RESULTS OF RING OF FIRE EXPEDITION #20:
THE CARIBBEAN TOTAL SOLAR ECLIPSE OF 26 FEBRUARY 1998: A GREAT SUCCESS!

 

Paul Maley, NASA Johnson Space Center Astronomical Society, Houston, Texas USA

 

The 3-1/2 minute total solar eclipse that took place February 26 must go down as one of the most impressive of its kind. All three Ring of Fire Expeditions involving our 23rd NASA JSCAS solar eclipse tour comprised a total of 242 people including amateur astronomers from 5 countries. Each was a total success!! The story begins on February 22 as the cruise ship Norwegian Sea steams out of San Juan, Puerto Rico with 68 of our group onboard. Led by Dr. Pat Reiff, chairperson of the Space Physics and Astronomy Dept. at Rice University and accompanied by Dr. Melissa McGrath of the Space Telescope Science Institute, this group headed toward a rendezvous in the Caribbean Sea halfway between Aruba and Curacao, islands in the Netherlands Antilles just north of the coast of Venezuela.

Two days later, another group led by this author and accompanied by Space Shuttle astronaut Claude Nicollier, Dr. David Oro and Dr. Pete Riley (Los Alamos National Labs) depart Miami for Curacao along with 85 others including amateur astronomers from Japan, Uruguay, Australia, and Switzerland. At the same time, a third group of 84 persons leaves Miami under the direction of Dr. Jeff Hoffman (former astronaut and now the NASA Headquarters rep in Paris, France) for Aruba.

Two Curacao expedition members, Glenn and Larry Roark from Austin delayed by fog, failed to arrive in Houston to make their connecting flight to Miami. David Weber, of Marble Falls, also on the same delayed flight barely makes the connection before the Continental flight is forced to take off. As a result of full flights everywhere, the Roarks arrived in Curacao two days later and 9 hours AFTER the eclipse occurred.

A 2.4 hour nonstop flight on Air ALM took the Curacao group into Willemstad, the capital city, just as the ‘Carnaval’ parade is ending. Hertz is supposed to have 6 cars available and only 3 are present. The group arrives at the Holiday Beach Hotel and in the process of enjoying a welcome drink, Pat Pike suffers a minor injury to her knee on the bar. Numerous excuses are given over the next 30 hours by Hertz as to why rental cars are not available even though we confirmed them almost a year ago.

Just before dawn the next morning, about 12 of the group meet on the beach and witness a -4 magnitude flare from one of the Iridium satellites. Another satellite passing by 15 minutes earlier is identified as the Hubble Space Telescope. This morning is the day before the eclipse and Leonard Pattillo, who twisted his knee on the plane the night before, feels substantial pain such that Larry Mitchell is called upon to drive him to St. Elizabeths Hospital. Leonard is treated and released. The weather is very promising this day during eclipse time and people are upbeat. Some use rent cars to scout out sites. Others attend the pre-eclipse briefing and simulation. David Oro reconfirms everyone on the ALM flight departing on Saturday.

At least six persons need rent cars and none are available. In desparation, the hotel puts out a call on the local radio station for anyone with cars to rent to phone in. Calls come in and all but one person is able to rent a car the day before the eclipse. Everyone, however, does have transport to the eclipse site. At 7:20pm the Norwegian SEA docks in Curacao. Lynn Palmer and myself go out to meet the ship and our other group.

Thursday is eclipse day. At 6:00am the Hubble Space Telescope makes a direct overhead pass and several people go out to see it. Buses arrive promptly at 8:30am. However, everyone is shocked as Curacao experiences its first rainfall in four months; the skies have turned completely cloudy. A dismal mood prevails. Two buses leave for Westpunkt, the official site at the northwest tip of the island. After one hour we approach the site and spot a few tents above the nearby roadside and also see Buster Wilson, one of those using a rental car to locate their own site. After a few more minutes our official site at Watamula is reached and clouds appear to be thinning. Huge cargo containers have been set up to block the wind, not for the observers but for the vendors! I am chased off by the site controllers and prevented from setting up my equipment near the containers. The wind has been anticipated as the big problem, blowing 15-30 knots most of the time. The site was configured near the ocean and consisted of very hard ground with reddish dust on top. The dust got into everything and weeks later, this author has still not been able to clean it out completely. After negotiating with the site organizers, we reach agreement to move our two buses and two rent cars into a line perpendicular to the wind so as to create an artificial wind barrier. This deal was struck only if we allowed a few people from another group to set up at the end of our wind break. The scheme works. We are given 5 coupons for soft drinks and a lunch which most of us attempt to consume prior to totality. Police and other support personnel keep out unauthorized people. Water trucks criss cross the area dousing the entrance path with water to help minimize blowing dust. This is a semi futile effort since the dust is everywhere.

About 400 persons are officially observing at the site. The two largest groups are from Holland and Canada. We erect a light version of the Texas flag obtained from Home Depot which flies for hours at the site. Video confirms that the wind never dies down during the eclipse and blows consistently from the southwest most of the time. Mary Schiflett from Houston takes traditional temperature readings and verifies a 12 degree F drop during the eclipse process, while Art Ciampi at a site on the beach to the southwest reports a 16 degree drop. As time passes, the clouds (at two levels) begin to dissipate. Two cruise ships appear near the coast and plan to observe the eclipse offshore. This gives us great hope. Ann Kahle trips and cuts open her hand. Blood spurts everywhere and we find out that Ann is taking an anticoagulant thus accentuating the impression that she has become the only victim of a serial killer. The first aid centers treats her and she is ready to watch the eclipse, although suffering an additional minor knee injury (the third one of the trip). She is later treated at a hospital and released.

12:40pm: As first contact occurs cameras begin to shoot. Reporters and TV people wander about looking for people to interview. Live TV broadcasts appear on the island covering the eclipse from beginning to end.

2:09pm: Totality is just moments away. I have a camcorder trained on our site with the Texas flag blowing in the foreground. Lynn is using a 600mm Nikon camera set on one of my old mounts. The mount begins to shift making it difficult to keep the camera stable. (Later we found two pieces had detached in the transport process). The camcorder records the darkening of the sky as the moon’s shadow approaches. Venus is sighted early on even before totality. A group looks for shadow bands on a bed sheet held down by rocks. They are sighted just before totality. Second contact occurs, and David Oro blows a whistle. A loud cheer goes up from the crowd. Fireworks are set off in the distance and keep going throughout totality. Still cameras, camcorders and every other kind of devices begin to capture the eclipse. Janet Lowry is recording VLF reception with an antenna and tape recorder. Even after being instructed, one person in the group shoots off two flash pictures, irritating people nearby. One person starts moving around in front of nearby photographers causing a minor stir. Mercury and Jupiter shine like bright stars, one planet on either side of the sun and Venus glows in the southwest. No other stars or planets are seen. Ray Schiflett (Wimberly TX) is able to read the smallest print on our eye chart indicating that this is a relatively ‘bright’ eclipse as eclipses go.

The sky is completely clear. The corona is blazing white and is described as one of the more impressive seen in recent years. Extending east and west, streamers are seen on both sides of the sun. Helmet streamers appear also at the poles of the sun. I can only make out a small prominence during the latter portion of the eclipse through the right angle viewfinder while looking through my Celestron 5. That prominence did not show on my photographs.

At the opposite end of the island the IOTA science team is observing only a mere 1km from the edge of the eclipse path, the closest we have ever been to the actual edge. Richard Nugent, Isao Sato and Chuck Herold are at this location which was determined from a Trimble Navigation GPS receiver. A security officer attempts to evict them from their roadside site, allowing several others from a NASA site to remain. However, they prove to the officer that using GPS that the site was the only place they could collect their data. Baily’s Beads are successfully recorded in detail by Richard which are incredibly clear and precise. Isao Sato uses a spectrometer to search for signs of 2nd and 3rd contacts. His results show a continuum spectrum indicating that there is no ‘official’ totality observed, even though the corona is visually seen! This is consistent with bright beads appearing constantly at this site for several minutes.

2:13pm: The diamond ring appears which signals the end of totality. Walter Bersinger (Switzerland) describes the eclipse as the best he has ever seen and Claude Sharpton affirms it was better than spending a week in Beaumont. Shadow bands are observed. I even look down at the ground and notice them on the red sand. Incredible! I have only observed them once back in 1991 and only with difficulty on a white surface. Here they flew across the red sand and were so easy to see.

In Aruba, Jeff Hoffman reports that the sky clouded over just before first contact. Our private site located at the Lago Heights Club on the southeast part of the island offered plenty of room for all of our observers and 3m32s of totality. A narrow cloud band was passing over the island and cleared the site 20 minutes before totality. By second contact the sky was completely blue. Kazuyuki Tasaki, a representative of the Japanese Space Agency NASDA easily sees shadow bands on the ground as totality ends. A few people had remained back at the Wyndham Hotel where the clouds (moving east to west) cleared just one minute before the onset of totality.

On the Norwegian SEA, Pat Reiff reports that our group on the ship located themselves on the sports deck where nobody else bothered to go. The aft end of the ship was pointed toward the southwest, the direction of the approaching lunar shadow. Everyone could easily see the shadow moving toward the ship. Dolphins were seen just before totality. No clouds were present and the eclipse was a great success. The only ‘casualty’ was one woman who used a cane actually tripped over the walker another woman used to get around. Their ship experienced the maximum eclipse possible in that area— 3m43s of totality. Pat measured the coordinates of the ship at latitude 12 degrees 24.23 minutes north, 69 degrees 28.47 minutes west.

3:40pm: Back on Curacao our ground operators were lax in allowing us to linger at the site. Bill Molinare, Takao Doi and John Volk were the only ones photographing through final contact so this delay helped considerably. After fourth contact a group photo is taken and the buses return with all passengers back to the hotel. Everyone is tired but euphoric. Dan (a.k.a. Diver Dan) Prall is the only one who decided to sleep in and stay at the hotel. He reports that everyone there saw the eclipse perfectly. Karen Felida-Evans, in charge of Holiday Beach Hotel meeting services, described the eclipse as a religious experience that was highly emotional for her and many of the other local people.

7:00pm The post eclipse dinner occurs with a seafood buffet set up in the briefing room. We arrange for a video projector and after the dinner, Loyd Overcash, Richard Nugent, Isao Sato, and Larry Mitchell show segments of eclipse videos. Bob Ewing provides a rendition of the “Universe Song” from Monty Python.

Friday is our final full day on the island. The only person who did not get a rent car makes a deal with someone who did. Lynn and I make a traditional post eclipse stop for lunch at McDonalds. After a free morning half the group heads out on an island tour. In Aruba, the group there used three buses for their island tour but one breaks down part way through the tour. Back in Curacao, Don Burke goes into town to get a cash advance at a local bank. At 6:30pm long after the banks have closed, I receive a call from a downtown bank indicating they shortchanged a customer that might be one of our group. They only provide a passport number and physical description but do not know the name of the person. I figure out that there can only be two people who possibly fit the description and eliminate one. The bank employee offers to bring over the amount of US$100. 00 to Don Burke. Don, who noticed only after returning to the hotel that he was $100 short figured he would never see the money again. But if not for the honesty of the Curacao people, that would have been the case. Another happy ending.

That evening, Claude Nicollier gives his presentation “a notebook from an astronomer in space,” recalling some of his space and terrestrial experiences including photographs of Comet Bennet taken in 1970 from the Gornograt Observatory against the impressive background of the Swiss Alps. (I have a photo of the same comet shot against the not-so-impressive backdrop of power lines in Webster). This serves as a prelude to the first surprise presentation by Dr. Isao Sato to his countryman, Takao Doi (and one of our tour members) who conducted the first EVA on STS-87 by a Japanese. Takao and his wife Hitomi currently reside in Houston. An asteroid, number 4746, was named for Takao and a plaque with a photo taken by Sato of this asteroid with the 50cm telescope at the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan was presented.

Following this, Dr. Bob Williams, director of the 400-person Space Telescope Science Institute gave a second surprise presentation on recent results from the Hubble Space Telescope. This presentation included an open ended question and answer session and featured some of the most amazing of the HST images. Bob and his wife Elaine were also incognito at our observing site for the eclipse. Bob describes himself as being hooked on eclipses now that he saw this one. Afterwards Lynn Palmer, myself, Claude, his wife Susana, and the Williams adjourn to the hotel restaurant. Bob then describes some of his days in Chile as director of Cerro Tololo Observatory and also of his harrowing experience of being mistaken for a terrorist while entering Brazil.

On Saturday, we leave 11 members behind who are extending their stay in Curacao and head for the airport. On arrival at the airport we find that the flight to Miami is overbooked and 12 of us are bounced off the flight and forced to wait for 6 hours for the next flight. No compensation. (Back in Aruba a number of our group are also bounced off the flight to Miami but American Airlines provides $800. per person certificates against future flights which makes people a bit happier). In the meanwhile back on Curacao, the Hertz dealer, feeling great pangs of guilt for having promised cars he could not deliver, appears on the scene and offers us free rental cars for the time we are delayed at the airport. It is not until 11:30 when we actually leave the airport for town. Lynn and I enjoy lunch with Claude and Susana Nicollier overlooking the harbor in Willemstad. At 2:30pm we return our rent car (no paperwork involved period) at the airport only to find that Chuck Herold and Bob Ramsey cannot find the bags they checked. The airline assures them they are on the flight which left earlier (which turns out not to be the case.) We depart Curacao one hour late and arrive at Miami. It takes 45 agonizing minutes to get our bags, which are delayed only for us it seems while everyone else on the plane gets their luggage. Then I take a wrong turn and end up in an agricultural inspection line delaying things even more. By this time we have been delayed so long that it is just 25 minutes until our flight to Houston leaves. Lynn and I run to Continental Airlines carrying 8 bags. We break into line and inform them of the 7 people going to Houston. This works, and with additional minor delay we all end up on the plane as the doors are almost ready to be closed. There we meet several of our Aruba group and they describe their success to us. Several hours later we land in Houston and find that Art Ciampi, Chuck Botkin, Bob Ramsey and Chuck Herold cannot locate their checked bags. (Two days later all the bags appear—a happy ending).

 


 

Photos by Art Trevena, Paul Maley, & J. Lynn Palmer
 

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