Guadeloupe on the morning of the eclipse

My First Solar Eclipse

I have pondered about the nature of the Sun's corona for thirty years but had never seen a total eclipse of the Sun, so it was with an air of anticipation and hoping not to be disappointed that I travelled to a distant part of France - Guadeloupe in the West Indies - at the end of February, 1998. Why had I never tried to see one before was a question that recurred in my mind over the next few days. Seventy of us gathered in Guadeloupe for a conference about the corona, but we found ourselves often distracted to wonder whether the sky would be clear on the last day of the conference - the day of the eclipse. The great eclipse expert Serge Koutchmy told us that the chances in general of a clear sky were 70%, but, when, on the day before, it was pouring with rain at the eclipse site and the neighbouring island of Montserrat was angrily emitting dark clouds from its volcano, we feared the worst.

The day itself arrived and 50 of us were driven by bus to the eclipse site, which had been kept secret to avoid being over-run by amateurs - and a splendid site it was - by the Chapel of St. Anne, an isolated church in the countryside on the dry eastern shore of the island away from the mountains and the humid capital. Benches, tables and a welcome canvas shade were provided with plentiful food and drink, but the most important gift was the weather - a crystal clear blue sky with no trace of a cloud within 50 degrees of the Sun - the best conditions of the week! So we were certain not to be disappointed.


The site from which we viewed the eclipse

We strolled down to an ideal spot on a bank overlooking the bay, where the deep blue and turquoise of the Caribbean sea was sparkling in the hot sunshine. Gradually people gathered around and encamped themselves in ones and twos on the grass, choosing an ideal spot and preparing themselves in numerous ways for the event. Most of us were novices - only five of those present had witnessed it before - and some locals with their jet-black faces, curiosity and coloured costumes added to the scene.


Waiting patiently for the eclipse


Craig enthralling some of the locals with his gizmo

At about 1.05 p.m. the drama that was to enthral us began as the Moon started to nibble away at the lower right-hand corner of the Sun, which had a green appearance through the welder's glass filters that we had been given. It seemed hard to believe at first that the curvatures of the Sun and the small piece being eaten from it were the same. The excitement of all present grew gradually over the next hour. Next to me, Frances pierced a tiny hole in a piece of paper to make a pin-hole camera that projected a tiny image of the Sun onto my hand. In contrast, Craig had set up a complex electronic gizmo of his own: a solar cell and ccd with half of an old pair of binoculars to record the progress of the Sun on his lap-top computer. Gradually, as the size of the Sun decreased and it resembled the more familiar crescent Moon in shape, the shadows of our hands on the ground became much sharper and both the light level and the temperature imperceptibly but relentlessly decreased.


Watching the eclipse progress through filters

Until now the build-up had been slow and relaxed, but the last stage was rapid, surprising and attracted all our attention, so that the previous babble and chatter ceased as we were drawn by the final unfolding of this drama of nature. In the last few minutes before totality at 2.31 p.m., the light decreased greatly, the temperature fell and the colours of the beautiful setting faded to shades of grey. The excitement rose as the crescent Sun became thinner and shorter and all our senses were focused keenly on this amazing climax.

The thin strip of Sun broke up into a series of Bailey beads as the sunlight could only stream through a few valleys on the limb of the Moon (first described by Francis Bailey at an eclipse in Scotland in 1836). For a few seconds the last bead showed up as a brilliant diamond on a silver ring, just after the Moon's shadow had raced across the ground from the west at 1700 mph.

At the moment of second contact, the climax when the Moon had triumphed over the Sun, we witnessed a sight of indescribable beauty as suddenly the jet black disc of the Moon was surrounded by the bright white corona that burst into view. What an incredible sight! The most impressive natural phenomenon in the world, accompanied by hoots of joy and gasps of shear astonishment at the wonder of it all. No-one could fail to be moved deeply by such an experience.

For a few seconds the pink chromosphere could be seen rimming the Moon, its colours standing out vividly against the black moon and white corona. The structure of the corona was something that Serge had predicted with artistic flourish and Zoran had prophesied with super-computing skill, but there she was streaming up and down out from the Sun for several solar radii and with countless fine-scale threads clearly visible. To left and right from the poles of the Sun, which were orientated differently from the usual pictures due to our latitude, there stretched many fainter plumes and rays that had been the object of our study at the conference. The whole visual impression was memorable. It was amazing just how much detail you could see with the naked eye with its enormous dynamic range compared with photographs. And the corona seemed huge, much larger than I had expected as it hovered in the dark sky.


A puny photo of the eclipse from my pocket camera


A rather better photograph, courtesy of High Altitude Observatory

But for a brief moment I glanced around. Several planets were clearly visible in a line - Jupiter and Mercury close to the Sun, Mars and Saturn further out, with Venus near the horizon. Around the horizon for 360 degrees the sky had a colourful sunset glow, and in the distance across the bay the automatic night lights of a village were twinkling. The sea had now been transformed to dark grey and a nearby cow had decided to sit down (see fig after next).

Back at the Sun I could see several small prominences, red tongues of flame which had intrigued earlier observers and which we are still far from understanding. Then a huge prominence appeared on the bottom right, the pink chromosphere came into view again, and suddenly the diamond ring blazed brilliantly into view, although for a few seconds the corona was still visible.

Too quickly, it was over and we had to look away from the bright Sun or inspect it through the filters. Surely the 2 minutes had not gone by yet. I longed for a replay and to see photographs of a dim image of what we had witnessed. This experience of a lifetime led to a babble of shared feelings and reactions to an event that was both intensely personal and communal, as we struggled to describe the indescribable. A photograph was then taken at the site of the first-timers to conclude one of the most memorable days of my life. Although having read several books about eclipses, nothing had prepared me for the shear beauty and sense of awe.


The happy band of "first-timers"

Like many who are converted to a new cause, I continue to wonder why I had not been drawn enough to view an eclipse before - but I will certainly try and see the next one on August 11, 1999, at some point on its path through Europe, hopefully one where the chances of viewing it are high.

Eric Priest, February 26, 1998


A bovine friend (not Jim K but the brown one) who was mystified by the proceedings


Serge, Jean and Karine, who organised a splendid workshop


Working hard on the day before the meeting by visiting the Ilet a Caret


A merry band doing their first scuba dive on the day after the meeting


Brigitte with her Certificat de Bapteme from her first scuba dive


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