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Seeing a Solar Eclipse

Not necessarily a once in a lifetime experience

David Findley


“ ... we could hear the birds begin their evening routine and the tree frogs start their evening calls, two or three hours before normal. ... I was ecstatic to be there ... ”


Miriam and David Findley at Penomone Airport. Photo courtesy of the author.


Back in Virginia in the early seventies (note: probably March 7, 1970), I witnessed an almost total eclipse of the sun. It did not occur to me at the time to drive an hour or so to a region of totality. Later, as I began to read about the phenomena that could occur during totality, I became wistful about having missed the experience. I read that the next total solar eclipse in the US would occur in 2017, which seemed like a very long time away at that time. Even if I were still on this side of the grass in that year, I could not depend on the integrity of my vision and other faculties to fully appreciate the event. I decided that a total solar eclipse would just be one of those experiences in life that I would not enjoy. In recent years, however, with my awakening interest in astronomy, I began to notice advertisements for "eclipse tours." The light bulb was illuminated: I did not need to wait for an eclipse to come to me; I could go to the eclipse! Reading about an upcoming hybrid solar eclipse (total in mid-Pacific and annular elsewhere), I did a web search for eclipse tours. The cruise ship leaving from Tahiti seemed a bit extravagant for a novice eclipse viewer, but the tour offered by "Ring of Fire Expeditions" (ROFE) to Panama was appealing. It was reasonable in cost, and the idea of a short tour of Panama, staying in a coastal resort, along with the opportunity to experience an almost total annular eclipse was irresistible. I sent in the deposit for my wife and me. ROFE is loosely affiliated with the NASA Johnson Space Center Astronomical Society and uses a Houston travel agency to handle air-ground arrangements. Paul Maley, who works in the flight director's office at Johnson, has organized several of these tours over the past years. He visits a site a year or so in advance of the event, checking weather records, lodging and transportation arrangements. He tries to coordinate the event with a local astronomy group, if possible. He makes an effort to insure that the event is comfortable and interesting to non-astronomically oriented companions as well as for the astronomers. He arranges a co-leader or two for large groups. In the months and weeks leading up to the Panama eclipse, Paul sent out notes about the event and the venue. There is eclipse etiquette just like there is star party etiquette, and Paul made sure that we were informed. There was not much in the way of advice about equipment to bring; in fact, he advised first-timers just to show up and see what the others do. His general advice was to have a plan for observing made out in advance and to try out the plan well before the actual event. Initially I ordered Coronado Binomite solar binoculars, but when they failed to ship in a timely manner, I cancelled the order and purchased Orion solar filters and a tripod adapter for my binoculars from the local Orion store. The tripod made viewing much less tiring over the time from first contact to annularity than it would have been otherwise, and made it easy to share the view with my wife and others. Viewing through binoculars turned out to be much more satisfying than relying on eclipse eyeglasses.

On Wednesday, April 6, most of the group assembled at George Bush Airport in Houston for the four hour flight to Panama City. I noticed that several of the participants packed their observing gear as carry-on luggage rather than entrusting it to the cargo hold. We arrived about 7 PM, and after the usual immigration lines and baggage hassles, the group boarded two motor coaches for the 90 minute drive to the Royal Decameron Resort on the Pacific coast west of Panama City. It is a common misconception that Panama runs north to south; actually, it runs west to east, so the Pacific coast faces south. The tour guide on the bus, who would be with us throughout our stay, described the sights as we drove from the airport, through the city, across the Canal passage and into the countryside. As we gathered in the lobby I began to realize what, a world of eclipse groupies I had joined. Someone came up to me and asked, "are you Ernie?" "No," I answered, do I look like Ernie?" "Actually, I haven't seen Ernie since 1984 in Madagascar (or some such location), so I don't really know what he looks like now," was his reply. We had seventy people in our group. Probably the majority were from Texas, but there were participants in the group from California (two from San Jose), Washington, other states, a couple from Mexico, a student from the Czech Republic and one from England. A few were non-astronomically involved spouses, children, grandkids or first-timers like my wife and I, but most were hard core eclipse chasers. If there is an eclipse they want to be there, and they make the effort to be on the path. They constantly sprinkled their conversations with references to past eclipses at exotic locales such as Africa, Iceland or Mongolia.

On Thursday, the whole group boarded two motor coaches for a tour of the historical sights of Panama City. It seemed to me that tourism is in an early stage of development in Panama compared to its neighbors in Central America such as Mexico and Costa Rica, but they are making an effort to develop tourism to supplement Canal and banking income. There were new archeological digs and museums and what appeared to be a concert venue at the site of the original Spanish colonial settlement. The guide stated that street crime was rare and kidnappings unknown in Panama. He said "our crime is of a higher sort." He said that a lot of Americans were retiring to Panama because of the low cost of property and special tax postponements. "In fact," he said, "if you know the right people, you'll never pay tax." Indigenous peoples sell colorful crafts in the streets or in special markets at reasonable cost. The highlight of the tour was a visit to the Miraflores locks on the Pacific exit of the Canal. There we were entranced by the sight of small electric locomotives, called "mules," pulling giant cargo ships into the lock, where they would be lowered about twenty feet in a half-hour or so, and then discharged into the Pacific. I was getting concerned about the weather since it was overcast, and we had a noon downpour. We heard that the dry season ended two weeks earlier than usual, perhaps due to El Nino. What did this portend for the day of the eclipse?

Back at the resort we enjoyed lavish buffet breakfasts, lunches, snacks, and dinners in a variety of specialty restaurants. Unlimited alcoholic beverages, and even cigarettes, were available, all included in the room cost. We were told that tap water was safe to drink and the fresh fruits and salads safe to eat. We took them at their word, with no ill results. There were organized recreational programs and evening entertainment.

Friday morning began with scattered sunshine and a briefing by Paul Maley about eclipse viewing safety. We heard a presentation by a nineteen year old girl from the Czech Republic, a tour participant, who had developed image processing routines for combining images from several sources to glean additional information from past eclipses. At 2 PM we gathered in the lobby for the two buses to the viewing sites. One group was slated to go west with Paul Maley to Penonome Airport and the other group, which I was in, was bound for Coronado Airport east of the resort. My group was led by the Swiss astronaut, Claude Nicollier. The idea was, due to the instability of the weather, splitting the group into two increased the likelihood that at least one group would have satisfactory viewing conditions. We were delayed at the resort for an hour while Paul and Claude studied satellite weather pictures and consulted with weather experts at NASA, Houston. Finally, Paul's bus departed. Our bus was delayed for a spirited discussion between Claude, his wife, the bus driver and a resort employee. The employee insisted that we would not be admitted to the area of the Coronado airport, and we would have to lug our gear for an hour on foot to approach a viewing area. Claude was finally convinced that there was too much uncertainty to attempt to go to Coronado. He elected to join Paul at Penonome Airport.

Arriving at the airport, we discovered that it was the official viewing site of the Panamanian Amateur Astronomical Association. They even had a booth to sell sodas and commemorative tee-shirts. The airport was closed to aviation and several busloads of visiting observers from around the world as well as a large number of local residents were on-hand to witness the event. Despite the crowd we had no difficulty in locating an open spot at the end of the runway to set up our equipment. I set up my binoculars and tripod in a few minutes and began to look around at the others. I saw camera backs coupled to either large telephoto lenses or small, compact telescopes. Paul Maley had a camera on a Meade ETX-90. Some were using conventional film. I do not know the breakdown between film cameras and digital cameras, but both types were represented. Some had video cameras. Some had home-made solar filters, while others used commercial filters.

The sky was relatively clear at first contact, but as annularity approached, a massive cloud began to encroach from the left. Claude thought that he might be able to drive away from the cloud. About a third of the group, those with easily portable equipment, joined Claude as our bus raced off the airport grounds, through the nearby town and off on a local rural road. As the time grew very close, Claude told the driver to stop. We set up on a side road near a large residence. Using his GPS apparatus, Claude announced that we were 2.4 nautical miles north of the centerline. He called out the seconds to annularity as we observed. The sky grew dark, like at twilight, but the sunlight was still too intense to observe directly. The cloud cover had increased too much to see the solar corona, but we could see the annularity for a second or two and a suggestion of "Baily's Beads," regions of dark and light around the annulus due to irregularities on the lunar surface. It turned out that the group that remained at the airport enjoyed marginally better viewing conditions than ours, as well as true annularity. However, since we were in a rural area, we could hear the birds begin their evening routine and the tree frogs start their evening calls, two or three hours before normal. Even if viewing conditions were not perfect, I was ecstatic to be there and thrilled to have witnessed the eclipse. We returned to the resort in great spirits.

Saturday was a free day to enjoy the resort. Miriam and I went on a bird-watching expedition to a highland rain forest. Most of the participants were better informed about bird watching than we, but we enjoyed spotting the brightly colored birds and also walking in the forest. In the late afternoon, Claude Nicollier gave a slide presentation on his spacewalk to repair the optics in the Hubble Space Telescope, and his thoughts about the future of telescopes in space. We had a farewell dinner for the group in one of the specialty restaurants, capped by a special commemorative cake supplied by the resort. After dinner Claude led a group down to the beach to observe the southern night sky. On previous evenings the night sky had been obscured by clouds, but on this night the viewing was marvelous. As my eyes dark-adapted, I could make out the southern cross (Crux), Alpha Centauri, Beta Centauri, and the globular cluster, Omega Centauri. Omega Centauri was an easy naked-eye object and spectacular in binoculars. The Eta Carina Nebula was striking. I was awestruck. At 4 AM Sunday morning we had a wake-up call to prepare for the trip to the airport. My wife and I joined Claude and his wife for breakfast. Afterwards Claude and I went to the beach to see Mars in Capricorn. Just before sunrise, Paul called us all out of the two buses to witness an Iridium flare. It was right on schedule. The bus drivers and tour guides were very impressed; they were definitely prepared to promote Paul to shaman status. We reboarded the buses for our return trip. Our eclipse tour was concluded. It was one of the highlights of my life to have participated. Now, I am planning for my next one. 2009 in Shanghai for sure! Maybe Turkey or Libya in 2006?


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