Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

December 17, 2017

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Look to the skies

Experience a total solar eclipse from the high seas and you'll have the best view in the world

When you start dreaming of once-in-a-lifetime travel, consider adding a total solar eclipse to the “natural wonder” category. Simply put, viewing this impressive planetary spectacle is nothing short of breathtaking; it’s one of those sights you’ll never forget.

I’ve had the opportunity to experience three total solar eclipses, during which the moon completely covers up the disk of the sun. How did eclipse chasing become part of my travel agenda? When we were first married, my husband Brad Dibble, who is both a cardiologist and an astronomy buff, proposed a lifelong vacation strategy: any major globetrotting should involve a noteworthy astronomical event and telescopes and binoculars would be included in the luggage. The quirky travel scheme appealed to me. Numerous passport stamps later, the offbeat vacation agenda is still going strong.

Eclipse chasing can be done on land, but ocean vessels offer prime viewing of this awe-inspiring sky show. Several tour companies even specialize in travel packages to view this celestial event by sea or land.

View if by sea

Why choose water over land? First and foremost, finding the best spot to view a total solar eclipse can be challenging on a planet with a surface that is nearly three-quarters covered in water. Furthermore, the ship’s radar system and mobility allow it to steer around any pesky cloud cover that could get in the way of prime viewing. After all, you don’t want to travel half-way across the world only to have your sight scuppered by clouds.

Additional advantages of water-based viewing include enjoying the amenities of luxury cruise ships, and exploring interesting ports of call. After all, the eclipse only lasts a few minutes, so you’ll have plenty of time for additional non-stargazing sightseeing. The only real downside to vessel viewing is the quality of your photos. In other words, land-based photos will tend to be better simply because there is no movement. Having said that, photos taken on ships are often pretty amazing, and unless you plan on publishing your pics, you’ll likely be quite satisfied with the results.

Looking up

Total solar eclipses rarely happen in your own backyard. As a result, eclipse chasers often travel to far-off destinations for totality. Lunar eclipses, on the other hand, are more common because they’re visible to anyone on the nighttime side of earth with clear skies when they occur. With lunar eclipses you just have to wait a couple of years for one to come your way. But solar eclipses are more scarce. Total solar eclipses are rare at any particular location because totality (that's when the moon fully covers the sun) only exists on a very narrow section of the earth’s surface as it’s traced by the moon’s shadow. Chances are your region won’t have one during your lifetime.

Since globetrotting and eclipse chasing go hand in hand, our passion for astronomy has taken us around the world. In February 1998, our first solar eclipse took us cruising through the Caribbean. A year later in 1999, we embarked on a three-week, land-based tour through Turkey. The highlight of the Turkish trip was eclipse viewing in a remote Kurdish village, close to the borders of Iran, Iraq and Syria.

In July of 2009, we opted for ocean travel again, and boarded a cruise ship in Tianjin, China for a 10-day cruise through the Pacific. During that trip, we experienced our third and longest solar eclipse, with six minutes 42 seconds of totality. Other highlights included a trip to the Great Wall of China, tours of Tokyo and South Korea, and a ship’s view of Iwo Jima. Although the eclipse always takes centre stage, plenty of additional sightseeing opportunities. In some cases, you’ll travel to places seldom visited by outsiders. Think about it this way: even if you miss the eclipse due to inclement weather, at least you’ll have done plenty of exotic travelling.

The main event

Because you often travel thousands of kilometres to see a total solar eclipse, some wonder if those few minutes of amazement are worth it. All I can say is that it’s a thrilling experience, and you’ll never regret seeing one with your own eyes. Photographs can never do it justice. On eclipse day, there is plenty of excitement in the air. Setup usually begins early in the day, with folks organizing their deck chairs and strategically placing their telescopes, cameras and binoculars.

As the eclipse progresses, the sky begins to darken in the middle of the day, and there’s a noticeable drop in temperature. Just before totality (that’s when the moon fully covers the sun) something strange happens to the earth’s light. My husband describes it as a very ethereal, almost other-worldly light surrounds you.

This bizarre light also has a unique effect on wildlife. On cruises we have experienced ocean life, such as dolphins and large fish suddenly jumping out of the water alongside the ship. On land, you might see livestock heading towards the barn mistakenly thinking that the sun has set.

During totality, darkness descends and the moon fully obscures the sun. It’s a truly jaw-dropping moment. During those few precious seconds or minutes, the stunning corona (a part of the sun we don’t normally get to see) shines in all its beauty surrounding the darkened sun; it’s a marvelous fringe of flickering white light.

During the totality phase, you can view the eclipse without any eye protection whatsoever, even if you’re using binoculars or a telescope. Before and after totality, however, solar filters are required not only for your eyes, but for cameras or any viewing equipment you might be using. Totality may last as long as seven and a half minutes, though most total solar eclipses are usually much shorter.

Additional totality highlights include observing the formation of Baily’s beads, and the diamond ring. Near the start and end of totality, the thin slice of visible sun looks like it has been broken up into beads of light. This fringe of pearly white lights is called Baily’s beads after the British astronomer who first discovered them. They occur because the edges of the moon, which are covered in mountains, aren’t smooth.

When just one of the beads is visible, the effect looks very similar to a diamond ring. In fact, the goal of many photographers chasing eclipses is to take a perfect shot of the diamond ring effect. During totality, it can be dark enough that some of the brighter stars and planets can be observed in the darkened sky.

As the eclipse comes to a close, the mood is jovial and champagne is often served by the ship’s crew. It truly is a celebration and everyone has been a part of it.

No experience required

For anyone interested in eclipse chasing, the biggest thing to remember is that you don’t need to be an astronomy expert to enjoy the event. Many of the travel companies that organize eclipse tours are led by astronomy experts who offer on-site information sessions during your vacation if you’re so inclined. In fact, most other passengers on the trip will likely know more than you, and are always happy to help bring you up to speed.

As for my family’s celestial travel plans? We’re eyeing something off the coast of Africa in the fall of 2013. It will be our fourth total solar eclipse, but definitely won’t be our last.

This article was accurate when it was published. Please confirm rates and details directly with the companies in question.

Comments

Showing 1 comments

  1. On September 25, 2012, Lynn Anderson said:
    I too was on the Costa Classica. I'm off to Port Douglas for the Nov. 14th TSE, my 7th + 2 annular.

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