Sunday 2 December 2012

All Expectations Totally Eclipsed!

From Cairns in the far north east to the far south west between Perth and Albany.
My current work has me travelling backwards and forwards between Cairns, in the far north east corner of Queensland, and Manjimup, a 3.5 hour drive from Perth, in the far south west corner of Western Australia.  This is almost as far as one can get between two places in the vast continent that is Terra Australis.  I had ensured that I would be in Cairns for a rare total solar eclipse on November 14th 2012.  Rare in that full solar eclipses are an infrequent occurrence, and ├╝ber rare being in the city where one resides.  The next total solar eclipse in Cairns is April 26 2237! Quite some time away, I’m sure you will agree!

My first memory of a solar eclipse is from when I was in primary school, quite some time ago, apparently.  My memory is a little vague for the exact detail, but I do remember the various warnings regarding going blind.  I recall that it was an incredibly hot summer’s day in primary school.  Not quite the 40 degrees centigrade where we would be sent home, but surely close!  Of course we weren’t allowed to go outside at all in those days when it was happening.  Things have changed a lot since then, and the enlightened science department at our children’s school had made special arrangements for those interested to go to school early, i.e. 6 am to view it from there.  Some 60,000 people were estimated to have descended on Cairns to witness this astronomical phenomenon!  Flights were full, accommodation scant, and the hire car bays at the airport were bare.  The city was busy and there was excitement and anticipation everywhere.

Eclipse figure courtesy of Fred Espenak, NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center

As you may well know, a solar eclipse occurs when the moon passes between the earth and the sun.  The resultant shadow of the moon passes rapidly over the earth’s surface over several hours and many thousands of kilometres.  

Eclipse figure courtesy of Fred Espenak, NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center

During the course of the eclipse the moon may totally occlude the sun along a narrow central path, so called totality.  


Eclipse figure courtesy of Fred Espenak, NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center

A partial eclipse will be visible for long distances either side of this.  In this picture, the dark blue lines show the path of totality.  Starting in northern Australia it passes right across the Pacific ocean, almost reaching south America.  The light blue lines show the areas of partial eclipse.

To ensure a premium view from the beach and to snatch a rare chance to catch up with our good friends, the Le Sueurs, we invited ourselves over to stay the night.  Another couple had done the same, and so as the sun disappeared to prepare itself for its morning occultation by the moon, we enjoyed each other’s company and shared a few drinks and good food along the way.

In the days prior, the weather had been overcast with rain on several occasions.  There had been little opportunity to experiment with the solar filter for my camera that I had had to order from the USA.  For reasons unknown, I was unable to buy one in Cairns or even online in Australia.  The filter is made of the same material that the eclipse viewing glasses are made of and only lets 1/1000th of 1% of the light through.

We arose shortly after 5:15 am to ensure that we were well in place for the start of the eclipse at 5:45 am.  There were still some clouds lurking but there was blue sky as well and that lead to hope that it would clear for totality.  Our friends live at Holloway’s beach, some 10 minutes north of the city, and like all of the northern beaches it was ideally placed to view the eclipse.

A most beautiful Cairns sunrise!

The sunrise was spectacular as you can see above, but those pesky clouds weren’t done yet!  After a couple of shots of the sun through the filter (see below), I jagged a nice shot of the moon encroaching the upper rim of the sun.  And then those bothersome clouds covered everything for the next 40 minutes or so.  There were a few drops of rain here and there too.  This did allow for a fulfilling breakfast of coffee, hot croissants, and fresh fruit, which just hit the spot.

Sun through the filter
The start of the eclipse.
Those pesky and bothersome clouds regrouped!
Many had gathered to view the eclipse.

Savannah avoiding a brief sun shower.
Dorit and Savannah with their eclipse viewers.

I had been watching the direction and speed of the clouds, and according to my calculations, if there were no further clouds behind the current group, then we might be in luck!  As fate would have it, that is just what happened!  Still looking with our solar glasses, we viewed the final few minutes in astonishment as totality approached.  

The clouds were lifting - would we be lucky?

Yes, we would!
It rapidly became dark over the final 30-40 seconds and at the instant the moon completely ensconced the sun there was an eerie silence as all the birds stopped singing.  Tens of thousands of people surely gasped with awe during the two minutes of totality.  I was mesmerised.  We all were! 

Totality - note how dark it is!

In Mesoamerican mythology they referred to a total eclipse as the Black Sun and it had many mystical meanings.  One can only imagine the fear that ancient civilisations must have felt when the sun unexpectedly became black during the day!
Black sun at totality!

Totality - it lasted for just over two minutes.

At the moment totality ended I captured a beautiful shot known as the diamond ring!  Following this I was able to experiment a little more with exposure and shutter settings.  However, just as the clouds had miraculously parted for us to witness this stunning natural event, they started to drift back and cover the end of the eclipse.  We did not mind however, for what we had been fortunate enough to have observed that day in Cairns will forever etched on our minds.  Later we would find out indeed how lucky we were as some people only kilometres either side of us did not get to witness totality due to cloud hindrance.

The diamond ring effect!
 Little Mumu - will you marry me? <3 <3 <3
Immediately after totality ended - it became bright as quickly as it had become dark
The moon just kept sliding on by the sun

Last view as the clouds reconvened.

Le me watching the eclipse!
We spent the rest of the day jumping for joy at what we had seen.  Our youngest daughter Savannah had exclaimed afterwards that it was the most beautiful and exhilarating natural phenomenon that she had ever seen.  I would have to agree!  If viewing a total solar eclipse is not on your bucket list, then I would suggest that you add it – right now – for it is truly a sight to behold!  As for us, we are now umbraphiles!  Our next eclipse is in May 2013, an annular eclipse, several hundred kilometres north of us.  Why don't you join us?