in the Temple of Heaven
(Tian Tan) complex. It was originally built in 1420. Bottom:
One of the Giant Pandas (Ailuropoda melanoleuca) on display
at the Beijing Zoo. Photos by Imelda Joson and Edwin Aguirre.
The highlight, of course, was exploring the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall of China, an ancient engineering marvel just outside Beijing. In addition, we also had a chance to tour silk, pearl, and jade factories, as well as an art gallery that taught us the traditional art of Chinese watercolor painting and calligraphy (writing Chinese characters using brush, ink, and rice paper).
Imelda and Edwin explore the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall
Our last full day in China was spent admiring the Ancient Observatory and its impressive collection of pre-telescopic instruments, as well as the beautiful White Dagoba and the Nine Dragon Screen at Bei Hai Park. Overall, it was a fantastic trip, though the weather was quite hot and humid.
Edwin and Imelda stand in front of a giant bronze armillary sphere at the
Ancient Observatory (top) and the Nine Dragon Screen at Bei Hai Park,
which is adjacent to the Forbidden City.