From the December 2004 issue

In the Moon’s shadow

"Mr. Eclipse" recounts his favorite total solar eclipses.
By | Published: December 27, 2004 | Last updated on May 18, 2023

Asking me to choose my favorite eclipse is like asking me when I was a kid to choose only one kind of candy. Once I discovered candy, I never got enough. When I went trick-or-treating on Halloween, I didn’t think about what kind of candy I was going to get, I just wanted a lot. And so it has been with eclipses. Once I saw that first one, I could never get enough.

In attempting to identify my favorite, I reflected on them all. Few people have the opportunity to see even one total eclipse of the Sun, so I consider myself privileged to have experienced 18 of these incredibly beautiful and awe-inspiring events over the past 35 years.

Certainly, the impact of my first total eclipse in 1970 is unequaled. As a teenager with a brand-new driver’s license, I begged my parents for permission to drive 600 miles into the eclipse path. Thinking this would be my only chance to witness a total eclipse, I read extensively about the subject before I went.

I thought I was ready, but nothing could have prepared me for the onset of second contact – the chill of the air, the approach of the Moon’s shadow, and the darkening sky would have sufficed, but then I spied Venus, shadow bands, and that glorious diamond ring. Just when I thought it couldn’t get any better, I was engulfed in the umbra and overcome by the sight of totality!

All those words I had read failed utterly to describe the grandeur of the Sun’s corona. Only those who have seen it with their own eyes can appreciate how impossible it is to capture this dazzling sight in a photograph.

As fantastic as that first experience was, it was much too brief, and I wanted more. The total eclipse of 1973 was over twice as long and took me to the Sahara Desert of northern Africa. Being surrounded by such an unfamiliar landscape and culture brought a new dimension to my eclipse viewing. Unfortunately, airborne dust hindered my view of the corona, so I was left unsatisfied.

Returning to Africa in 1980, I traveled on safari through the exotic flora and fauna of Kenya. This eclipse lasted 4 minutes, but clouds increasingly threatened the view during the partial phases. Five minutes before second contact, my companions and I abandoned our telescopes and piled into our minibus to race toward a hole in the clouds. We arrived in time to see most of totality, but the slow-moving clouds crept over the Sun just before third contact. Not to be denied, I sprinted down the dusty road toward a sunny spot and arrived just in time to watch the diamond ring as totality ended.

In Indonesia in 1983, I achieved my first proper success in photographing an eclipse, but I knew I could do better. The big eclipse of 1991 offered the perfect opportunity to image the corona. Totality lasted over 6 minutes from Baja, Mexico, and the sky was crystal clear. The sunspot-maximum corona was a riot of fine details and long streamers, which I captured on both film and video – that puts this eclipse near the top of my list.

As I look back on all those eclipse trips, I realize it’s impossible to choose a favorite. How can I rule out the 1998 Aruba eclipse, when I learned to process photographs digitally and came much closer to capturing the corona’s visual appearance? Or the 1995 India eclipse when I witnessed a spectacular display of Baily’s beads and also met my fiancée? Or the 2003 eclipse when I watched totality surrounded by Adelie penguins and ghostly icebergs in Antarctica?

It’s much harder than choosing my favorite candy when I was a kid. It’s more like asking a father to choose a favorite among his children. Each eclipse is special in its own unique way.