Reporting from Down Under: It’s a solar eclipse shark attack in Australia

I had never realized before that a photograph of a partial solar eclipse behind lots of colorful clouds at sunrise looks so much like a shark attack. Especially if you’re watching it over the Pacific Ocean with about 40,000 other people in Cairns, Australia.

Total Eclipse of the Heart

See the fin?

In my nine eclipse expeditions, I have never seen these unique atmospheric conditions before. Traditional knowledge suggests it’s best if your solar eclipse view is cloudless, with the sun’s corona surrounding the moon’s black disk at totality. But if clouds spoil that view, I discovered that dramatic images can hide in the cloud decks, especially if the clouds are thick enough to filter the sun’s light (effective neutral density of four or greater) and allow a camera to capture images without a solar filter. (Safety note: We kept solar filters ready at a moment’s notice if conditions improved. We also viewed only through the LED display of the digital camera, not through the viewfinder.)

The museum’s solar eclipse travelers had a front row seat from the balcony of their rooms on the 11th floor of our Australia hotel. Boats had anchored in the harbor below us, and eclipse watchers camped on the boardwalk by the water. The event became a dynamic interplay of clouds and the partially eclipsed sun. Sunrise began with decks of clouds drifting between the sun and us. We aimed cameras mounted on telescopes to the place where we knew the sun would appear when the clouds parted.

Total Eclipse of the Heart

The view from out hotel balcony at 6 a.m., when the sun was just clearing the peninsula’s tallest peaks. The Takahashi FCT-76 is on the left and the FS-60 is on the right, riding on a Sky Patrol equatorial mount.

Rays of sunlight through cloud decks also showed the sun’s location. As the beams moved across the land, we knew it would soon be our turn to see through a tiny thinning of the clouds just before totality. As totality approached, the sky gradually darkened and the temperature dropped. The city lights below us had just turned off at sunrise and now flickered back to life. Flash bulbs blinked over the city as photographers hoped in vain to light a path through the clouds. For the two minutes of totality, the rays of sunlight vanished, the clouds became black shadows and a sunrise glow illuminated the horizon. Then daylight returned, and we looked to see if our cameras had captured anything our eyes had missed. That’s when we discovered the shark fin shapes of the partially eclipsed sun appearing to sail behind a fantastic display of pale hued clouds. Did we have the best view of totality? Maybe not. But in the interplay of thick colorful cloud decks, we were treated to a very rare unfiltered solar eclipse at sunrise.

Photographs tell the story better:

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Here I’m focusing the Celestron 5 telescope. Next to me is the Takahashi FCT-76 and the Takahashi FS-60 is closest to the camera.

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At about 6:20 a.m., the partially eclipsed sun peeks through the clouds. Photography through a Celestron 5 with focal reducer (focal length 800mm).

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The shark’s fin is the sun’s disk, partially covered by the moon and by several banks of Earth clouds. Photography through a Celestron 5 with focal reducer (focal length 800mm).

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At about 6:25 a.m., totality is just over 10 minutes away. The colors become more dramatic as the sunlight level drops. Photography through a Celestron 5 with focal reducer (focal length 800mm).

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The camera cuts off most of this shark fin, but notice the sunrise colors lingering in the clouds. Photography through a Takahashi FCT-76.

Total Eclipse of the HeartAt about 6:30 a.m., the clouds and colors become dramatic as totality nears.
Photography through the Takahashi FS-60 at 600 mm focal length.

Total Eclipse of the HeartFour and a half minutes later, as totality approaches, the clouds darken, with only the closest illuminated by the last rays of the sun’s photosphere and perhaps the first faint glows of the corona. Photography through the Takahashi FS-60 at 600 mm focal length

Total Eclipse of the HeartAt 6:38 a.m., totality began and the clouds obscured the fainter corona. The sky became as dark as a full moon night with sunrise colors streamed across the horizon.

What’s the over you’ll make it Down Under? Final chance to book a trip to Aussieland for a rare eclipse

It’s your final chance to get in on the trip of a lifetime (or at least the next several years) to Australia and New Zealand.

Cairns, AustraliaThe only total solar eclipse of the year is viewable on land only from the northeastern coast of Australia. The Museum has secured hotel space in Cairns for the rare eclipse and planned a trip around the voyage with an optional extension to Fiji.

Led by Dr. Carolyn Sumners, HMNS’ VP of Astronomy, the two-week tour of the South Pacific includes Cairns and Sydney, Australia as well as Christchurch and Queenstown, New Zealand and an ideal eclipse viewing spot on the coast of Australia near the Great Barrier Reef.

What: South Pacific Wonders and Solar Eclipse
When: Nov. 10 through Nov. 24
Where: The other side of the world

For more information on booking, email travel@hmns.org or call 713.639.4737. Click here for full itinerary and pricing.

Girls just wanna have sun: Confessions of a compulsive solar eclipse chaser

As a veteran eclipse chaser, I’ve seen eight solar eclipses in trips that have taken me around the world.

Why travel to the ends of the Earth for an event lasting only a few minutes, you ask? Astronomical objects lie far away and change very little from night to night or even from year to year. It’s true it’s always the same moon, same planets, same star clusters, nebulas and galaxies — all looking a bit fuzzy and tiny, even through a telescope. But a total solar eclipse is totally different; suddenly, astronomy becomes incredibly exciting and everything happens fast.

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Dr. Carolyn Sumners (bottom) photographing the HMNS group at the 2009 Total Solar Eclipse in China with fish-eye lens camera.

In a total solar eclipse the moon creeps in front of the sun, and then all at once covers the sun’s photosphere, plunging a tiny part of the Earth into darkness. Those lucky enough to be in this shadow see coronal streamers surrounding the black moon disk — like a glowing crown with red arcs of ionized gas dancing from behind the moon. Suddenly, there’s too much to see and it’s all happening way too fast.

Just as quickly as the darkness comes, daylight returns. As the moon moves past, light from the sun’s photosphere peeks through mountain ranges along the moon’s edge. Called Bailey’s Beads, these tiny flickering lights appear for just an instant before the famous “diamond ring,” when the first bit of the sun’s photosphere is visible once again. Then the protective glasses go on and the sun (with a piece still hidden by the moon) returns the world to daylight.

The Maya worried that the sun would not return after an eclipse, signaling the end of the world — an appropriate thought for an eclipse in the year 2012.

Total solar eclipses are special because they are so rare. The total solar eclipse occurring this Nov. 14 is the only one in 2012, and the only one in an accessible location until 2017. To see a total eclipse, you must usually become a world traveler, and this year is no exception. This eclipse occurs mostly over water at a time when equatorial oceans are largely cloud-covered.

The best viewing is along a strip of the Great Barrier Reef coast around the city of Cairns, Australia on Nov. 14, 2012, an hour after sunrise. And once again, that’s where I’ll be.

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HMNS Trip to View the 2012 Solar Eclipse in Australia: November 10-24, 2012

HMNS has included the 2012 total solar eclipse experience viewed from the coast of Australia near the Great Barrier Reef as part of a two-week tour of the South Pacific that includes Cairns and Sydney, Australia; and Christchurch and Queenstown, New Zealand, with an optional extension to Fiji.

There is an early registration discount of $250 per person for those registered for the trip by May 15! Pricing is $5,699 per person double occupancy with international air and 20 meals, or $3,449 per person double occupancy land-only package, with single and triple room packages available.

Click here for itinerary and registration information.

Travel Night – Australia: Monday, May 14, 6 p.m.

For interested travelers and those already registered, this evening allows you to meet trip leader Dr. Carolyn Sumners, who will provide an eclipse viewing overview, and see a slideshow of the trip itinerary. Our travel agents will be there to answer all questions about the trip.