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Griffith Observatory

Planetary Society

Mt. Wilson


Subaru Telescope

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Report on the Total Solar Eclipse of 1998



by Vivian Zee


Thursday, February 26, 1998. Eclipse day. I awoke before 7 a.m. with my heart pounding just as my ship, the Galaxy, was docking in St. John, Antigua. I got up, opened the curtains and was horrified to see the sky filled with clouds. I got in the shower praying for the sky to clear by the time I was done, but it didn't. A Caribbean steel band had arrived and began playing just below my window, but the cheerful music didn't help lift my spirits.

The day before, I had made plans with Jim and Craig, two teachers from Colorado I'd met on the ship, to share a taxi to the south side of the island. We had agreed to meet at 9:30 a.m., but I was all ready to go by 8:30, so I sat for a few minutes looking at the cloudy sky and listening to the steel band. Then I went up on deck and, not surprisingly, there were already several people with tripods set up along the railings. I talked to a couple of the people on deck and they were not sure if the ship would be able to find clear skies along the center line, but they thought that on Antigua it would probably be hopeless. And I knew that my friend Randy Bennett and his family, who were also passengers on the Galaxy, were going to stay on the ship. What should I do?

By now the clouds had actually gotten thicker and darker, but reasoning that the prospects for clear skies looked dim on both the ship and land and that, even if it cleared up a bit, the conditions on the ship would not be ideal for tripod-mounted photography and I'd rather be on firm land, I decided to get off the ship with my friends and wait near the gangway, just in case I decided to get back aboard at the last minute. So there I was, standing on the dock carrying all my equipment and looking alternately toward the southern sky over the island and toward the ship, but not a patch of blue sky could be seen anywhere.

As we waited for our taxi, Brad & Jill and Dave & Sandy, two couples who apparently thought we knew what we were doing, asked if they could join us. At 10:45 I heard the ship's horn and watched the crew pulling up the gangway. I guess I had decided to stay on land. It then started to drizzle. The seven of us climbed into the taxi van and got on our way anxiously in search of clear skies. We were headed to my chosen location, Shirley Heights, the southernmost point of Antigua, but on our way out of St. John, it really began to pour. Needless to say, at that point I had the horrible feeling that I had made a big mistake. Norris, our friendly driver, kept telling me "don't worry, you'll see the eclipse," and assuring me that he'd get us to sunshine. He was right: after a few minutes the rain stopped, and after a few more miles a blue sky opened up before us. We had finally left the clouds behind.

We arrived at our destination around 12:30 and, at that time, there were about 50 people and a few telescopes set up. To my disappointment, the best spot had already been taken, but I didn't want to spend a lot of time scouting for another ideal spot because I knew it would take me quite a while to assemble my mount and get set up, so I picked a spot nearby where the ground was fairly level. It had gotten very hot and setting up my equipment made it feel even hotter, but I wasn't complaining. I was thankful to have a bright blue sky above me (I later learned that the temperature got up to 95 F). I finished setting up just in time for first contact at 1:05 p.m., and after a few minutes spent refining my polar alignment to achieve accurate tracking, I took a couple of shots of the partially eclipsed sun. I then went to explore my surroundings.

There was a steel-drum band playing very lively reggae music and a general party atmosphere, which struck me as a very appropriate way to welcome the big event from the Caribbean. This was in stark contrast to the almost mystical atmosphere surrounding the 1994 eclipse I experienced from the Andes mountains in Chile.

Shirley Heights is at about 500 ft elevation, overlooking the beautiful English Harbour and has a good view of the island of Montserrat about 30 miles to the southwest, the direction from which the shadow would approach. I could see the volcano there sending up a cloud of steam. And to the left, on the horizon, I could also see the Galaxy and clouds that appeared to be right above it. I worried that Randy and the others on the ship might not be able to find clear skies in time for totality, but I congratulated myself on my choice to come ashore (after returning to the ship, Randy told me they were worrying about me being under clouds). When I returned to my scope, several more people had arrived and set up their tripods around me, and a crew from the local TV station was filming the scene.

As the moon covered more and more of the sun's disk, the shadows became very sharp and everything around me had an eerie cool orange cast to it. The temperature had begun to drop. By now the crowd had grown to over 200, mostly composed of very cheerful local people, but I was beginning to get very tense, so I got up and walked around a bit trying to relax. I then saw a dark grey smoke plume coming out of the volcano on Montserrat and prayed that it wouldn't explode in a huge eruption.

Totality would start at 2:33 p.m. Five more minutes to go... My heart began pounding and my mouth became dry. By now the temperature had dropped considerably (I was later told that it had gone down to 72 F during totality) and a cool breeze began to blow. When I heard someone say that they could see the shadow covering Montserrat I quickly grabbed my automatic camera, stood up and with shaking hands aimed it at the horizon.

--- Continues on Eclipse Report p.2 ---

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