Total eclipses occur during the lunar phase called new Moon. What happens? First, the Moon touches the Sun, a time called first contact. Then the Moon moves across the Sun, gradually hiding it from view. During this period, you’ll see what’s called the “partial phases” or partials, which last about an hour. Here the Sun changes from a complete disk, to a fat crescent, to a thin crescent, and finally to a very thin crescent that keeps getting smaller and smaller. Finally, each edge of the shrinking crescent breaks up into “beads.” All this must be viewed only through safe solar filters, as the Sun is wayyyyy too bright to look at without filters to protect your eyes.
Suddenly, the tiny crescent disappears, and there’s a single, spectacular, bright point of light. This is called the first diamond ring, and it occurs at the moment of second contact when the Moon completely covers the solar disk. It’s now safe to look directly at the Sun, so Filters Off! Encircling the blackness of the Moon is a faint ring of light, the Sun’s corona. Totality has begun!
After second contact, you don’t need filters, because the Sun is completely hidden. While we become ecstatic watching it all unfold, and maybe also become frantic trying to record events, the Moon and Sun continue in their motion across the sky. This means that what you see keeps changing for the duration of totality. First, you’ll spot a thin and very bright red line, right next to the Sun; this is the chromosphere. Outward from that, there may be red prominences in various flame shapes, that reach up from the chromosphere. Sometimes prominences are huge! But the Moon rapidly covers both, leaving only the exquisite, diaphanous solar corona.
However, the corona only lasts until third contact, when there is another bright flare at a different place on the Sun’s edge — it’s the second diamond ring! This happens when the first teeny bit of the Sun peaks out from behind the edge of the Moon. Alas, totality is now over for this eclipse. If you keep watching, another series of partials unfolds, revealing more and more of the solar disk as the Moon and the Sun go their separate ways. It’s as if they met, “kissed” during totality as their paths crossed, and parted. The full Sun reappears at fourth contact, bringing you back to reality.
While it’s important to know the basics of the eclipse dance between the Sun and the Moon, this knowledge cannot even begin to convey the experience that awaits! Even after seeing over 20 total solar eclipses, it’s still a challenge to describe the experience. So, where to start?
The day: Believe it or not, arriving at the right spot at the right time is not simple. The whole expedition is geared to do that, and thanks to expert travel advice, TravelQuest takes you there. But there’s considerable curiosity, then a vague sense of unease, and finally serious anxiety as the big day approaches. Will you and the eclipse path — the line scribed by the total phase of a solar eclipse along the surface of our globe — intersect with clear skies or at least a small opening in the clouds? Lots can go wrong — weather, schedule, traffic, fuel, health, access to a site. Until you actually see the first notch in the Sun, you can’t smile privately and enjoy that sweet moment! TravelQuest and its experts will get you there, but the anticipation and worry, especially in a group, definitely builds right up until the last minute!
The minute: Finally, the partials begin — it’s happening! Depending on your plans and preference, you may be starting your photography, watching the Sun shrink, walking around the site, visiting people you met on the last eclipse, or observing birds and animals. Hopefully you’re not watching clouds approach, or covering cameras to protect them from rain (it has happened)! About 30 minutes before totality, the Sun is cut in half and the light level starts to get noticeably lower. The sunlight gets eerie as it dims further, and it has a quality that to me is like quicksilver or mercury — others describe it like liquid silver, sparkly, or metallic. It’s beautiful! Minutes before totality, you might see shadow bands shimmering and dancing across the ground or on a light-colored wall. Those are pretty neat, especially as they’re telling you that the total eclipse is about to begin. Your heart rate goes up with excitement, even if this isn’t your first totality!
The seconds: Eclipse totality is magical — it’s simply an exquisite experience! It happens in a split second, so watch!! Watch with your eyes, your brain, your heart, your whole being. It’s like seeing a window into another dimension — the blackness of the Moon encircled by the corona’s beautiful gossamer plumes or “wings” of opalescent light. And it’s all set within the rest of the sky in whatever state you find it, sometimes showing planets near the Sun. The light around the horizon always takes on a lovely, soft yellow-orange color. Occasionally, a nearby cloud will show iridescence. The experience somehow adds a new layer to your being, like you’re connected to the whole world, the cosmos, the intricacies of astrophysics! I feel a palpable shift in myself as I’m watching, trying to make a mental record, a composite of what I’m really seeing and experiencing. It takes my breath away to see second contact blossom and quickly melt into chromosphere, prominences, and corona. One first-time viewer beside me fell to her knees when she took off her eclipse glasses and looked up. That first view of totality is mind blowing, awesome, beautiful, delicate, fantastic, and powerful — all at once! It changes us, somehow, to think of connectivity with the solar system and the universe. It’s amazing that we can travel specifically to see this little bit of magic in the vast sky around us. I LOVE it!!
If you’re a photographer, you’re likely very busy during totality. But please, don’t try to take so many pictures that you miss that view! Images of the Sun, the solar corona, or diamond rings may or may not “work,” depending on exposures, camera, tripod, and practice. But photos will never capture what you feel and how you remember a total solar eclipse. I take that back. Maybe one wide-field image can show others what you remember: a view of the context, the people, the horizon, clouds, palm trees, glaciers, waves, your view of the scene or even of a partner with the sparkle of joy in their eyes.
After totality: The moment of third contact always comes far too soon! I feel hunger for totality and all it brings — and I want it to last and last. Alas, it never does. I always feel a thrill run inside me when the third diamond erupts into the corona! And then, I suddenly reminiscence — even feel nostalgic — for something that has barely ended! I like to take a moment for myself, just to soak in the feelings from what just happened. If you’re in a crowd with other TravelQuest travelers, a cheer will rise and hugs will happen. My partner and I often pause and think of those who would have loved to see the eclipse, fellow eclipse chasers who are no longer with us, and cherished family who maybe wanted to see an eclipse but never did. The experiences you’ve just felt, seen, imagined, and heard, form an immediate connection with those who have also viewed and shared a total eclipse of the Sun. It’s one of the best parts of the whole experience, and that connection never fades. You can be walking down a street in Santiago or through an airport in Johannesburg, and spot someone you met in Turkey or Mongolia. Even if you don’t remember names, that shared experience is a thread that links your life with theirs. After a few eclipse expeditions, you have a welcoming family woven around you, with whom you can instantly share heartwarming stories and amazing details of the eclipse and of the whole total solar eclipse travel adventure.
And then? Shortly after totality, you’ll start thinking, or hearing talk, about “the next one.” There is always a next total solar eclipse! Some people can identify the dates and times of solar eclipses for years in the future, and they already know where in the world they’ll watch them. You may not see them all, but sometimes the next one you experience occurs in a location you never thought you’d ever visit in your life. That next adventure beckons right away, even before your current itinerary takes you home!
Part of the beckoning for me begins with the way I try to remember my own eclipse experience. I like to settle somewhere so I can think and gaze over new friends or the landscape, and then quietly make a pencil drawing of what I remember seeing during the solar eclipse — not just totality, but bits of the whole experience. I sketch to record my observations of the corona, prominences, beads, diamonds, crescents, and the light, horizon, and even clouds that have shaped my time under totality. I find the simplest of drawings helps me fix what I recall in long-term memory. And it illustrates to others, and to me, what I actually saw — not what others tell me they saw, or even what I photographed. Additional little notes describe colors and some of the details that I can only roughly put onto paper. These little sketches serve as my private keepsakes of the eclipse experience, even if I only see them by accident years later.
I hope this story gives you an inkling of the experience of viewing a total solar eclipse — even a mere 13 seconds of totality was worth my 2013 trip from Winnipeg to Uganda! A Sun that is 99 percent covered just does not do what totality will do to the heart, brain, and mind! My wish is that this blog will entice you to join a total eclipse adventure to somewhere in the world! If you see me there, please say hello! I’d love to share the enthralling fun!
Judy Anderson is Professor Emerita in the Department of Biological Sciences at the University of Manitoba. She is an avid eclipse chaser and has been enchanted by 23 totalities.
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