In 1976 Sydney experienced a partial solar eclipse, I was 5 years old at the time and I recall seeing the sky darken and people on TV watching totality through special glasses. Back then I thought how cool it would be to see a total solar eclipse although since then I’d never really gone out of my way to do something about it. In 2002 there was a total eclipse over Ceduna in South Australia, way out on the Great Australian Bight and one of the guys I worked with drove out there to experience it. For him it was more about the rave party during the eclipse than anything else, but again that briefly rekindled in me the thoughts of wanting to see a solar eclipse “some day”.
As the kids have gotten older, my thoughts have been turning more to some of the experiences in life that I have long wanted to do. Last year I sailed the HMB Endeavour from Townsville to Cairns, and I’ve also completed a few half marathons and the Tough Mudder physical challenge a few months ago.
A couple of months ago I learnt that Cairns would experience a total solar eclipse and it was then that I thought “I really want to go and see that”. A solar eclipse last 2 hours, although totality ( the period when the moon totally blocks the sun) only lasts about 2 minutes. I would be traveling 2400km to see something that lasts 2 minutes. Crazy. But there are people who have travelled a lot further than that to witness a total solar eclipse, and others for whom one just isn’t enough, they need to do it again and again. Maybe not so crazy after all.
Deanne has always been supportive of my desire to do these things, in fact she would have flown to Cairns with me however she’s recently changed jobs so she wasn’t able to get time off. Given I’d be traveling alone I decided not to make it a long trip basically up to see the eclipse and home again. I tried mustering some enthusiasm amongst friends via Twitter and Facebook to join me however no one was really interested which was a shame. In the end I thought that two of the people I’d met on the Endeavour trip lived in Cairns, it would also be an excuse to catch up with them (although that didn’t happen), so I decided to go.
By this stage, thousands of others also had the same idea, and my procrastination meant that flights were getting more expensive and accommodation booking up. I booked my flights and then booked a motel in Cairns, it was actually about 4km out of town but I thought I’d get a car and drive around. Buzz! Wrong idea there, turns out everyone else had the same idea and cars were pretty much booked out. Guess public transport would be it instead.
I contacted Bronwyn and Fiona hoping to get the inside news on what the locals planned to do, whether there were any festivals planned, etc. Fiona suggested either a train trip into the mountains or a reef cruise. I wasn’t really sure which way to go, until a week before I decided the reef cruise would be the better bet. Long range weather forecasts were suggesting rain and clouds so I figured a boat might be better able to maneuver around these. That was booked and pretty soon I was off.
Glen suggested that I read up on eclipse photography however I figured that I’d be on a boat and that there are photographers a lot better then me who would be taking much better photos than I hoped to, so I packed light, only taking my iPhone, a pocket camera and DSLR without zoom. I decided to go for the experience, and grab others photos from the Internet for posterity.
In the days before I left I contacted Fiona and Bronwyn, Fiona was taking part in the solar eclipse half marathon at Port Douglas and Bronwyn was busy and unable to catch up, which was a real shame. Bronwyn did warn that the weather was pretty crap so I was glad I’d decided to book the cruise. The flight up to Cairns was uneventful and I’d soon checked in to the motel and organized a cab to pick me up in the morning (2am!). I headed into town to check out where I was going and look around, however I was fairly nervous so made an early night of it. Setting three different alarms ( I REALLY didn’t want to sleep in!) I finally managed to get some sleep but was awoken before I knew it.
Getting dressed and grabbing a bag, I headed outside to find it had been raining – shit! this wasn’t turning in to so a great trip after all, I was wondering what else could go wrong. Heading in to the marina, I found a big line up waiting for the cruises so like the geek I am I fished out my reservation number on my phone and paid over for the cruise. $195 seemed like a lot especially if it rained but maybe being out on the water was my best chance of seeing the eclipse. I felt sorry for the woman in front of me, she hadn’t booked but just turned up and discovered the boat was fully booked, the staff told her if she was lucky and someone didn’t turn up then she might get on, although I didn’t see her the rest of the day.
Ticket in hand I headed down to the wharf, eyes skyward hoping to catch a glimpse of sky. I could see a few patches of stars so maybe it wasn’t going to be as bad as I feared. Eventually we were ushered on board, it was a typical reef cruise style catamaran, and I grabbed an empty spot to sit. Eying the other passengers there were a large number of people here for the trip, mostly Japanese tourists I’d guessed – I’m afraid to say I’m not that good at pick nationalities or languages. I was soon joined by three others and we did a quick round of introductions. Ralph was out from the United States and was a keen amateur astronomer and photographer. Mark was along for the experience with an interest in astronomy and John was a keen astronomer and photographer, soon showing me his collection of camera and equipment and some amazing planetary photography he done. Three fellow astronomy geeks to accompany me, what more could I ask for on the trip?
The actual trip out to the reef was about an hour and a half, I’d assumed we be on the boat for the eclipse but there was actually a large pontoon on the reef and we were heading to that. The sea was a bit rough and with no visible horizon I started to feel queasy and regretted to the two coffees I’d had. I was funny, I lasted a week on the HMB Endeavour without getting sick and yet was sea sick on the reef cruise. Looking out the windows I noticed that sky seemed to be clearing with more stars visible, the trip was looking up more and more. The sky to the east was lightening and there were just a few clouds on the horizon – sweet!
The captain said we were early for our arrival and he didn’t want to dock until it was light, a few of my passengers were getting anxious to miss first contact but soon we were docked. Breakfast was put on and I was ravished, missing dinner the night before so I grabbed a hot breakfast then headed on to the pontoon. John and Ralph were already setting up and I donned my glasses to watch as the moon started to to cover the sun as the minutes to totality ticked down.
Using my iPhone I snapped a couple of panorama shots of the horizon and other people enjoying the spectacle, these shots are as much fun as the eclipse – Ralph mentioned he is a fan of taking photos of photographers at their work.
As the minutes went by the moon crept further across the sun’s disk, I tried a few photos with my cameras, even using the filtered glasses over the lenses but I figured that people like John were going to get the best photographs so I decided to stick to the more panoramic shots and the people. We also took the opportunity to get photos of each posing, great memories :-P.
Before I knew it, the sky started to get darker and I really didn’t know what to expect. I actually thought I’d need to leave glasses on the whole time but I overheard a few people saying that you take them off at totality, the sky soon got darker and darker and the excitement started to build. Finally, the “oohs” and “ahhs” reached a fever pitch and taking off the glasses, I was totally blown away by what I saw.
The sky wasn’t totally black, there were still patches of light on the water towards the horizon and areas of sky were a deep blue rather than black. Venus was also again visible to the left, but the sun!
Words fail to adequately describe the experience. The sun is totally blocked by the moon, and is a deep dark black over the sun. The last seconds see the sun cause what they nickname the diamond ring effect, a ring of light around the moon with a bright flare at the bottom. Seconds later that’s gone and totality occurs. There’s an effect they call Baileys Beads, which appear to dance around the circumference of the moon before settling in to full effect with the corona in view. I took photos with my DSLR and my iPhone, including a pretty neat panorama shot. A woman next to me asked me to get a shot of her and the eclipse and vice versa, I nearly said no but figured it would be a few seconds at most so did. After getting my picture she handed me her camera to do the same, FUCK! It was zoomed all the way in and I lost precious seconds trying to find the zoom controls while watching the eclipse! I got it right, took the photos and quickly handed it back to continue enjoying the sight. Note to any readers, if you find yourself in the same situation and someone asks you to take their photo during totality, politely tell them to piss off – don’t miss the experience. I won’t make that mistake again!
The other thing that amazed me was the moon and sun seemed magnified, I know it’s only an optical illusion but I can completely understand why ancient civilizations like the Chinese thought it was the end of the world and assumed some dragon was eating the sun and tried to ward it off with noise. Totality lasts for about 2 minutes, but it felt like much less. All too quickly the diamond effect reappeared on the other side of the sun and the sky started to lighten again. Following totality, waiting for last contact was a little bit anticlimactic, and the crew were soon herding us back on board with about 30 minutes to go before last contact, fortunately we could continue to watch from deck. I watched on and off until the end, but by now we were too busy discussing the mornings events with fellow umbraphiles. John had gotten some amazing photos and video, so we all exchanged contact details to swap images and keep in touch. For people I’d only met a few hours before we were already discussing other astronomical opportunities, Ralph plans to get out here again in a few years to spend a week out back viewing the southern skies. We also got a group shot which he’ll pass on to all.
By 9am we were docking again in Cairns, and saying our farewells. Mark was flying out in a few hours, and while we considering grabbing a quick beer to celebrate (9am but we’d been up 8 hours, and time is an illusion 🙂 ) – he was flying out soon thereafter so we bid farewell and I headed back to the motel and sleep. Waking up around mid afternoon, I realised I still had the rest of the day to spend in Cairns and I really should have organised to meet for dinner – fortunately we had exchanged emails and I was able to contact everyone via Facebook.
Spent an great couple of hours enjoying dinner and talking astronomy and space flight with John and Ralph. They’re a couple of really interesting guys, and the surprising thing about the trip was the friendships made. Ralph is a machinist from the US, he’s machined parts for space craft that have ventured to other planets like batteries for the NASA space probes – some fascinating stories.
As I sit here down on the Virgin Boeing 737 flying home to Sydney, I have a chance to think to the amazing few days I have. I’m so glad that I took the the chance to see the eclipse. But what I didn’t expect was the unexpected friendships that I made along the way. I can’t help but draw parallels to the Endeavour trip last year, where I went away expecting to have an awesome sailing adventure, but I came home with something else – some new friends who might still live thousands of kilometres away, but through the marvels of modern technology I can still keep in touch with regularly. I think that was the best part of all on this trip.
So what next? This has been a nice little “tick” on my bucket list. My aim is to make sure I go to the grave with as few boxes un-ticked as possible. Next year Deanne and I will be off to the USA which should see some more exciting adventures. The other “astronomical” wish is the southern lights. Maybe I can convince Mark and John to take a trip to Tassie next year to see that…
Some great photos by John and a few of mine are here.