Eclipse history

Having been interested in astronomy since I was a small boy, one thing I always wanted to experience was a total solar eclipse. Around about 1968, my parents bought me Patrick Moore's excellent "Observers' Guide to Astronomy" which I still have. It contained a piece of vital information - The next solar eclipse visible in Britain would take place in Cornwall on August 11th 1999! As a seven year old I thought "I'll be there".

It didn't work out like that.

I made my plans much too late and the police were advising people not to go to Cornwall. The weathermen were giving similar advice, so I consulted the best information I could get hold of the day before the eclipse which was to go to Luxembourg! Of the various places that would experience totality Luxembourg was the nearest and best option at 40% probability of seeing the eclipse. I went to the travel agent and, to my surprise, found that I could indeed go there and back the following day. Sadly the price was way too high. £400 for a day out seemed too much, so I ended up watching the 1999 eclipse in all of its 97% partiality from Wimbledon Common where the sky was clear.

That eclipse was pretty amazing. I saw the sky go dark, I saw the strange crescent shaped shadows through the trees, and I was aware of the fact that my vision was turning towards monochrome as the sun's light dropped in level. There was a peculiar quality to the light - as the sun came closer to being a point source, shadows became harsher and a feeling of twilight set in. Then came the big disappointment - the sliver of sunlight that was left moved around the Moon then everything returned to normal.

I wanted that last 3% and it was never going to happen in Wimbledon!


Page history

Version 1 30/12/02

Postscript and Lunar eclipse added 12/01/03

The plan

The next eclipse happened in Southern Africa on 21st June 2001. I didn't make that one, but decided I would be "there" for the next one which covered Southern Africa and South Australia on 4th December 2002.

South Australia was the choice, and after extensive web searching I found an offer too good to refuse - A Canadian astronomer was selling a trip from Adelaide to Ceduna with all accommodation included for a bargain price. Myself, and friends Phil and Mark signed up immediately! We wrapped this up as a home-made tour of Australia and went out there to enjoy ourselves!

After a long drive and a great holiday, Phil, Mark and myself met up with Rob in Adelaide, then joined the eclipse trip. This was ably organised by Peter and Evon Anderson from The Astronomical Association of Queensland to whom we all owe a debt of gratitude for their professionalism, ability and camaraderie which was much in evidence throughout the trip.

First port of call was the Barossa Vallley for some wine tasting. Not as good as the Hunter in my view, but that's only snobbery.

We visited the Stockport Observatory which is the home of the South Australian Astronomical Society. We had a little bet going as to which would be the first star to appear. Being a "Northern Hemisphere" person I got it wrong - I reckoned Sirius - actually Rigel got there first. I'd forgotten that Orion appears "upside-down" in Australia!



Our group (click to enlarge)

The pictures

(Click to enlarge)

The big day!

After an overnight stay at the Clare Valley Motel we motored on to Ceduna - this was basically an all day drive - Ceduna is 800km (500 miles) from Adelaide and not much less from Clare. Justin, our bus driver handled it perfectly and got us to our motel on the seafront at Ceduna early in the evening with a bit over 24 hours to go before the eclipse. This gave us the opportunity to see the sunset and to work out where in the sky we would need to be looking the next day.

This investigation showed that the balcony directly adjacent to our motel room had an excellent view of the spot where totality would occur, so if the esplanade was too crowded we had an alternative viewpoint. It turned out not to be necessary. Initial estimates suggested that as many as 30,000 people would turn up for the eclipse - this is some 10 times the normal population! In fact estimates of the actual attendance varied from 8 to 10 thousand, so it wasn't too crowded at all.

The following day some of our team went to visit the radio-telescope a short way inland. I gave that a miss and spent some time looking around Ceduna, soaking up the carnival style atmosphere that prevailed throughout the town. Two things were notable however. Firstly it was extremely windy, and secondly there was a lot of cloud in the sky. Some of the locals were complaining about the cold, but being English I still thought it was quite pleasantly warm!

Given that we had a few hours until the eclipse, and a bus with driver at our disposal, there was the opportunity to "run". A Council of War was duly called and the options and arguments were meted out. In essence, the information from Damien, our resident weatherman, was that anywhere that promised better weather was too far away, our odds of seeing totality were 50/50, but likely to improve during the day, and that anywhere within reach on the line of totality offered no better probability. We decided to stay in Ceduna for better or worse.

There was enormous trepidation during the afternoon. There seemed to be no let up with the wind, and the cloud cover seemed to increase. A group of those with telescopes relocated themselves to the side of our motel, effectively using the building as a windbreak. This didn't, of course, help the cloud situation. That required intervention of a more divine nature.

As afternoon became evening things did seem to improve a fair bit, although we still reckoned there was over 50% cloud cover. At 1840 local time a look at the sun through eclipse glasses revealed that it had a tiny nick in the bottom left hand corner. The moon was making its presence known!

Over the next hour there was plenty of opportunity to see the increasingly eclipsed sun through more and more gaps in the cloud. Also, we noticed that the foreshore was much less crowded than we had expected, so we went to join the rest of the crew down there.

During the partial phase various things happened. Firstly the temperature dropped noticeably, probably five degrees or so. Due to the fact that it happens so gradually one is not necessarily conscious of the fact that it is getting dark - the eye can keep pace with the change. A look at my camera's exposure meter gave the game away though - these were far from being normal "daylight" exposures! The quality of the light was also quite bizarre - most notably shadows took on a very sharp outline giving the light a very hard quality. This is unsurprising when it is considered that eclipse light is exactly the same intensity as full sunlight, just coming from a smaller part of the sky. But it is strange nevertheless.

My photographic strategy was as follows:-

Video Camera - on tripod with solar filter. Get day's events etc then fit filter and get snippets of the stages of partiality. Close to totality remove filter, replace at diamond ring and continue for some while after third contact.

Still Camera - some crowd shots and anything of technical interest. No shots during totality as I wished to see this eclipse directly, not through the viewfinder of my SLR!

This is what I did with one variation. I'm afraid it went completely against every instinct to have a once in a lifetime event in front of me and an SLR hanging around my neck, so I quickly rattled off a couple of shots in mid-totality. I'm glad I did because they turned out very nicely and having a wide-angle lens fitted, they give a very different perspective on the whole scene.

The video worked superbly. The pictures were fine, and I think I got the timing about right on the removal and refitting of the filter, which incidentally I made that afternoon out of half an eclipse glass, some card and some stickyback plastic! Some say I could have shown more of the diamond rings at each end, but I think that would only have caused the exposure system to shutdown and miss a lot of the corona - maybe I'll try a different strategy in Egypt!

The key thing with the video was the soundtrack. I didn't have any external microphones with me, so I just had to let the camera pick up the sound of whatever was going on around it. This worked very well indeed - the atmosphere was superb with various bits and pieces of commentary and banter being picked up followed by a huge collective "Woo-hoo" as totality arrived followed by the expected comments of "that was amazing" and "when's the next one?" after totality had gone.

After the eclipse we saw another phenomena - the crescent of the still partially eclipsed Sun was projected onto our hotel through the trees giving rise to some very odd shadows.

After that the stories came out in the bar… There was the Restaurant Manageress who didn't get out to see the eclipse because she had seven customers waiting to be served (What??).

The clouds came over again and we missed the final spectacle of the sun setting still partially eclipsed, but it didn't matter because we saw what we came for.


So that was great? Yes and no. Yes, because we saw a wonderful eclipse which for two of the four of us was a first, and for me more than made up for the disappointment of 1999 in England. And No, because I want more! I now know why people go "eclipse chasing" and I'll be there next time!

The question is where and when? The next possibility is the Annular eclipse in Scotland on May 31st 2003. That would be interesting as I've now seen both Partial and Total Solar eclipses, as well as Partial and Total Lunar eclipses, but I really want to see another Total Solar one.

The next one is on November 23rd 2003, but it's only visible in Antarctica, and then only in some of the less accessible parts of the continent. There are aircraft flights available at great cost where you can see the eclipse out of the window, but I'll give that one a miss I think.

The next great Total Solar Eclipse takes place on 29th March 2006 across much of Northern Africa, Turkey and Russia. The received wisdom is that the far NW corner of Egypt is the place to be on that occasion, although there's an argument that Side (p. See-day) in Turkey might also be a good venue.

Whatever, I'll be there, under the Moon's shadow at the next possible opportunity, very probably in Egypt!


Postscript; I went to Scotland to see the Annular Eclipse. We were fogged out :-( A pity as it would have been my Fiancee's first eclipse. Well at least she has been under the Moon's shadow! The annoyance of course is that if we'd gone up into the mountains or just done the 20 miles along the coast to Burghead, we'd have cleared enough of the fog to see at least a lot of the partial phase following annularity. I beleieve that very few people saw the annular phase itself as it was clouded or fogged out in most locations. Here's our view...


Paul Evans

London, England

Updated: 30th December 2002.

All pictures and text © Paul Evans 2002