You don't want it to end....but you know it's going to, and sooner than you think...so you try to drink it all in, etch it in your brain, so you'll remember it all afterwards...but somehow you never quite can because it's so awe-inspiring, overwhelming and almost unreal. You fumble with your camera, trying to capture as much of it as you can, Murphy's Law kicks in and something invariably DOES go wrong, you fling the camera aside, never mind, I've got to SEE, I've got to LOOK before it's over.
A total solar eclipse does things to you...emotionally and physically. This was the second time I was privileged to see nature's most incredible spectacle. February 26th, 1998, aboard the ship 'Veendam' off the coast of Venezuela - a date I had been looking forward to for over a year, and now it was finally here! People setting up chairs, cameras, tripods, telescopes on deck early in the morning, dressed in the strangest looking outfits to protect themselves against the sun and the heat. Nailbiting time...clouds moving in, covering the sun - omygod, this can't be happening! The good ship's captain, however, is a master at navigation and finds and moves us to a 'hole in the sky' - clouds all around the horizon, but above us, clear blue sky.
And now it's finally begun - FIRST CONTACT!! someone yells out, goggles up to protect your eyes, and yes, there it is! A tiny black bite taken out of the sun, ever so slowly growing larger. Because we are near the equator, the first phase of the eclipse until totality will take quite a long time, and an almost 'party atmosphere' begins to develop on the crowded deck. People are comparing cameras, telescopes, filters, telling each other about previous eclipse experiences they've had, once in a while checking the progress of the moon's shadow across the sun's disk. Many of us take out our electronic cabin keys, flat pieces of plastic with round holes cut into them, and use them to project tiny miniature "eclipses"...each small hole acting as a projector throwing a perfect little image of the crescent sun onto the ship's deck.
Ever so slowly the black 'bite' grows bigger, and when it has covered about two thirds of the sun, you begin to notice a drop in temperature. Shadows become sharper and the light begins to take on an eerie quality, difficult to describe. It's not like twilight, it's somehow "greyer" and unreal. A few minutes to go till totality, conversations cease, it becomes very quiet, the sky now getting darker, and there is the planet Venus, plainly visible, shining bright!
Then, the big moment - DIAMOND RING! A shout goes up, the last beam of sunlight just before the moon's shadow totally covers the sun, a bright flash, a diamond ring in the sky. I quickly look out to sea and there is the shadow, racing towards us at supersonic speed, a dark "thing" coming at you, you know what it is, you've expected it, but it makes you feel almost helpless, you know you can't stop it, it's going to engulf you in a moment, and before you have time to think about it anymore, it's upon you, the sky is completely dark. You take off your viewing goggles, look up and a gasp from everyone around you, then a tremendous cheer, clapping, people jumping up and down, you can't help yourself, you yell out, it's happening!!
A black hole in the sky, blacker than anything you've ever seen, blacker than the sky around it, and around the hole the sun's corona, glorious, bright, streamers and tendrils reaching out millions of miles into space, and all the planets known to early man literally explode into the sky. You know you only have just over 3 minutes to enjoy it, you wish your eyes were bigger so they could take in more of it, people are babbling, WOW, look at the prominences, look at those streamers, this is incredible!!
And then, all too soon totality ends, you know you can't stop it, and briefly "Baily's Beads" are visible, bright pearls of light around the rim of the sun where sunlight manages to escape in between the craters of the moon, and there is the diamond ring effect again, a bright explosion of light, this time on the opposite side of the sun, up with the goggles, and the bright crescent grows larger and larger and the entire process repeats itself in reverse. A sadness comes over you, it's over, it's gone, too short...then somebody shouts "SHADOW BANDS!!" - and there, on the ship's white superstructure, wavy alternating bands of shadow and light ripple up like ocean waves projected onto the bright surface. And now you KNOW it's over, the sky becomes a little brighter again, the planets disappear in the twilight, and people begin to talk to each other again after the first quiet few seconds of disappointment at the brevity of it all. Did you see it?? Did you photograph it? Wasn't it wonderful? There is almost a collective sigh of relief - our sun is back, things are the way they should be again!
The temperature slowly rises again, the light around you becomes more 'natural', and the ship slowly begins to move away from the center line of the eclipse for our next port of call in the Caribbean. People begin to disassemble their rigs, talking to each other, total strangers united for a few minutes in a great and wonderful spectacle, trying to re-capture the experience verbally. Are you going to see the next one in 1999? Just wait till next year! Perhaps we'll see each other there...
And yes, I will be cruising in the Black Sea in August 1999! Once you're bitten by the bug it has a hold on you...
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