Three Firsts

by wjw on November 14, 2012

I’ve experienced three firsts in a twenty-four-hour period. I’ve seen the Green Flash, I’ve passed through the debris of an underwater volcano, and I’ve seen a total eclipse (from a ship).

It’s the 24 hours I signed up for, so I’m pretty happy.

The Green Flash first. I’d always heard about it, but never seen it. But now, on a ship full of astronomers, I had a better idea what to look for— I’d been expecting the whole horizon to light up, which does in fact happen rarely, but normally it’s only the tiniest last bit of the setting sun that turns green. (It rightly ought to be called The Green Ray, as in the title of the Jules Verne novel about the phenomenon, because it’s more like a laser beam than a flashbulb.)

I’d been looking every night, but we were having a week of squally weather, and every evening the sun set into cloud. But then I caught a sunset in which there were gaps in the cover over the sun, and the sun setting not onto the horizon, but into torn cloud. And there, the final last wink of the sun changed color before my eyes, and became, well, a sizzling pale blue.

Now it’s not supposed to be called The Robin’s Egg Blue Flash, but there it was, and it was quite striking during the second or so that it lasted. Mike Reynolds, a deck above, confirmed that he’d seen it, too, and so I wasn’t hallucinating.

One brand-new thing!  I was pleased.

Earlier in the day I was reclining on the pool deck, watching the sea speed by at 22 knots, when I noticed a line of white stretching across the ocean off the port side, and gradually moving across the ship’s path. It looked like breakers, but I knew— or hoped— that there weren’t any breakers within several hundred nautical miles.

I opened a port and peered down as the ship cut across the line, and saw that it was composed of small chickpea-sized floating objects, for some reason clinging together in a single long strand, not white but beige. Later I learned that these were debris from an erupting underwater volcano over which we’d passed, pumice or pumice-like stone. Again, I have no idea why it was clinging together in a long rope instead of spreading out. (I knew we were going over an erupting volcano, but didn’t know when.)

Now lastly, the eclipse. Oh my.

I was up at dawn to have breakfast and stake out a place to put our gear. This last errand failed, as we needed a table on which to set up our Astroscan telescope, and the foredeck (where we were told to go) had no tables, but lots of chaise longues. I was a bit annoyed, as I’d been (half) promised a table, but a new friend named Tony and I went down a few decks and stole one from the pool area, carried it up one deck by elevator and two by stair, and set it up with a fair view of the sun.

The Astroscan proved very popular, and we were able to offer views of the eclipse to passers-by and crew. A great many people took pictures of our little table and our cute red telescope— which, as many of you know, doesn’t look like a telescope at all, but a sort of cheery Nickelodeon version of a trench mortar.

The ship’s motion was very apparent in the telescope, with the sun turning lazy circles in the field of view.

The day was sunny and the seas calm, with light clouds here and there. Millennium was idling along at a few knots, staying where the skies were clear. Eclipse-chasers in sun hats stood around next to their cameras, telescopes, and tripods, and passengers who’d had no idea this was going to happen wandered around in a faintly bewildered state, wondering what the fuss was about.

9:10am. First contact. The eclipse chasers who weren’t already glued to their eyepieces rushed for their equipment. The moon took a little divot out of the sun in the upper left corner, and then began its 70-minute crawl across the sun’s face. Through the Astroscan we saw the moon eating sunspots.

As the moon advanced, shadows crew sharper. Small shadows grew crescent-shaped. The shadow of the moon, crossing Australia somewhere behind us, was like a translucent dark column in the sky, drawn from the sun to an area behind the ship.

It was getting dark. The sea was quite subdued, with fewer whitecaps than before. A few minutes left. The sun was a tiny sliver in the sky, and the air had turned indigo. The shadow of the moon, stretching out behind us, was rushing toward us at 6000 miles per hour. There was a hush.

The wind died away. Venus appeared. She was a crescent, only later resolving into a dot. I began to notice shadow bands, a strange atmospheric phenomenon that causes spiderweb-shaped shadows to crawl over the ground. I took the solar filter off my camera to photograph them, but before I could adjust my camera a huge cry went up. I looked up, and there was totality.

10:20am. Second contact. There was a huge silver-rimmed hole in the sky, surrounded by the cold white fire of the sun’s corona. Around the rim of the sun were bright red solar flares leaping thousands of miles into space— “prominences,” they are called. People were screaming and yelling. Some idiot was taking pictures with a flash, and people kept shouting at him to stop.

I started snapping pictures, changing the shutter speed manually from one to the next. Depending on the setting, they could show the solar prominences, the outer corona, or the inner corona. (I was very pleased by the amount of detail the photos showed. You get some idea of the actual texture of the corona, which is very complex.) After I finished the round of pictures, I looked through the Astroscan to get a close-up view. Then I straightened and looked around me, at the intent eclipse-chasers who were either glued to their equipment or staring around much as I was. The people were black silhouettes against a 180-degree sunrise that completely surrounded the ship. The horizon was pink. The ocean was still.

I went through the routine again, taking another set of pictures, looking through the Astroscan, looking around. And then there was another shout, and I looked up to see the diamond ring as the sun broke out from behind the moon. I snapped several pictures, and then the diamond ring became too bright and I had to put the solar filter on my camera again.

10:22:30am. Third contact. Off on the main deck somewhere, a band began to play every song they could think of about astronomy. “You Are My Sunshine.” “Total Eclipse of the Heart.”

Over the next forty minutes, the previous picture gradually reversed itself. The air warmed and brightened. The moon’s shadow, more visible now, rushed off ahead of the ship. Sunspots reappeared like acne on the face of the sun. Most of the people packed up and left well before the partial eclipse was over. I was one of the last die-hards, my eye glued to the Astroscan until the last little bit of the moon passed beyond the sun. Then I packed everything up and went to edit the photos.

Most of them will go up on my Facebook page. Given the problems I’ve had uploading to this page through the ship’s balky server, I’m going to try to upload a composite photograph showing the eclipse in most of its stages. I’d say “wish me luck” but I’ve already had all sorts of luck, so I’m all good.

A good Green Ray to you all.

UPDATE:  Failed to upload the photo, after 25 minutes.  I’ll try again tomorrow.

Patricia Rogers November 14, 2012 at 10:18 pm

Happy for y’all that it was the perfect eclipse of a lifetime.

Chris Mills November 15, 2012 at 4:52 am

That was a wonderful read. We only got a partial eclipse here in NZ. I used a colander as my quick-and-dirty pin-hole camera of choice. Lot’s of lovely crescents!

Kathryn April 4, 2013 at 4:56 pm

The New York Times Sunday Travel section on April 3 gives a review of traveling to see the same eclipse that you did last year. I thought you might enjoy.

wjw April 4, 2013 at 8:59 pm

Thanks! Frustrating as I found my time aboard the cruise ship, at least I didn’t have to spend the night sleeping in a small car.

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