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Eclipse Chasing, in Pursuit of Total Awe

By Christina Koukkos
May 17, 2009
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ON July 22, the 21st century’s longest total solar eclipse will darken the sky along a narrow corridor of the Asian landmass and the Pacific Ocean. An otherworldly black disk will replace the sun for about six and a half minutes, and from India through China to the sea off the southern coast of Japan, spellbound adventurers will be out in force to see it. I wouldn’t miss being one of them.

I saw my first total solar eclipse in Hungary in 1999, at just past noon on a clear summer day. My friend Tamás and I were visiting his parents in Zánka, a village on the shore of Lake Balaton, and as the time drew near we stood chattering in the backyard, expectant but, as seems clear now, unprepared.

As the moon obscured more and more of the sun, the sky darkened to a shimmering violet. Cicadas, confused by the noontime dusk, began calling out their evening song. The temperature dropped. A breeze kicked up. When the eclipse was total, I removed my special eclipse glasses — essential for viewing the eclipse phases safely — casually looked up at the sun, and staggered back a little, my brain reeling.

The transformation of reality in a total solar eclipse is indescribable. I was mesmerized, disoriented, shocked, as if I had slipped through a wormhole to an alternate universe. I was the unwitting star of a “Twilight Zone” episode.

Mere minutes later, the sun peeked back out from behind the moon and all was familiar again. As suddenly as it had begun, my first total solar eclipse was over. But, like thousands of others around the world, I was hooked.

A growing number of eclipse-chasers, or umbraphiles, as they are also called, travel to the corners of the earth specifically to see total solar eclipses, and tour operators have sprung up to get them there. Beyond providing the thrill of standing on the moon’s shadow, or umbra, an eclipse is often the centerpiece of a travel adventure in exotic climes.

Umbraphiles have chased eclipses to Kazakh lakes, Zambian safari country and Algerian deserts. They have chartered ships to take them to the North Atlantic, the Caribbean and the middle of the Pacific. They’ve taken flights over the North Pole, faces pressed against tiny, frost-trimmed windows to view an eclipse from 35,000 feet.

The myths about eclipses are colorful: the sun and moon fighting or making love, hungry wolves or snakes devouring the light. But the ancient Chinese tale, that an eclipse is caused by a dragon swallowing the sun, seems especially apt. Eclipse fanatics are willing to spend any amount of time and money chasing that dragon.

The best eclipse tours are generally run by operators who understand local conditions, which may be chaotic for travelers, and have secured reliable transportation and the best accommodations and viewing spots. Since clouds can obscure the view of an eclipse, tour operators schedule observations in spots that are most likely to provide clear weather. Most tours feature lectures on both the science of eclipses and the art of observing them, including the all-important mantra for first-timers: Don’t bother with cameras and other distractions; just sit back and enjoy.

The experience evokes language laden with the mystical and the narcotic. “An eclipse is a glimpse of the world from a little outside our usual perspective,” said Liz O’Mara, an interactive marketing manager from New York and a veteran of three eclipses. “From that vantage point I can most easily see our position in the universe.”

Glenn Schneider, an astronomer at the Steward Observatory of the University of Arizona who has seen more total solar eclipses (27) than the Yankees have won World Series (26), puts it in more scientific terms: “Totality is stronger than opioids or pheromones.”

The perfect alignment of the earth and the moon that obscures the sun in total eclipse occurs only every 16 months or so, lasts no more than seven and a half minutes (typically only three or four), and is visible from less than 1 percent of the earth’s surface. The last one visible from within New York City was in 1925 and lasted no more than a minute; the next happens in 2079. If you’re very young and healthy, you can wait for an eclipse to come to you. Otherwise, you must chase one down.

And chase we did. In March 2006, Tamás and I met in Ghana for our second eclipse. We flew in to Accra, the capital, and hopped on a bus to Cape Coast, about 90 miles southwest. Rather than join the apparently raucous party of eclipse-chasers on the beach outside town, we shared the moment with a local group — the four-person staff of the Mighty Victory Hotel. As the moon crept along the sun’s surface, I suddenly grew anxious. Would it be as awe-inspiring as I had remembered?

I needn’t have worried. As the last diamond of the sun slipped behind the moon, I was once again transported to the Twilight Zone, this time for three minutes and 20 seconds.

This year’s eclipse will be my first in the company of fellow chasers — 86 umbraphiles led by Rick Brown, a commodities trader from Long Island. We’ll gather in a private viewing spot outside Wuhan, China, just after sunrise. Together we’ll perform rituals to ward off the clouds, don our eclipse glasses and wait. At the moment of total eclipse, even the seasoned veterans are likely to cry out with religious fervor.

It all seems a bit much — until you’ve seen one.

Bill Kramer, a computer consultant from Ohio who runs an eclipse-chasing Web site, describes himself as a cynic about most of things purported to be marvelous, but not this experience. “An eclipse,” he said, “is the one thing that actually lives up to the hype.”

IF YOU GO

A comprehensive Web site for eclipse chasers is www.eclipse-chasers.com. For dates and Google maps of past and future eclipses, consult www.eclipse.gsfc.nasa.gov/eclipse. Eclipse glasses are essential for when the eclipse is not at totality; one source is www.rainbowsymphonystore.com.

After July 22, the next three total eclipses will be on July 11, 2010, over the South Pacific; on Nov. 13, 2012, over northern Australia; and on Nov. 3, 2013, over mid-Africa.

Here is a sampling of tours with viewings in China. Prices are per person, double occupancy:

MWT Associates (877-707-7827; www.melitatrips.com), is owned by Melita Thorpe, who has been organizing eclipse tours for over 20 years. Its July 13 to 26 trip ($5,785, including airfare) will include a viewing near the Three Gorges Dam, a seven-day Yangtze River cruise and lectures by editors from Astronomy magazine.

Rick Brown’s Eclipse Safari (www.eclipse-chasers.com/esafari), the 10th eclipse trip organized by Mr. Brown, runs July 14 to 27 ($3,495, not including airfare) and includes viewing at a university outside of Wuhan, a three-day Yangtze cruise, stops at the Great Wall, Tiananmen Square and lectures by Glenn Schneider of the Steward Observatory and Sheridan Williams, author of “Total Solar Eclipse 2008 & 2009.”

A Classic Tours Collection (888-605-8687; www.aclassictour.com) has operated eclipse tours for over 25 years. Its tour from July 19 to Aug. 2 ($2,695, not including airfare) includes eclipse viewing near Hangzhou and a lecture by Jay Pasachoff, an astronomy professor at Williams College.