RING ECLIPSE IN THE AMAZON RAINFOREST

Paul D. Maley, NASA Johnson Space Center Astronomical Society, Houston TX USA

The 17th solar eclipse expedition of the NASA Johnson Space Center Astronomical Society concluded May 5,1995 when the last of seven members returned from Peru. Braving piranhas, crocodiles, hordes of virulent mosquitoes, the Amazon River and clouds, the team saw, photographed and videotaped the annular eclipse beating all odds in a cloud free sky.

The adventure began April 25 when the group arrived in Miami led by the writer. Lynn Palmer, Richard Nugent, Lurline and Arthur Sims, Audrey and Geof Farnol (Birmingham Astronomical Society, UK) found their flight canceled from Miami to Lima, Peru. We were able to get our tickets transferred to another carrier, Aero Peru, and arrived in Lima after midnight. After motoring to the Sheraton Lima Hotel the group was in for another unpleasant surprise. The popular singer Phil Collins had arrive with a large entourage and had taken over all the unoccupied rooms in the hotel–including ours, even though we had prepaid our rooms. We were told at 2am that no rooms were available and that we would have to sleep in the lobby. In a way this was not as bad as it sounded since we were scheduled to leave the hotel at 5am for the airport to connect to a flight to the Amazon. After negotiating further, the hotel gave us free breakfast, set up some cots in a meeting room and promised us a refund for the night.

With the sounds of slot machines in our ears, we reboarded our bus for the half hour ride to the airport. The flight was to Iquitos, a city of half a million people and gateway to the Amazon basin. We arrived and managed a short bus ride to the harbor where we hopped aboard a motor lunch for a one hour trip to the Explorama Inn. Checking all of our equipment was not a problem, nor was going through Peruvian customs even though we carried GPS, telescopes, and electronics. At the Inn, we found screened rooms with a small fan and bathroom in each one. Meals were plentiful and consisted of mineral water, beans, rice, chicken or fish, rolls, fruit, various vegetables and a dessert.

The Amazon is a hot and steamy place which began to take its toll on everyone. Fortunately the frequent rain and clouds suppressed the heat. The Inn had an aggressive parrot which when perched on someone’s shoulder was reluctant to move. Toucans would land on a tree where bananas were placed, adding an extra touch to the photographic opportunities. This was the first of many one-on-one encounters with the wildlife such as large moths, weird ants, insects that crawled, flew, buzzed, chomped, and attacked especially in the outdoor toilets, an amazing variety of butterflies, flowers, plants and people. We were the only eclipse observers in the country but met other Americans, Australians, Germans and Britons on tour.

An annular eclipse is not one of importance to most amateur astronomers. In the jungle no one knew but us when it would occur. Our first evening was spent looking at the sky after dinner. It was on that occasion that Audrey Farnol, staring at the southern Milky Way invisible from the UK, stepped off a floating dock and vanished into the Amazon River. The water was 10 feet deep and she popped up after a number of seconds. We fished her out uninjured, except for her glasses which had disappeared into the murky sediment-filled depths. The next morning she posted a $5. reward and two enterprising natives grabbed a bamboo pole. While one stuck it into the river bottom, the other dove down holding onto the pole until reaching bottom and then feeling about. After three dives they were ready to give up, but were convinced to give it just one more go. We fully expected them to become piranha bait. On the fourth and final dive the glasses were miraculously grabbed. It was even more amazing considering that a 10 knot current was ever present.

The next day the group continued down river to the Explorama Lodge, a series of open air dormitory-like thatched roof buildings along the Yamamo tributary. Here we were able to hike the Bushmaster Trail and saw even more Amazon critters. Products like OFF, CUTTERS and REPEL were being tested to the limit for their insect repelling powers. We saw our first marmoset while climbing a water tower to get a GPS satellite reading. Adjourning to a hammock filled rest area, our attention was called to a six inch diameter tarantula which had crawled out of a pot. Not too many people slept that night! Because of the open air nature of the property, each person crawled into a bed with mosquito netting all around. You could hear every spooky sound of the jungle at night which made the experience even more personal.

April 28, the day before the eclipse, we reboarded the Explorama motorized launch. I used a GPS receiver on the bow of the boat to acquire four satellites, the minimum needed for accurate three-dimensional positions (latitude, longitude, altitude). Placing the receiver into the navigation mode, we were able to proceed down river to the Rio Napo without any maps. After a bit more than one hour, we wended our way to Puinahua, a collection of a few thatched huts on the north side of the river. Here I set up two sites, one overrun with pigs and clear views of the sky and shelters in case of rain. These were 0.6 and 0.4 km south of the innermost edge of annularity. Based on US Naval Observatory calculations, Baily’s Beads could only be seen in a very narrow zone one km in width.

After receiving permission to set up on private land we docked at the Amazon Camp, the most primitive of the three river lodges we stayed at. Here there were seven tents set up next to each other on a wood platform under thatching. Outbuildings contained showers and restrooms of a very basic nature. Kerosene lanterns and our flashlights provided night time illumination. A water catchment facility with eight barrels and a solar panel was located 15 feet above ground next to the camp’s kitchen. This is where I climbed up and down a ladder taking constant satellite readings all afternoon, while the other members of the team trekked to the ACER open air canopy some 45 minutes away. The canopy consists of walkways over a hundred feet above the ground where rare bird viewing abounds.

That evening after dinner everyone prepared their equipment for the big day. At 530am I awoke and began taking additional GPS readings until our boat was ready to leave. Skies were partly cloudy and there were rain clouds on the horizon. At 900am the boat left the dock. Arthur and Lurline Sims remained at camp armed with a 500mm telephoto and one GeoExplorer receiver which served as the base site for our GPS measurements. The rest of us and our guide Edgard took the 30 minute boat ride in calm water back to Puinahua. At 1000am we began to set up equipment since central eclipse was expected at 1257pm. The eclipse was to last about 4 hours, considerably longer than most eclipses.

Clouds began to thicken and two decks were seen. Lynn Palmer, who was in charge of the GPS data collection and processing, took a series of readings at both Richard Nugent’s site and my site in order to fix our positions accurately. Both Richard and I were to be video recorders of Baily’s Beads during a critical 4 or 5 minute period.

A string of children clustered at both sites staring curiously but not bothering us. It was like being watched in your own home by pet cats. The locals people were actually very friendly and we never had any problems in the remote areas with theft or crime, hostile words or actions. My portable mount had immediate tracking problems. Adding further tension was the variable clouds which floated in front of the sun. I had brought two video cameras, one color and one black & white. With Richard’s help I finally got the mount aligned and attached the black and white CCD. At 1055am the partial eclipse began and yet the video equipment was not working. Richard had no such problems with his Meade 2045D; but an unknown tracking problem continued. By 1130am a focus was achieved; constant manual slow motion was necessary to keep the sun in the field of view. By 1200pm a good image was achieved with a Thousand Oaks Type II solar filter in front of the Celestron 5 objective.

Lynn and I worked a tandem system to ‘track and turn’ which compensated for the improper tracking. The solar cusps could be clearly seen as central eclipse approached. A parallel mounted C90 was being used as a guide scope. Beginning with three mylar layers, I was able to remove them gradually until only one was required. Barely 20 minutes before central eclipse, the clouds pulled away from the sun, some 65 degrees above the northwest horizon. It was totally clear!! The temperature dropped from the mid 90’s to the mid 70’s with a light breeze stirring. It became pleasant to work out in the open sunlight. About 95% of the sun was covered compared to 85% at the May 1994 annular eclipse in Kansas, yet my impression was that this eclipse was actually brighter than the one in 1994.

Mylar glasses were handed out to local residents who seemed unmoved. They could not figure out why we would come there much less why we were observing the sun. To them it was a nonevent. One minute to central eclipse, I lost the sun on the TV monitor. At the same moment a cow started to head out of the jungle directly toward my telescope. Using the C90 I was able to reacquire the sun after about 30 tense seconds. One of the children headed off the cow. Bailys’ beads began to form and it took both Lynn and my efforts to keep them in the view screen. My Sony Watchman video recorder was working well and the CCD performed flawlessly, even though time signals from WWV on 15Mhz had dropped off. The video recorded every moment of the bead formation and dissipation process until finally we turned off the recorder at 1:15pm. Audrey Farnol could not see the beads visually or through binoculars due to their very tiny size.

Back at camp a thin haze was in front of the sun but good photos were taken anyway. Arthur & Lurline Sims stopped their lunch activity next to the beer and coke machine, moved to their equipment, took photos, and then resumed their lunch after central eclipse. The GPS receiver ran unattended on the platform above. A narrow annular ring was seen at the camp and Baily’s Beads were also noted at both second and third contacts. At Richard’s site, even better video was recorded with a used $175. CCD camera. This video is the best example of what amateur astronomers can achieve with off the shelf equipment. At our station, crescent suns filtered through the thatching on the shelter next to my telescope. No obvious effects were soon on wildlife or people, unlike with previous eclipses. Perhaps the only activity remotely close to that were the cows that migrated toward our telescope. We did encounter a unusual small plant which would curl up in a ball when its leaves were touched.

At 200pm all observers were loaded back into the launch and made the return journey back to camp. In the middle of the Rio Napo River, binoculars were used to project twin partially eclipsed suns onto cardboard while the boat was traveling 40 knots up river. After a picnic lunch all relaxed until dinner. Lynn and I took a boat to a remote inlet where we found a nest of marmosets. At 6:00pm we were in the process of returning to camp when rain began. I ran up to the GPS and found it had shut down due to being left in the open and unprotected. No data was lost; however, it rained and rained and rained for the next 18.5 hours!!

That night we crossed our fingers and turned on a 386 laptop computer which had been loaded with special GPS software provided by Trimble Navigation. The computer activated and Lynn downloaded all the base and rover files we had collected earlier and copied them on to floppy diskettes.

This was the Amazon and it was nature’s reminder that we had not only planned well but also had been lucky too. In the following days we would encounter the elusive prehistoric Hoatzin bird (born with two sets of claws) located in a remote river bank area and located only after hiking through brush and mud-clogged trails. We also found three big multifoot long iguanas perched in trees. We also handled three toed sloths. A rainbow boa constrictor found its way into our camp and was the subject of numerous photos. Two hitchhiking caterpillars that had found their way into Geof’s bag were liberated in the jungle in a formal ceremony.

A NASA JSCAS plaque was constructed out of balsa wood, signed by all expedition members and placed on hooks in the Amazon Camp next to those of previous groups. The next time someone heads for the showers they will not fail to see it. One rainy night we all observed a point of light shining on the ground below; it was the mysterious subject of much discussion. After shining a flashlight at it and observing it to dim out, we believed it to be similar to a firefly but perhaps some kind of insect that could constantly illuminate itself if it so desired.

On May 1 we returned to Lima, Peru. Lynn, Richard and I had dinner with Juan Carlos Valer of the Peruvian Astronomical Society. We also took a brief night tour of the capital and watched as a group of prostitutes ran across the freeway after being chased by police. At 100am we returned to our hotel and prepared for a 430am wakeup call to go to the airport. Four of the group continued to the Inca ruins of Machu Picchu while the rest of us returned to Houston and the end of another exotic trip.

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