Totally Eclipsed - Antigua 1998

stargate logoI observed the total solar eclipse of February 26, 1998 from Mamora Bay, a beautiful beach on the Caribbean island of Antigua. The eclipse was a fascinating experience which I was able to share with my family, my husband and two teenage boys.

When we first discussed this eclipse, Al and I had thought that we would take a cruise through the Caribbean and early in 1997 we booked passage on the Galaxy cruise ship. But as the deadline grew near the expense of the cruise became more painful, in December we changed our minds and began researching trips to the various islands where the eclipse path would cross. Antigua was the most promising for us, so we backed out of the cruise and put our money on this interesting little island.


The equipment I brought included two Canon 35mm cameras, a 3" (75mm) refractor and glass solar filter, as well as two tripods. My son also brought his video camera. Although the refractor was probably not the instrument of choice for solar observing, its focal ratio of 6.6 gave it a compact tube travel and the instrument had proven itself for deep sky observing.


We flew into Antigua for a seven-day adventure which began Friday before the eclipse. We had rented a car for a stay on our island. This vehicle would be able to carry us out of the clouds into any area on the island that promised eclipse views. We had almost a week before the eclipse and it became obvious after the first few days that when clouds hung over Antigua during the day, they disappeared at night. We were able to observe objects that we couldn't see from home--the Southern Cross, Alpha and Beta Centauri, the constellation of Carina, the great globular cluster in Centaurus--Omega Centauri, the largest globular cluster in the sky and other telescope objects of interest.

Our observing plans had included leaving our home base which was on the SW corner of the island the morning of the eclipse and traveling to the SE corner of the island, somewhere near Nelson's Dockyard. The second day of our trip we visited English Harbor and took a trip up to Shirley Heights to see the old British army barracks. The access was very limited and we were told that "everyone" was going to Shirley Heights for the eclipse. Cruise ships were scheduled to land on Thursday in time for the thrill of Totality. Sometime earlier in the week, we discussed observing the event from the beach near our villa in Jolly Harbor. I didn't want to give up the extra fifteen to twenty seconds of totality, but the thought of seeing the event from "our" beach was tempting because we could also keep a watch on the nearby island of Montserrat where volcanic activity was readily visible. We made plans to observe from Jolly Harbor, with the thought in the back of our minds that those plans might change.

Eclipse Day

The morning of the eclipse, I was observing the sun from our back patio. Two blotchy patches of sunspots were evident on the solar surface. The eclipse would be magnificent. Half an hour later, the sky was covered with clouds. At 11:30 AM, we went out to the beach to see about setting up our equipment. The sight of clouds from there was dismal, they were fat and black and puffy. It began to rain and we huddled under our palapa, making the decision to head for the part of the island that had the best chance of observing the eclipse--the SE corner! We had rented a small cart, to haul us around, in case we decided we had to make a fast get-away. We piled into the cart and "sped" back to our villa. We hastily shoved all our equipment into carry bags, and dashed back through the rain to the ever-faithful machine that carried us over the narrow Antiguan roads.

A short drive got us out from under the clouds and soon we were once again basking in the Sun. We made it to the road heading for Nelson's Dockyard and passed right by. We already realized that we didn't want to struggle up that narrow road to Shirley Heights where "everyone" was going. I saw the way to Mamora Bay on the map and we kept heading toward it. Finally, our car came around a bend in the road and we were looking down into the bay. Just a short distance off shore, waves were breaking on the reef there. The beach was gorgeous, and we stopped to gasp at the view. It only took us an hour to make our decision, pack our bags and scramble across the island.


We were set up in time to witness "first bite" at 1:05 local time.. The small refractor did an admirable job showing off those sunspots, although I regretted that my 6" f/10 had been left behind at home. The telescope worked quite well at 30x and the image scale made the Sun easy to track with the tripod mounting. A young native boy came and asked gently for a peak through the telescope which we gladly supplied. He came back a few minutes later with his younger siblings, who also enjoyed looking at the Sun through the telescope. We showed them our pinhole camera and they showed us their mylar glasses. Everyone on the island seemed to have them!

I was not unhappy when the second set of sunspots was occulted by the Moon, the time of totality had been pegged around 2:30 PM. Already the sand on the beach had lost its sting on my barefeet. An Italian astronomer who happened to be photographing the eclipse came by for a quick peek at the Sun through the telescope. (Check out Alessandro Marchini's eclipse pageat Osservatorio Astronomico Torre Luciana. The text is in Italian, but the images speak for themselves--there's a picture of me in there!) About 10 minutes after 2:00, a cloud came and covered the Sun and the Moon. We were nervous, looking at the clouds, which were once so far off in the distance, now were beginning to threaten. After a few minutes, it became obvious that the cloud would be out of the way at totality and that no others were in a position to interrupt the show. It was easy to see the Sun and the Moon through the cloud, and impossible to keep ourselves from looking at it. The moment was almost upon us and we were excited. At 2:28, the Sun was only a sliver.

Totality !

Just a few minutes before totality, I remembered a promise I'd made to myself. I intended to look for signs of the corona before the actual moments of totality. I held my hand up over that sliver of light! I could see it! I could see the flaming white corona and the red of the chromosphere, on the trailing edge of the eclipse! I was floored, but I put my hand down in time to see the diamond ring effect. Suddenly that blazing Sun was hidden behind the Earth's tiny Moon and the whole sky exploded with the white light of the corona, then darkness fell and the planets Mercury and Jupiter were visible. I tried to see Venus, but it was hidden behind a cloud. The sky around the sun had gotten busy with clouds and with the tops of the Royal Palms all around us, I gave up looking for any other planets in favor of viewing the eclipse with the binoculars and removing the solar filter from the telescope.

Al and Chris were madly catching the event on film, and I began calling them over to the telescope, so that they could see the fabulous prominence which was flaming at the "top" of the eclipsed Sun. It was like a little magenta cap with a tassel swinging over the top. The Corona was not so huge as it was on the 1991 eclipse from Baja California, but it still stretched over three degrees of the sky. It is a beautiful white color, in contrast to the reddish ring that surrounds the eclipsed Sun. The Moon is blackest, blackā€¦and it's so dark it seemed like the Sun must have set thirty minutes ago. Some people clapped, in the midst of the ooohhhs and the aaahhhs.

As I looked at the vision of Totality in the eyepiece of the refractor, I noticed that the trailing edge of the sun was beginning to show the detail of intense flames, filling the bottom quarter of the eclipse with an arc of leaping flames. I called Al back to the scope so he, too, could see it. Shortly after I put my eye back into the eyepiece, I saw the pinpoint "dots" of Bailey's Beads and I knew our eclipse had nearly past. I looked up from the 'scope in time to see the second diamond ring and looked frantically for shadow bands in the sand. We didn't see any, maybe next time. Looking across the ocean, I could see that the distant horizon appeared an uncharacteristic yellow color, somewhere, the eclipse was still happening. The duration of our eclipse was a little better than 2 minutes and 30 seconds, long enough for me to get a good look with all my instruments, including my bare eyes.

By 3:00 PM, it was becoming noticeably warmer. The sunspots I had admired on the way in re-appeared. Beside the beach there was a hillside, which had been dotted with horses when we set up. When the Sun disappeared, the horses came down off the hill and returned to their stable. Some Brown Pelicans that I saw feeding before totality, were floating in the ocean, looking dazed. Everywhere there seemed to be more light and the sand was burning my feet again. It was over. All the months of preparations had paid off! The Total Eclipse of February 26, 1998 will live on in my memory forever! I firmly believe that everyone should experience the wonder of a Total Solar Eclipse, at least once in their lifetime.

I tore down my rig with a sigh, realizing our trip was nearly over and that morning would find me busily packing for the homeward journey. There's still time to make plans for next year's eclipse in Europe, I hear Turkey's a good bet for clear skies.

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Last Modified 3/22/98

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