THE TOTAL SOLAR ECLIPSE OVER ANTARCTICA NOVEMBER 23, 2003—by Paul Maley
We flew from Houston to Los Angeles to Sydney, Australia arriving the day of the World Cup rugby final where hotels were packed to capacity. We had about 24 hours of recovery time before joining the Boeing 747-400 charter aircraft at Sydney airport for the longest ever domestic flight on record: 14.3 hours from Sydney to Antarctica and back to Sydney (no Antarctica landing was allowed). We met friends who had been with us on previous expeditions: John Duran, John Beattie, Friedhelm Dorst, Deryl Barr, and Michael Gill to name a few. Onboard were a total of 110 eclipse chasers plus 186 Antarctic sightseers and crew.
After a 4.5 hour layover in Melbourne the flight really began. Immediately a potentially unpleasant controversy erupted. In our upper deck row, we were informed that the organizers (Croydon Travel) sent out a note telling those passengers in the last 4 rows that all seats must be reclined during the eclipse. This was driven by the first row (#16) whose view was restricted; in order to improve the view for essentially one person, the organizers figured they should inconvenience those in seats behind; to do so would have been horrible since one would have to be a contortionist to fit body and gear up against the window and would have negated use of any tripods. I protested vigorously and after some time Croydon amicably solved the problem.
We worked with what we had and still another problem was noted. A small side compartment was located between the window and each business class eat so that extra storage could be provided for each passenger in addition to overhead space. While this was an amenity for the average traveler it made placing a tripod up against the window ever so difficult. I abandoned the tripod idea and decided to place cameras on top of this compartment and use it as a shelf.
Second contact approached as we neared the time of 7 hours and 40 minutes after takeoff from Melbourne. We had seen lots of cloud but at our elevation, we were above it all. The partial phase of the eclipse could be seen sporadically as the aircraft had to maneuver off and on. Second contact was predicted to be at 9:44am Australia time near latitude 70S and 93E.
I brought a Nikon D100, which I had only sporadically used before. It had auto and manual modes but in order to change exposure time and f/stop I needed a bit of light. I forgot to bring a red flashlight for use during the eclipse. I figured I could manually remember what to do and adjust things in real time. Big mistake. I also used two camcorders and set them in manual mode. One recorded Lynn and the sounds and commentary; the other was used to record the moon’s shadow and to a small extent the sun and Venus and Mercury, the two planets visible to the right of the sun. Just before totality a flash went off behind me and I complained to Croydon personnel who immediately fixed the problem (I had hoped they would eject the offending passenger from the plane, but this was not fulfilled).
There were voice announcements with the countdown to second contact. Finally about 16 seconds after the first warning the diamond ring was seen and totality really began. With the aircraft speeding along, totality extended from 1m55s to about 2m37s by my count between diamond rings. But wait, the view prior to 2nd contact is worth talking about. From the rear of the aircraft we could look down and see nothing but solid cloud. On the horizon a separate high level arc of cloud could be seen in silhouette faintly illuminated by the sun. As totality approached, the surface of the clouds directly between us and the sun developed pastel and tan overtones. This unique coloration was verified from our still photos. In the minute before second contact the shadow of the moon began to make itself seen. It literally walked across the landscape from left to right. As it moved, a gold glow was seen separating the distant horizon upper layer of cloud from the general horizon clouds in a manner similar to that seen by Shuttle astronauts in orbit.
As usual the eclipse was over before it should have been. The second diamond ring jumped into view and the moon’s shadow began to move ahead of the aircraft. I continued to watch it as long as I could—about 120 additional seconds had elapsed before I lost sight of it on the horizon. I did not spot shadow bands on the aircraft skin either before or after totality even though I looked hard for them. Small crystals formed on the outside of one of the window panes and they were apparently in some of our photos.
This was not the end of the trip. Immediately thereafter we spent a couple of relaxing days in Sydney and watched as the world’s largest cruise ship, the STAR PRINCESS left the harbor under a dazzling fireworks display.
We jogged almost daily in the park between the Marriott Hotel and the Opera House, featuring bevies of flying foxes that hung from the trees during the day wrapped in their bat capes.