Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Cairns eclipse 14th November 2012 at dawn

The flight was booked six months ago, and at the cheap rate. It was indeed an ‘eclipse special’ as nearly everyone on the flight was keen to see the spectacle three days hence. But it was not to be that simple as our Virgin flight developed a fault after ten minutes in the air and returned to Mascot. The place was set for an emergency. Five fire trucks in attendance followed our plane at speed down the rarely used east-west runway. It was too late to get another plane before curfew so we stayed overnight at the Airport Mercure Hotel. Finally we got to Cairns 12 hours late with just one sunrise before the total eclipse.

One benefit of the delay was the opportunity to meet some of the visiting astronomy enthusiasts at supper and at the hotel bar. They were individuals and families from Japan, Bulgaria, Britain and Italy along with about 60 Americans. The latter all belonged to an astronomy club called ‘Stellafane’. To qualify for membership one had to build one's own telescope. That counts me out! I found an extensive web site proving that their members were indeed 'eclipse tragics' as one of them described themselves. Several commented on the flowering Jacarandas in Sydney as being most memorable, along with Uluru and eating kangaroo and other exotica under the stars.

We were told that a famous Italian astronomy guru was on our flight and that he had attended 12 eclipses. Later, on the Esplanade in Cairns, we met a professor of astronomy from Mexico City who had attended 20 solar eclipses. They were not all 'blackouts' as some were partial or annular while others were clouded in. He was being interviewed by a BBC team from Scotland at the time.

From numerous sources I heard that despite all the modern technological advances and high powered equipment available, the best enjoyment of eclipses was often just to use the naked eye (suitably protected until the actual totality) and take in the responses of the people and wildlife in the landscape one was in. Rather than an ordinary site like a garden, park or beach, some might rather see it from an exotic look-out, hot air balloon or other artificial vantage point. But even the greatest efforts were no guarantee against clouds and therefore disaster. Our last total eclipse in Eastern Australia was on Saturday 23 October 1976, centred on Melbourne. Most historical eclipses are flights of fantasy - such as the crucifixion which occurred during Passover, always near a full moon while a solar eclipse happens on the new moon, two weeks later. 

After a ‘dry run’ the day before, finally the time had arrived. I was woken at 4am by mine host, an old school mate from Cranbrook who now lives in Cairns. This was well before daybreak so that we could do some preliminary star gazing and possibly see some northern constellations which were not visible from Sydney. The latter was impossible due to intermittent cloud cover, street lighting and the presence of trees, houses and the mountains which surround Cairns. If we include sky gazing before bed the night before, we managed to get good views of Orion, Hyades (Aldebaran), Pleiades in the west between the clouds as well as a very low Crux (Southern Cross) and pointers to the south. Musca, Saturn, Venus, Sirius in Canis major, Canopus, the Great Square of Pegasus and circlet of Pisces with even more there for the taking. We even saw a shooting star which seemed like a good luck omen. After a cup of tea daylight was appearing in the east and the clouds seemed to be parting. We took up a position at the western end of a municipal cricket pitch and joined a dozen or so locals to await the fantastic. Dawn broke but cloud on the horizon was again obscuring our view. Drat!

Ten minutes after sunrise the new moon reached the disc of the sun and began obscuring it (behind some small clouds in our case). A short time later to our delight the clouds parted and we saw a much welcomed shaft of glorious sunlight beaming down the length of the grass field in front of us. Quickly donning the special block-out glasses we all ooed and arred at what we saw, a solar disc with a neat curved ‘bite’ taken out of it, blocking about a third of the sun. This ‘bite’ enlarged over the course of the next 45 minutes until the remaining sun had shrunk to a mere sickle shape and finally a thin sliver of light around one half of an otherwise darkened sun. Then suddenly, just an hour into the event, the lights went out.

It is not easy to describe what happened in totality but the closest might be when one turns a household light off using a dimmer dial. In about fifteen seconds it went from daylight to dark, quite evenly and all around us, including the sky and mountains to the west. Stars appeared (I think I was looking at Saturn) … but much, much more. Just as totality descended, a dog howled in the distance. A large fruit bat flapped by in front of us, obviously confused as it changed course. The incessant noise of tropical insects and birds in the early morning undergrowth had stopped and silence reigned. The mountains around us became silhouettes against an almost black sky. I had determined to close one eye for a few minutes before totality to get one eye used to the dark. In retrospect this was a mistake. Although I could see the ‘stars’ before the others, I missed that final “diamond ring” appearance before totality … but caught it on the sun's reappearance one and a half minutes later (the longest eclipse lasts for little more than 6 minutes).

Was it spooky? Yes, it was spooky! On our eclipse ‘journey’ we had numerous dogs, some delightful young children and inquisitive adults and senior citizens from the local streets with us. As totality continued, I felt some pressure to enjoy the brief ‘pantomime’ period and also to make sure I did not miss anything. During this period only we were able to shed the protective glasses and we were able to look directly at the incredible sight of the solar disc being completely occluded by the moon. The spectacular ‘ring of fire’ only provided a dim ‘night light’ to the landscape and a spectacular vision of the flames, flares and turbulence normally obscured by the intensity of the sun itself.

As totality ended after about one hundred seconds it was just like that dimmer being turned up again over a quarter of a minute, no longer. Night became day. Yet it was still ‘dim’ day, perhaps like a winter’s day in Britain. And it was cool. Not at all like the tropics. At least not for another hour when the sun returned to the searing heat one expects at these latitudes in high summer.

After totality we all looked at each other, knowing that he next hour would be a repeat of the previous hour (but in reverse) as the disc of the sun became gradually uncovered from its present 90% ‘sickle’ and moved away from the path of the sun until the next eclipse. By this time we had returned to our hosts' home a few blocks away in Edmonton where the last sighting was a mere 'button' on the edge of the sun's disc which finally 'plinked' back to the full circumference. 

There was certainly a nice camaraderie between the participants in the small suburban community which involved Aboriginal, young, old, local and visiting folk, all in good spirits. A wonderful and special event to witness. I do not feel the pressing need to see another, like some enthusiasts, but I feel privileged to have seen this wonder once in my life.
                                                                            Written by Andrew Byrne .. 
Sunrise with clouds threatening.

My fellow travellers, Gracie, Howard and DJ.

Our friendly group.

Great dividing range west of Bruce Hwy and rail.

Crescent images of sun through binoculars.

20% occluded sun.

Totality (taken by Howard)

As the light was returning.

Seesy, DJ, Andrew and Gracie (taken by Howard)

Without filter 70% occluded