BY: TIM O’NEAL
Featured Photo: SUNSET TOTAL SOLAR ECLIPSE AT EL CALAFATE, ARGENTINA ON JULY 11, 2010. © 2010 LUKAS GORNISIEWICZ & DAVID MAKEPEACE
Michael Zeiler had never been an adventurous traveler, until he saw his first total solar eclipse. He has since traveled to some very remote places to see the “most beautiful sight in nature.” Michael is what could be called an eclipse chaser. He will go just about anywhere to be enveloped in the moon’s shadow, even if just for a couple of minutes.
In August of 2017, the Great American Eclipse will send its shadow across the entire United States. Michael and several thousand others from around the world will travel to position themselves in the path of totality. They will go to great efforts to experience a mere two minutes of daytime darkness as the moon moves in front of the sun.
There is an eclipse somewhere in the world every eighteen months on average. A few thousand people across the world, eclipse chasers, plan their lives around these events, making sure to get themselves into the path no matter where it might be.
Michael’s first eclipse in Baja California, Mexico was seven minutes in duration, quite long in comparison to other recent eclipses. He watched as the moon moved slowly across the sun. About fifteen minutes before totality the light became dimmer than normal. A few minutes later, shadows were very crisp and the light was electric, eerie, otherworldly. Shadow bands shimmered on the snowy ground like water in a pool. Just before totality is the diamond ring, when you can see the corona with a point of sunlight on one side. That point of light twinkled. Then, totality. People gasped, cheered, cried, and screamed at the sight of the corona.
Michael took a quick look at the stars, suddenly visible in what seconds before was broad daylight. He was quickly drawn back to the corona. The moon was the blackest black, like a hole. There were gorgeous streamers and a bright prominence from the sun, something eclipse chasers always hope for. As soon as it was over he felt a loss, and knew he needed to have the feeling again.
Since then, Michael has seen an eclipse near a live volcano in the Caribbean and one in the Australian Outback. In 2009, Michael got himself on a boat in the western Pacific near Iwo Jima to be at the exact spot of the longest duration. The duration of any given eclipse depends on where you are in the path.
Duration isn’t everything, though. After traveling to a small village in Gabon, Africa, totality only lasted for fifty-nine seconds. “It was totally worth it,” he told me about the experience.
His most memorable eclipse was in Longyearbyen, Svalbard, at seventy-eight degrees north latitude. It was an extremely clear day, bitterly cold. “I call that one the Lotus Eclipse,” he told me. “because the corona was shaped like a lotus flower.” As if that weren’t enough, there was an amazing display of the Aurora Borealis that night.
I asked Michael what it is that compels him and all the others to go to such great efforts to see eclipses over and over again. He said,”The corona is the most beautiful object in the sky, but you only see it during an eclipse. An eclipse chaser is always interested in what the corona will look like. We also hope for a coronal mass ejection.” Even though it’s the same phenomenon they see time and again, each eclipse is unique.
About the eclipse chaser community, he said he has dozens of friends that he has met by doing this. There is an online group with members from around the world that keeps in touch and makes plans for future events. He meets several friends at each viewing. He viewed one eclipse in the strait of Makassar, between Borneo and Sulawesi, Indonesia, on a sixteen day cruise with a boat full of eclipse chasers and many friends.
The community is made up of people from all sorts backgrounds. There are professional and amateur astronomers, and astro-photographers hoping to capture the event on film. Many eclipse chasers have no training in astronomy or photography but are just struck by the beauty of an eclipse. This could describe Michael. While he started with an amateur interest in astronomy, it’s clear from talking with him that it’s the experience that interests him.
Michael has a calendar marking all eclipses in the twenty-first century, his “lifetime vacation planner,” as he calls it. He also now travels internationally a couple times a year aside from chasing eclipses. “Yes, eclipses have definitely ignited a travel bug in me,” he says. “Eclipses and the experience of visiting incredible places on Earth has re-prioritized me to seek travel, not material possessions.”
The next eclipse is on August 21st, 2017. The shadow will meet ground first on the coast of Oregon and travel through parts of fourteen states. Michael won’t have to travel far to see this one, but he’s already making plans to be in Argentina in 2019 for four minutes of totality.
Michael has put together an amazing website to help you prepare for this eclipse. There are important safety factors to consider, and also loads of tips to ensure a positive experience.
I got a few suggestions from Michael about how to enjoy my first eclipse in August. “Don’t try to take active photography,” he said. “You can just check out professional images online later. Instead, set up a video camera behind you so that you’re between it and the eclipse. You’re going to want the audio of your group’s reaction. It’s going to be special.”