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"Darkness in the Caribbean"

Having scouted the island several times during the week, Cheryl and I set out early AM (02:30 local Atlantic Time -- one zone east of Eastern Time, this local anomaly something my "Starry Night Deluxe" astronomy computer program is not aware of!) in our upgraded Toyota "Corona" (we had a good feeling on this random rental assignment) to Boca Tabla, a sort of national park on the trade-wind swept northwest edge of the southernmost Caribbean island, Curacao. It is located perhaps only thirty miles from Venezuela, at latitude 12 degrees north. We had noted previously the existence of a lockable gate; however, we had never seen it even closed, and no rules or closing times were noted anywhere at the entrance. Upon entering under the open bar (whew!) we were greeted by an official with a headlamp:

"Why are you here?"

"To observe the Eclipse -- I like to set up at night."

"Do you have a badge?"

"No, I'm here to do important scientific research." (gesturing to the jumble of cameras, electronics, and large telescope in the back seat)

"You don't have a badge; that's a problem."

(waiting, smiling)

(sighing) "OK, go ahead."

(relieved) "Thanks!"

I think to myself how fortunate we are to observe this, and how lucky we are to live on a planet that allows such an almost spiritual alignment.

A note here. The folks of Curacao are almost all the descendants of black African slaves. The island possesses a long commercial history, mostly stemming from its location below the hurricane belt and just above South America. Its huge harbor (you can turn a modern aircraft carrier around in it!) was used both militarily and commercially, the latter use eventually prevailing along with the Dutch, who were in the slave-trading business. Interestingly, the above-mentioned descendants, most of whom are well-educated (all speaking three languages, many individuals four!) appear to hold no old leftover angers; the island is socially very calm and friendly. Our experience with the guard at the gate, I believe, reflects the sort of tolerance that exists in this wonderful place.

We proceed up the dirt road and continue to our preselected site, among the cactus and divi-divi thorn bushes. We wish to set up behind a small natural shield to protect from the constant trade winds of this southerly latitude. It is a place not of palm trees and tropical rain forests, but of sand, cactus and desert Iguanas. The open plain we're set up near could hold, honestly, all the residents and visitors to the island. It is a windswept arid location, not unlike Baja California and the Sonoran Desert. It has not rained for one full year. For me, there almost seems to be a bit of closure here, having previously visited in Mexico "The Big One" (the moniker attached to the spectacular 1991 Total Solar Eclipse) as well as experiencing the "Black Sun" from a similar bleak and desolate location midwinter in Wolf Point, Montana. (There, however, it was well below zero -- here it's shorts and tee shirt weather.) We stop the Corona, unload, and begin to set up. It is advisable to configure the telescope to Celestial north, thereby allowing included clock motors to "follow" the movement of the Earth. Such a configuration allows for full concentration on observing, and does not necessitate re-aiming of the optics during the eclipse. A small portable battery arrangement powers the equipment. The North Star Polaris, however, is barely 12 degrees above the horizon, and the instrument's fork mount only drops to perhaps 15 degrees -- a rock platform is hastily designed to accommodate the "defective" equipment. Looking south, the fabulous Southern Cross and attendant stars Alpha and Beta Centauri shine bright. I point nearby to Omega Centauri; we are greeted to a fine telescopic view of certainly the most spectacular globular cluster in all the skies. It is now beginning to get light and cloudy; we retire on the hotel's "borrowed" bedding -- "camping" here is decidedly easier than in our native Rocky Mountains.

About 8 AM, and we stir. No crowds here, just one astronomer visible at perhaps 200 yards, and nearer the sea. "That site seems a bit windy," I suggest, but no matter. Once again, we've been able to obtain the sense of privacy I feel is necessary to experience such a spiritual set of events. The day progresses, and we take small side hikes to the sea, about 300 yards to our north. Cheryl discovers a beautiful little cove replete with beach, marine Iguanas, sea eagles and no people. Wonderful!

Sometime past noon the partial phases of the eclipse begin. I always use this time to set and reset the cameras. One Pentax is on the back of the motor-driven 8 inch C-8 telescope at f/6.3 and one is on a typical tripod equipped with an 85mm lens at f/2.8. The cameras are loaded with Kodak Pro ASA 100 color negative film. My hope is to obtain close-ups of Baily's Beads and the Diamond Ring with the telescope, and the eclipse with attendant planets Mercury and Jupiter with the 85mm setup. As a reference I used the exceptional "Starry Night Deluxe" Mac program back home to produce both a mockup of the eclipsed sky, as well as the previous night sky. One note here; my C-8 is decades old (it reads "Celestron-Pacific", a name no longer in use) and as such does not possess sufficient back-focus to be used with the f/6.3 corrector and standard rigid camera adapter attached to my (also) decades old Pentax cameras. I heartily recommend pre-testing this type of setup before any serious work (like traveling across the world with the telescope!) -- the problem was easily corrected in Colorado by cutting down the adapter and re-machining the threads. Newer telescope models apparently possess the back-focus necessary to accomplish this need -- I suppose the initial designers never imagined the plethora of accessories we now demand to put on the business end of these scopes -- specifically, flip mirrors, CCDs, correctors, etc. The list seems endless.

I am getting particularly nervous as totality approaches. My wife Cheryl (her first eclipse) is very interested in the partial phases, and we both note the dimming of the landscape and the cooler temperatures. By now it's perfectly clear, and the wind surprisingly has ceased. We attempt to observe the elusive Shadow Bands -- a kind of wavy phenomena not unlike the watery shadows seen in a swimming pool and so obvious in Mexico in 1991 -- viewed there on the hotel's linen placed neatly on the sand, but here no go. I soon strongly indicate to Cheryl to stop looking at the sheet, as totality is now imminent. A beautiful Diamond Ring appears as I unfilter the scope and shoot photos at 1/1000 of a second. Now Baily's Beads appear (much more obvious and long-lived than in 1991), also shot at 1/1000. I stay at the scope for a while (perhaps one minute, now shooting at 1/60, and bracketing upward to 1/250). The field of view at f/6.3 just allows room for the Sun and inner Corona, so the outer Corona will hopefully be recorded with the standard camera and tripod. I move to it, and Cheryl to the telescope. Small but impressive scarlet Prominences are visible through the telescope. I shoot the Sun and magnificent planets Mercury and Jupiter (obvious along with Venus and Mars farther out from the Sun), and then just look up. It is a splendid sight -- the "Black Sun" and attendant planets -- and the yellow-orange 360 degree "sunset" set against this spectacular desert landscape. The Corona displays a small shape (less than one solar diameter in radius width, but reflects the Sun's magnetic poles clearly). I think to myself how fortunate we are to observe this, and how lucky we are to live on a planet that allows such an almost spiritual alignment. As before in 1991, I struggle to hold back the upwelling of tears. It is truly SO beautiful. I'm in a daze as I slowly move back to the telescope, the Sun apparently now locked permanently in eclipse, and time almost seeming to stop. But we know better. Totality here lasts just over three minutes. The yellow Sun begins to emerge, so I hastily focus and shoot two more photographs at 1/1000 to hopefully record additional Beads and Ring effects. I replace the "Solar-Skreen" filter over the telescope's objective as the landscape lightens up and the totality ends. This is always a time of reflection and perhaps of some depression. I too want the eclipse to start again, as my sons so eloquently noted in 1991. Cheryl expresses the same feeling today.

I know I should photographically record the partial phases after totality but my heart's not in it. Cheryl suggests instead a luncheon on that deserted beach so we secure the equipment, turn off the motor drive and head for the cove. We picnic with the sea eagles and marine Iguanas and some crabs, and watch as the violent surf carves caverns of time out of the fossil coral cliffs surrounding us. As we meander back to the scope and car the partial phases end, and all seems as it was just hours before. WE are changed however, as we have had the privilege to experience perhaps nature's greatest event, a Total Eclipse of the Sun.

 

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