This is a record of my personal experience of the Total Eclipse on Wednesday 29 March 2006. Like many others I failed to witness the eclipse that crossed the South West of England in 1999. That had been a great disappointment for my Wife and I. She had been especially looking forward to it as she had spent her childhood in Devon and had been looking forward to it since then.
I read the advert in Sky at Night magazine and decided to book us both on the trip the next day. It was something to look forward to over the Winter. It hadn’t dawned on me until a couple of weeks before the trip that there was a real possibility of cloud ruining the even. We looked at forecasts and weather records, and these seemed to confirm our fears. Three days before the eclipse most of the forecasts were for a good weather window on the Tuesday and Wednesday, but bad weather moving in on Thursday. I know it’s irrational, but we decided not to take any sunhats, sunglasses or sunscreen, in case that put the mockers on us.
We flew out from a damp and cloudy Birmingham early on Tuesday morning with a like-minded group of eclipse chasers. I think the hold must have been empty, what with everyone entrusting their kit to the overhead lockers. We were greeted at Antalya by hazy sunshine – looking good so far. After an hour and a quarter coach trip we arrived at the hotel. We were about 1,000th in a queue of 1,500. Whilst slowly shuffling forward I heard a voice, “Hello Greg”. I turned round to be greeted by Nick King, who had just arrived on one of the last coaches. That was a nice surprise. Eventually the tour organisers got there act together and we collapsed into our room. After a quick recce of the hotel and beach we were served dinner – more queuing, but worth it. Then followed a very interesting and entertaining presentation on what we hoped to see on the next day, by Pete Lawrence and Chris Lintott. Later on I went down to the beach, where some other astronomers were viewing the heavens across a calm sea. Orion was just starting to set as I returned to our room. The expectation was almost unbearable.
After a restless night I got up at about 5.30. I stumbled out onto the balcony to confirm that, yes, I could see stars. The sky was totally clear. Promising, but there was still around eight hours to go. At breakfast you could sense the excitement and expectation, but there was still a chance of disappointment as small wispy clouds were forming over the mountains behind the hotel. I kept telling myself that there was an onshore breeze – stay positive.
At about ten o’clock I went down to the amphi-theatre where I could see a number of scopes set up. Nick was there with his Dad, all ready to go, and looking cool in his shades. After admiring his set up I turned round and there was Eddie Gusgott, complete with his G11 and two scopes. He assured me that this was his lightweight portable set up; very impressive. We had a good chat and I had a chance to look through double-stacked SM40, which showed sunspots and prominences with remarkable clarity. By now I was thinking it was time to stake my claim to a spot on the beach.
We got organised with a couple of sun loungers and I set up my camera and tripod ready for First Contact. I took shots at 20 min intervals to capture the partial phase. This period seemed to pass agonisingly slowly, but with about twenty minutes to go things started to change. It became increasingly difficult to focus through the viewfinder and strange fuzzy shadows were cast around us. It was fun to project the sun through pinholes in my note book, throwing crescent shaped ‘suns’ across the sun lounger. A few wispy clouds were forming to the North and West, but didn’t threaten to spoil the show. It was clear that we were going to be in for a treat. By now it was getting pretty cold, and the light was weird; very low contrast, and a yellowy-brown hue; like the sunlight you sometimes get after a storm, but rather subdued. The horizon across the sea to the South West started to darken and take on the colour of a subtle sunset. Venus could be clearly seen, bright, low down to the South West.
Then it happened, as if a switch had been thrown it went dark, not dark-dark, but like twilight. I looked up and there it was, a hole where the sun should have been, surrounded by a steadily growing corona, as our eyes became dark-adapted. All around us people were gasping a whooping with joy and excitement. I just stared, transfixed by the sight. I then looked around to the West, North and East. The high whispy clouds had been painted with deep reds, oranges and purples, against the backdrop of a deep blue sky – a 360 degree sunset. I did manage to grab a few images, but all time I was being drawn back to the live event developing in front of us and enveloping us.
Suddenly there was a bright flash as the sun reappeared from behind the Moon, hanging in the sky like a bright magnesium flare. The sea and sky brightened as the shadow proceeded on its journey northwards, and it was over. We all looked around at one another, sharing our experiences and emotions. I tried to continue with systematically taking images of the partial phase, but lost all track of what I was really doing. It was a time for sharing with my Wife and relaxing.
On the way back to the hotel I met up with Nick and Eddie who were packing up. We shared our experiences and said our goodbyes, as it would not be long before we would have to be on our way, back to a different reality. The eclipse had touched us in different ways. For my Wife it had ful-filled a childhood dream that had been dashed seven years earlier. Serious health problems had all but dashed here chance of a second seeing an eclipse. She wants to see another one. I was impressed by the experience, but felt that once would be enough - closure. As we packed up I felt uneasy, as if I had missed something. It was only when I was travelling back on the plane, reliving the experience of Totality that it dawned on me, just what I had witnessed. Something that cannot be seen from anywhere else in the solar system; the Sun’s corona, its affect on us and how we see our own planet. It still brings a lump to my throat when I think of it as a write this. The chance to share this with others is the reason that I hope to make at least one more eclipse trip in the future.