On the road: The Great Australian Dreamtime Eclipse, Days 8-10

Posted by David Eicher
on Friday, November 16, 2012

Members of Astronomy's travel group view the eclipse November 14, 2012.
Eclipse day finally came in Australia, and despite early troubling clouds, was an immense success for all 200 of our travelers! We were ecstatic!

Before the eclipse, however, we spent a couple days at Cairns (pronounced CANS), centered on the World Heritage Site that is the tropical rainforest in the area, and of course on the nearby Great Barrier Reef, a couple dozen kilometers to the east of the continent’s eastern shore. Suffice it to say that everyone really enjoyed either snorkeling or scuba diving on the reef. It was simply amazing, with bath-warm water and parts of the reef extending so close to the surface of the Coral Sea that you had to be careful not to kick it with your fins. Schools of electric blue and orange fish swam right through our groups so that you could practically touch them. We saw a white-tipped reef shark, sting rays, giant clams, sea cucumbers, coral formations, sea turtles, and numerous other creatures.

The eclipse at second diamond ring, Green Island, Great Barrier Reef, Coral Sea, 17 miles (27 kilometers) east of Cairns, Australia, 6:42 a.m. local time, November 14, 2012.
The groups left Cairns early on eclipse morning, our group at midnight, to head to Green Island. When our group left Cairns, we had rain and overall cloud cover. Weather prospects did not look good. The 45-minute trip by boat to Green Island, however, saw clearing at the site in the Great Barrier Reef some 17 miles (27 kilometers) east of Cairns. Stationed on the eastern side of Green Island, for about three hours, from 2 a.m. onward, I observed a huge variety of deep-sky objects. These included my best dark-sky views of the Eta Carinae Nebula, the Southern Cross, Alpha and Beta Centauri, the Magellanic Clouds, the Tarantula Nebula, 47 Tucanae, the Jewel Box, and many more. It was an incredible night of observing!

And then as twilight began to come up, we could see low clouds along the eastern horizon but a predominantly clear view in that direction. I observed the eclipse with David Levy and Melita Thorpe; several other notable observers were in the vicinity, including Dennis Mammana, Daniel Thorpe, and my magazine colleague Rich Talcott.

Totality was amazing. It was perhaps the darkest eclipse I have ever seen, and David counted 19 prominences around the Sun’s circumference. The overall effect was stunning: With the naked eye, the corona looked like a pretty, symmetrical flower, and the darkness of the sky made the prominences stand out dramatically, like dimly burning embers in a fireplace. We noted Baily’s beads, a superbly bright diamond ring on either side of totality, and shadow bands on the white shelf of sand behind us. Totality lasted almost exactly 2 minutes.

All in all, it was an incredible eclipse, and we had screams of joy all along the beach from 200 in our group and from two other mixed groups from Japan and Australia who were also on the island. A spectacular success!

Most of the group had a couple hours of sleep the night before the eclipse and were running on pure adrenaline all through the day. Following the fantastic success of the big event, we repaired to Hartley’s Crocodile Adventure Park to see giant “salties,” as they’re called, jumping from the water and devouring their nightly chickens. We dined on a fantastic and fancy menu of steak, kangaroo, and, yes, crocodile.

And again most travelers got only a couple hours of sleep for the second night, as they were awakened early to head to the airport to begin the long journey back to the United States. It was a long and amazing trip and one that, thankfully, we hit just right with eclipse weather! More to come later on our website and in the magazine . . .

And be sure to check out all of the images from this trip at www.Astronomy.com/DreamtimeTotalEclipse.

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