The February 1998 Total Solar Eclipse

The pictures below were taken from the beach at the Holiday Inn, Palm Beach, Aruba, on 26 February 1998. They were all taken on Kodak Ektachrome 100S Professional slide film (100 ASA) at a focal length of 600mm at f/16. (The equipment consisted of an old Nikon F body [mechanical shutter] with a 300mm Soligor telephoto and a 2x Tamron converter.)  Exposure times varied and were not recorded, but the first, second, and fourth photos below were probably taken at 1/250 or 1/125 sec. The third photo was probably taken at 1/60 sec. All photos by George Kaplan.

A narrative on the eclipse as seen from Aruba follows the photos.

Second contact.

Chromosphere and prominence (top) just after second contact.

Prominence (top) and inner corona shortly after second contact.

Chromosphere just before third contact.

The February 1998 Total Solar Eclipse
Seen from Aruba

George Kaplan

Beginning in 1995, a group of U.S. Naval Observatory astronomers began planning to observe the total eclipse of the Sun that would be visible from parts of the Caribbean and elsewhere on 26 February 1998. Total solar eclipses happen somewhere every year or two, but many occur in remote, inconvenient places. Caribbean islands are easily accessible by air and are very accommodating to tourists. Besides, February is a good month to leave Washington and hit the beach!

Some of us had seen one or more total eclipses before, others not. Most people who have seen one feel compelled to see another. They are perhaps nature's most spectacular and beautiful event, turning day into night for a precious few minutes as the Moon passes directly in front of the Sun. Each one is a magnificent light show, played out in silence, choreographed by gravity. When I saw my first total eclipse in 1970, I understood why primitive peoples feared them -- the phenomena are so all-encompassing, it is easy to imagine the world coming to an end. Some eschatological language in the Bible is undoubtedly eclipse inspired.

For the February eclipse, four USNO staff members, John Bangert, Merri Sue Carter, Geoff Chester, and Jim Clark, were on eclipse cruises that sailed into the path of totality. (This is a popular way of seeing an eclipse since ships can respond to weather conditions and move to clear areas.) Dennis McCarthy was on the island of Antigua in the northeastern Caribbean. This story is about the five staff members -- Lee Breakiron, Christian Hummel, George Kaplan, Kerry Kingham, and Marc Murison -- who went to Aruba along with assorted spouses and friends. Aruba is a small Dutch island just off the coast of Venezuela. We originally became interested in Aruba and its sister island, Curacao, when we heard about the very arid climate there and the excellent prospects for clear skies.

We were part of a large excursion arranged by a travel agency in Annapolis. (The travel was not official; we were all on leave and we paid our own way.) The technical advisor for the trip was Dr. Jim Huddle, a physics professor at the Naval Academy. I had corresponded with him several times over the last two years. He had planned to take several Naval Academy midshipmen with him to do some scientific experiments during the eclipse. We never connected up with him in Aruba, however, since he was at a different hotel and viewed the eclipse from another location on the island. He had to deal with some clouds during totality and not all of his experiments worked out.

The eclipse was on a Thursday, and we flew into Aruba on Monday night (actually, Christian and his wife, along with my suitcases, didn't arrive until Tuesday). We were somewhat concerned to find that although Aruba is in fact a desert island, with cactus everywhere, the skies were often full of fair-weather cumulus clouds. There seemed to be a significant cloud buildup each day in late morning that largely dissipated by early afternoon. Eclipse time was to be just after 14:00, so we were hopeful. On the other hand, the cooling effect of eclipses sometimes does unpredictable things to the weather, so there was still plenty to worry about. Another problem was the near-constant 20-knot trade winds that blow across the island from the east, which can shake telescopes and cameras.

We were staying at the Holiday Inn, on the northern end of Palm Beach, on the west side of Aruba. We had decided to watch the eclipse from the beach by our hotel. Many people were going to travel to the southeast end of the island where there was to be 30 extra seconds of totality. We saw no need to get involved in the traffic and the crowd there; besides, we had noticed that the cloudiness always seemed worse to the south.

The evening before the eclipse, on a walk along the beach, I noticed all the spotlights on the hotel and became concerned that they might come on during totality. I talked to one of the hotel maintenance supervisors who assured me the lights were connected to both a photocell and a timer and would not come on during the eclipse. We found out later that other people had also asked about the lights, and received different stories about how they worked. On the morning of the eclipse, however, the hotel people were assuring everyone that they had taken steps to ensure that the lights would not come on, and they did not.

On Thursday, eclipse day, by around noon, the dreaded clouds were as bad as they had ever been. At one point it was almost entirely overcast. We heard that it actually rained some down on the southeast end of the island where so many people had gone. But what the trade winds bring, they also take away, and within about a half hour large areas of blue sky were opening up. After about 13:30 the Sun was very seldom covered by a cloud, and what clouds there were in the sky were small and on the move.

We had set up on the narrow beach behind our hotel, using one of the hotel towers as a windbreak. (Lee and his wife were near the hotel pool.) There were plenty of other people on the beach, of course, but it never became the crowded human zoo we wanted so much to avoid. With the sea and sand and palm trees, it was a great location to watch an eclipse.

The slow, early stages of the eclipse were themselves undramatic. We had come armed with specific calculations for our location computed by John Bangert and, since we had set our watches by the USNO Master Clock before we left, we knew exactly when events would occur. Totality would begin at 14:09:54 and end at 14:12:50. As the Moon covered more and more of the Sun, the edges of shadows became very sharp. Little crescents of light appeared under trees and bushes -- these were pinhole images of the partially-eclipsed Sun. The wind died down. It was not until perhaps 10 minutes before totality, with the Sun 90% covered by the Moon, that the ambient sunlight began to appear noticeably dim and the world took on a strange half-lit appearance. As one of our group, Neville Withington, said at the time, "the light is definitely looking funky."

But not nearly as funky as it would get! About 30 seconds before totality, a dark band appeared in the sky along the southwestern horizon over the sea -- the Moon's shadow approaching. As the blue sky darkened, the planet Venus appeared near a cloud. Within a few seconds there was only a small bead of sunlight left, and before the Moon covered it entirely, the Sun's tenuous outer atmosphere, the corona, appeared. As the last rays from the Sun's surface disappeared behind the Moon, the planets Mercury and Jupiter popped into view in the deep twilight sky near the Sun. Totality! The full glory of the Sun's corona was revealed: wispy white filaments radiating outward from the black disk of the Moon, following the magnetic field lines of the Sun like iron filings near a bar magnet. As we all held our breath, a small cloud drifted over the Sun for about five seconds before going on its way. Through a telescope, jets of pink hydrogen gas, called prominences, could be seen protruding from the edge of the Moon's limb. We had less than three minutes to gape in awe at all that could be seen, to try to pull what we were experiencing into our memories. And, at the same time, to try to retain enough presence of mind to take a few pictures!

I knew totality was about to end when I saw, through my little telescope, the pink edge of the Sun's chromosphere appear on the right side of the Moon's limb. The chromosphere is just above the photosphere -- the brilliant face of the Sun we normally see -- so it was time to take my eye away from the telescope! Totality ended as a bright spot of sunlight appeared from behind the Moon, dispersing the darkness, the corona, the planets.

At the beach, we did not see the strange "shadow bands", wavelike ripples of light that often move across the ground just before or after totality. Lee, near the pool, did report seeing them. Dennis McCarthy, who saw the eclipse on Antigua, said they were spectacular there. They were also seen by the people on the cruise ships.

Of course, after totality, the final stages of the eclipse are quite anticlimactic, and few people actually stayed around to the very end.

It is appropriate to close this story with a quote from Marielsa Croes, a native of Aruba: "We saw an amazing thing yesterday. We saw the complete solar eclipse at 2 p.m. in Aruba... It was gorgeous and you get chills all over your body. The birds flew away ready to depart as the flowers closed as if it were night. Other animals became slightly nervous and we just sat there with our mouths open in darkness for three minutes in the middle of the day... In Venezuela people stood with their hands open at the moment of total eclipse to catch the powerful and divine silver rays of the sun. We in Aruba smiled, felt so small and admired the beauty of nature. Most feel changed forever."

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