Solar eclipse travelogue: Sulawesi delivers a spectacular eclipse

Astronomy Senior Editor Richard Talcott shares his journey with Astronomy magazine readers across Indonesia to view the March 9 total solar eclipse.
By | Published: March 9, 2016 | Last updated on May 18, 2023
Our group enjoys the partial phases of the solar eclipse, with high hopes of the totality to come.
Evelyn Talcott
The day dawned bright and clear at our observing site on a soccer field in Palu, Sulawesi. By that time, our group of shadow chasers were already set up and eagerly awaiting the show to come. First contact, when the Moon takes its initial bite of the Sun, occurred right on schedule at 7:28 a.m. For the next 70 minutes, we watched as the Moon relentlessly devoured growing chunks of the Sun’s disk.

The time between first and second contact, when totality begins, seems nearly eternal. Viewers anxiously paced the grounds, keeping a wary eye to the sky. Jay Anderson, our eclipse meteorologist, had pegged the conditions nearly perfectly. After sunrise, clouds started to build on the mountains surrounding the valley. But as the eclipse progressed and the Sun dwindled in the sky, the clouds began to dissipate. A few persisted, however, raising the blood pressure of more than a few people. A welcome diversion took place during the early partial phases, when the Vice President of Indonesia, Jusuf Kalla, arrived at our site. Kalla, who was born on Sulawesi, chose to view the eclipse with our group, organized by Astronomy magazine’s travel partner, TravelQuest.

The Vice President of Indonesia, Jusuf Kalla, views the partial phases of the eclipse.
Richard Talcott
A thin layer of clouds persisted right through totality, but they enhanced rather than detracted from the view. The first diamond ring persisted for a few seconds before the Sun’s corona blossomed into view. The delicate tendrils of the Sun’s outer atmosphere spanned at least 1.5°, three times the Moon’s diameter. Venus blazed above the eclipsed Sun with fainter Mercury between the two. But the most impressive aspect of totality was an enormous prominence leaping from the Sun’s surface at around the 8 o’clock position. It was the largest prominence I have seen since the 1991 eclipse.

After totality, local residents joined us on the field, where everyone snapped pictures of one another. Palu isn’t much of a tourist town (though it is trying to become one) and our large contingent of mostly North Americans and Europeans was clearly something they had rarely, if ever, seen. Each of the tour members must have posed for dozens of photos with the locals. It was a memorable experience and one that made this eclipse truly unforgettable.

The warm welcome continued throughout the day. In the afternoon, the local government closed the major bridge in town to take pictures of our group and then threw a parade in our honor. In the evening, the mayor of Palu joined us at our celebratory dinner, wrapping up an incredible day.

Tomorrow, we fly back to Bali and then we’ll head our separate ways. Some will travel on to different parts of Indonesia to experience other aspects of this diverse country. Others will board planes for home, thinking warm thoughts of Indonesia and the spectacular eclipse it hosted.