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Solar Eclipse 2010

Paul and Mary Kohlmiller

From top to bottom: The Aranui 3; Mary mugs it up with a tiki; a shore worker rolls a barrel of gasoline as other workers and cruise passengers are nearby; a sumptuous lunch buffet which was the norm on this trip. Photos by the author.


A spectacular solar eclipse occurred on July 11, 2010. The path of totality was mostly in the Pacific Ocean before it came ashore in the Patagonia region of Chile. We were lucky enough to be aboard the cruise/cargo ship Aranui 3. This vessel derives more than 60% of its income from shipping items between Tahiti and some of the larger islands and atolls within French Polynesia. The remainder of its income is from taking passengers. The Aranui 3 is not a city-sized cruise ship with formal wear, night club acts and multiple restaurants. Instead, the nearly 200 customers eat in a family-style manner and it is a good thing that the food is always great because you don’t have much of a choice. The crew was hospitable and very helpful, especially in retrieving Paul’s wallet from the sea after Mary accidentally threw it in.

The Aranui 3 left its home port of Papeete on Tuesday, June 29. We were at sea for most of a day before arriving at the atoll Fakarava. This place is noted for its black pearls. The next day we were at sea as the ship traveled at 17 knots toward the Marquesan Archipelago. This area was little known until the TV series “Survivor” taped a season there. The islands we visited had names like Nuku Hiva, Ua Pou, and so on. The first attempt at pronouncing these names was to assume each vowel defined a syllable, though there were exceptions. Most of the natives spoke French at least to outsiders. On board the ship, announcements intended for the crew were in French only. Otherwise, messages to the passengers were repeated in French, English and German.

Despite what may sound like relative deprivation, the accommodations were great. Our cabin was spacious and very comfortable. However, drawers opened and doors creaked when the ocean decided to bounce us around a bit. Most cruise ships these days have stabilizer technologies, which this ship did not. A few people suffered from mal de mer but we had no problem. There were 3 sets of lectures on board the ship given by Rich Talcott, senior editor at Astronomy magazine, and Dennis Mammana, an award-winning sky photographer. We went as part of the group traveling with Melita Thorpe, the owner of the self-named MWT Associates tour agency. Melita was on the cruise with us and we were the largest single block of tourists. Others came in smaller tour groups or came on their own. We were told that only the Christmas time cruises fill up the Aranui unless there happens to be a total eclipse in the itinerary.

On the day of the eclipse, the captain’s plan was to land on an atoll named Hikueru. But on the previous day we were on the atoll Makemo and the morning was quite cloudy. The decision was made to stay at sea and try to find an open patch of sky. So the ship sailed 38 miles south of Hikueru, just a bit south of the centerline when totality started. Our exact location was 17° 53.36’ south, 142° 20.58’ west. The temperature before totality was 85° F and dropped to 77° F during totality. The captain did a fantastic job of finding clear sky with a just a few clouds to make it interesting. He then realigned the boat so that the stern was facing the sun to allow maximum viewing from the ship.

The eclipse itself was fantastic! There were audible gasps and exclamations as many observed this phenomena in the sky for the first time (including us). It was dark enough that a few stars were also visible. There was a very obvious diamond ring at the start with a rainbow effect due to the passing of a wispy cloud. The totality seemed way too short, although it was over 4 minutes. Baily’s Beads were not noticed by most either at second or third contact. The late diamond ring at third contact seemed longer to most of the experienced eclipse chasers and Talcott noted later that this was an accurate assessment. It seems we were aligned with a lunar valley.

The 2 week cruise ended the day after the eclipse. The complete experience was wonderful. Many of the people in Melita’s group are already planning for the eclipse in Oceania in 2012.

Other eclipse chasers apparently had their own successes. Alex Filippenko (U.C. Berkeley) reported that they missed about 40 seconds around second contact but saw everything else very well. He was on the ship Paul Gauguin. This was Dr. Filippenko’s 11th total eclipse.

Dennis Mammana said that all total eclipses last 7 seconds no matter what they tell you. That was certainly my impression. He also said that his recommendation to all first time solar eclipse viewers was to not take any pictures, just enjoy the moment. Then he said he knew we weren’t going to follow that advice. True enough but still the best advice we got all week.


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