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An Eclipse Behind the Clouds

Ernie Piini


... We could see the clouds around the volcano begin to lift. We can’t leave now!


View of the Arenal Volcano with white Brahma cattle grazing near the base.

Final partial eclipse photo taken at 3:30 p.m. Photos by the author.


10° 01' 20" N. Latitude
85° 44' 29" W. Longitude
San Juanillo, Costa Rica

Our intrepid group of five adventurers traveled by van for two hours from the coastal town of Samara, through rain and over bumpy gravel roads, to the half-moon shaped beach of San Juanillo, about 30 kilometers north as the crow flies. This was our destination where we expected to see the December 14, 2001 Annular Eclipse of the sun near the calculated centerline.

Our group included my 13-year-old grandson, Matthew Piini from Dublin, California; retired Mount Hamilton staffer Shiloh Unruh; Derek Gallion, a software programmer from Hastings, Minnesota; and our leader, Madelyn Dovano from Los Gatos, president of Migrant Travelers.

We arrived onto the sandy beach around 2 p.m. where the sky was quite cloudy and it rained occasionally. The moon's initial bite into the sun was to take place at first contact, 3:11 p.m. Annularity was to begin about 4:30 p.m. when the offset ring around the moon's perimeter appeared inside the solar disc. At this point no further beads from lunar mountains are seen. The ring, varying in shape, was to last for three and one-half minutes and then become a partial eclipse in reverse. The still partially eclipsed sun was to set at 5:22 p.m. A perfect ring occurs at mid-annularity when it is located exactly on the centerline as seen by the observer. I was expecting the best photo opportunities to occur during post annularity. A partial eclipse near sunset can be very colorful.

My special projects for this eclipse entailed building several solar filter assemblies for Matthew's JVC digital camcorder. These slip-on devices were machined to fit easily onto the front of his lens. I used the popular Baader ND-5 filter material. It reduces sunlight by a very safe 100,000 times. My set-up made use of a Takahashi "Sky Patrol" equatorial mount for tracking the sun. My recording equipment included a C-90 telescope with a Pentax ZX-5 camera and Kodak Royal Gold 100 film. Also on the mount was my Canon GL-1 camcorder.

As it turned out, I took two clear photos of the partial eclipse, the final at 3:30 p.m. but the clouds moved in shortly thereafter. It appeared that the clouds were moving southward and a clearing near the horizon was possible. This would have given us an opportunity for a colorful photo of the partial eclipse near the horizon without using our solar filters. This never happened.

It was dark when we left our eclipse site for the long bumpy ride back to Samara. Our van hit a rock on the road which took out the reverse gear of the transmission. The driver radioed ahead for another bus to pick us up for the remainder of the trip.

The next morning we flew back to San Jose, Costa Rica, in a single prop Cessna 12-passenger aircraft, the same one that took us out to Samara. The runway is a narrow path cut through the rain forest and on take-off the plane sloshed through three mud puddles. Looking back, it was a cramped but smooth and scenic ride.

A good substitute for the clouded out eclipse was a visit to the Arenal Volcano. Near sunset we arrived at the park which features a hot springs resort and a ringside hotel room facing the volcano just 2 kilometers away. The volcano was covered with clouds down to its base. During the night I kept looking out from our front observation window hoping to see red lava flows but we were actually in the cloud ourselves. After an early breakfast, we were scheduled to depart the area at 8:30 a.m. As we packed for our trip to Monteverde, we could see the clouds around the volcano begin to lift. We can't leave now! Hold on, bus driver, we may luck out and see a substitute for the clouded out eclipse. By 10:10 a.m., the clouds rose high enough to see the peak of the twin craters. What a grand sight. White, Brahma cattle grazed near a fence at the bottom of the volcano. In India these are the sacred cattle which roam the streets freely. Near the summit lies an easily seen aircraft that crashed there about a year ago killing all 10 passengers. On a clear night the active volcano can be seen spewing lava, and during the day white-ash clouds from massive explosions. It has an almost perfect conical shape and reaches 1,633 meters (5,357 ft.) high above sea level.

The last part of our trip was spent visiting Monteverde, a rain forest at an altitude of 1,524 meters (5,000 ft). It is green, green, everywhere. Matthew got to see and photograph his favorite quetzal, a colorful, long-tailed bird, during his walking tour through the reserve. We also saw exotic frogs and butterflies. We awoke at 4:00 a.m. to see the Southern Cross, Eta Carina, and the false cross beautifully displayed above the tree tops.

Other than the well paved and maintained Pan-American Highway, most roads in Costa Rica are gravel or bumpy dirt. A 30-mile stretch can take several hours of slow driving, but the lush green flora alongside is never tiresome to look at.

On our last night in Costa Rica we took a ride down Colon Avenue (named after Christopher Columbus). Every 50 yards or so colorful Christmas decorations spanned the street. We enjoyed our gala final dinner at the popular Jurgen's Restaurant, which featured French cuisine.

We enjoyed one more night's stay at the luxurious Herradura Hotel, joyfully decorated for Christmas even into the parking lot.

Yes, we did miss the eclipse, but the chance to mingle with the proud Costa Rican people, and to view their lush green country, its flora and fauna and beautiful beaches, and to experience the way the Arenal volcano cleared its cloud cover just for us is unforgettable.

My thanks to my personal editors, Joe Heim and May Coon for reviewing this report.


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