Impressions of the Great Solar Eclipse of 1991

From: Jay Keller
Subject: The Great Total Solar Eclipse of July 11, 1991

I've been back in Santa Clara, California, for about 24 hours, from my trip to Mexico with my family to view the great eclipse. I need some time to digest what I saw, but I will write a few words in the form of a preliminary report:

Our party consisted of myself, my wife Amy, 4-year-old Jason, 18-month-old Diana, our friends Michael and Deborah, and their 3-year-old Julie. The seven of us flew down to Puerto Vallarta last Saturday.  We made arrangements in advance to join Tom Van Flandern's "Eclipse Edge Expedition", which I first learned about on the Internet. 

Van Flandern's stated aim for the Eclipse Edge Expedition was to view the eclipse from a location just inside the path of totality. His assertion was that such a location, while limiting the duration of totality to substantially less than the maximum possible near the centerline of the path of totality, would provide a *longer* duration for the famous and spectacular special effects associated with a total eclipse of the Sun.

The viewing site was therefore chosen to be very near the southern edge of the path of totality. The group, consisting of over 300 people, traveled by 9 chartered buses to a small village about 1 hour north of Puerto Vallarta, named Sayulita. The site's coordinates were approximately -105 deg 26 min longitude by 20 deg 52 min latitude, about 4 kilometers from the southern limit of the path of totality.

Weather all week was lousy for sky-viewing, although great for swimming, shopping, and hanging around the beach. After arriving in PV on July 6, we first caught a glimpse of the sun late Tuesday (the 9th), but Wednesday looked pretty hopeful with only partly cloudy skies most of the day. On Thursday morning we boarded the buses and headed north under again partly cloudy skies.

Upon arriving in Sayulita, a bit after 10 am, it was quite clear except for a few scattered clouds, and very hot. The radiation from the overhead sun felt extremely intense to those of us not used to the tropics.  People carrying equipment scurried to install it on the large courtyard in front of the town's primitive 4-room schoolhouse. There soon was a vast array of tripods holding all manner of portable equipment. Quite a few 8" telescopes were present, a large number of smaller scopes, many tripod-mounted binoculars (some quite large), hundreds of cameras, and a fairly large number of camcorders. I myself had dragged about $7K worth of photo and video gear down there. My primary system was a Nikon N8008 35mm SLR fitted with a Nikkor 300mm ED f/4 lens and a Nikon TC-301 teleconverter, which made it into a 600mm f/8. The camera was fitted with a data back (used to time-stamp the photos and to perform automatic exposure bracketing), a right-angle finder (virtually a necessity to shoot straight up), and an electronic cable-release. Partial phases were shot on Kodachrome 25 and Ektar 25 with a Tuthill "Solar Skreen" filter. Totality was shot with a roll of 24 exposures of Fujicolor 400 print film, and a roll of Kodachrome 64 slide film. I got some totality shots on Ektar 25 as well.  

Those interested in photography can read my Photography Report

For video, I shot a Sony CCD-V5000 Hi8 camcorder with a 1.5x tele-converter attached. Again, a filter was used for partial phases. Both camera and camcorder were on sturdy tripods pointing straight up (the Sun was almost at 90 degrees from the horizon, directly overhead).

First contact was about 10:37, although I made no attempt to time it with any precision. However, I did record the video with my clock display showing, and I have a few seconds of WWV (government-sponsored accurate time signals on the radio) recorded at the beginning of my tape, so anything on my tape can be time-referenced accurately. Unfortunately, in the excitement of the moment, I missed a few seconds of video around second contact (the exact instant when totality commences), so I have no precise times for that event. I regret that, but the 35mm camera was my primary concern, and the video was intended to mostly catch the ambience.

At about 85% totality a big cloud came by and partially obscured the Sun, but we could see that there were clear skies behind it and it looked like it would clear in time, which it did. Second contact, a bit after 12:05 local time (which in the state of Nayarit is Mountain Standard Time) came with perfectly clear skies all around the eclipsed Sun.

Tom Van Flandern was right, all the effects seemed to happen in slow motion. The famous "diamond ring" lasted more than a minute. Someone who was at the centerline, with 6+ minutes of totality, later told me that their diamond ring was 3 seconds duration. We got well over 2 minutes of totality, with about a minute or a minute-and-a-half of spectacular effects on each side of the total phase. We were able to observe jus about every well-known eclipse effect. It was my first total eclipse, and I saw all of the following:

Simply put, it was the most beautiful thing I ever saw. No photograph could possibly capture it. The black hole was the blackest thing I ever saw. The beads were incredibly bright and amazingly colorful. Verbal superlatives sound silly to anyone who has seen this most magnificent of nature's displays.

The people who were there all went wild. Screaming and moaning were fairly typical reactions. My wife and I both had tears in our eyes. She had been a bit of a skeptic ("Are you sure this trip is going to be worth it?"), but says now that it was fantastic beyond her wildest expectations. She and I both aspire to see another one someday.

See also Photography Report



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