Feb 26, 1998 Eclipse at Shirley Heights Antigua

As we were stepping off the plane onto the runway in Antigua, one of the flight attendants asked me, "Do I look at the eclipse with regular shades or like 3D glasses?" We had ordered some extra shades, so we gave one to her. "Here, these will work." Soon the pilot and other flight attendants were asking her about them.

The next day we sailed, kayaked and snorkled in the deep bay adjacent to our hotel. While we were waiting for lunch, we overheard a persistant salesman pushing his product.

"Eclipse shades for sale, they'll keep you from going blind!"
The woman on the beach was unimpressed. "How much are they?",she inquired.
"Only $5.00."
She laughed,"That's alot, I could buy some rum with that."

On Feb 26 at 10:00 a.m., we took a taxi south from our hotel to Shirley Heights, Antigua. Our taxi bumped over potholes and past spray painted signs which warned people to use eclipse shades. Astronomers and eye doctors had appeared on television the night before to explain safe ways of viewing the eclipse. Antigua did an excellent job of educating its people. The U.S. could learn from them.

We viewed the eclipse from the fort at Shirley Heights. The fort dated from Antiga's British Colonial days and offered an excellent view of the boats moored in English Harbor, Nelson's dockyard and Montserrat off in the distance. People were selling beads, braids, T-shirts, and eclipse shades. A Steel Drum band was playing as the crowds began to appear.

Nearly everyone already had their silvery eclipse shades. We set up our telescope and binoculars (both equipped with mylar solar filters.) When a few children grew curious, I aimed the telescope out to sea where a U.S. navy patrol boat was circling. Furthur out, a large cruise ship had positioned itself midway between Guataloupe and Antigua, near the center of the moon's shadow.

The Shirley Heights pub was selling flying fish burgers and various other carribean "jerk" dishes. The noon sun was high and hot as I stood in line for lunch. The circular hole in my lunch ticket projected an image of the sun onto the shoes of the man in front of me. Soon a small bite was taken out of the sun. This is about how it would have looked from my home in Wisconsin. But here there was much more to come...

English Harbor Before TotalityThe moon gradually crept across the face of the sun. At approximatly 13:45 local time it swallowed a particularly large sunspot. As the sun narrowed into a crescent, more people crowded towards the edge of the cliff to see if they could catch a glimpse of the oncomming shadow. We had to relocate. The first place we tried was already occupied by a cactus (obscurred by the deepening shadows. Ouch!) We finally found a tiny spot astride a rock crevice on the edge of the hill. It was just big enough for us, but I had to leave the telescope behind.

Total eclipse from Shirley Heights

The sun was 49 degrees above the horizon to our southwest. Below and to the right was the island of Montserrat. Grey clouds of ash and steam rose from Montserrat's Souffriere Hills volcano. There were a few false reports of the shadow's advance as clouds darkened the waters in front of us. Soon there was an obvious darkening of Montserrat. Then almost without warning, totality arrived to Antigua. The sky was a deep dark blue, the corona a whispy blue-white and all around us was the orange-red color of sunset. The smoldering volcano was backlit by the eerie glow from outside the shadow. The planets mercury, venus and jupiter shone brightly to either side of the eclipsed sun. It was almost as though we'd been suddenly transported to an ancient volcanic world and observed our solar system from the outside.

English Harbor Before TotalityStreetlights came on below, as did the anchor lights of the boats in the harbour. It was as dark as twilight perhaps 1 hour after sunset. The light reminded me of the blue glow of a clear cold Wisconsin evening. We were no longer hot. The combined SPFs of our suntan lotion and the moon was probably over 1 million. I tried to catch a little bit of the eclipse by aiming the videocamera towards the eclipsed sun and I attempted some 35mm photos on Kodachrome. Unfortunatly I'd forgotten to switch the camera to manual mode, so the camera chose a 30 second exposure, almost 1/4 of the eclipse. Less than 3 minutes after totality began, we saw the 2nd diamond ring. Someone was married just before totality, and just when the first bright beam of sunlight shone from behind the moon to create a diamond ring in the sky, I asked Ginnie to marry me.

I've displayed a few photos here but there is no way to capture the experience on film, video or with words. If you appreciate the beauty of the sky or if you are a romantic and would like to experience another perspective on our small world, try to find your way into the moon's shadow. The next two total solar eclipses will be in southern Africa

Charles Andres has a great photo taken from Johnson Point, Antigua at almost exactly the same moment as my Montserrat photo.
Here's a link to other photos and descriptions on Fred Espenak's page. (Fantastic!)
Here is a folk tale from the Menominee nation http://www.menominee.com/tales/sun.htm

Copyright (c) 1998 Brian Nitz
Image capture by Virtual Video Productions
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