Eclipse chasers like to keep track of the amount of time they’ve spent inside the Moon’s shadow. The number is expressed in seconds. I call mine my “UmbraLog” and I am currently enjoying number 1838 (or 30.633 minutes). The number is a bit of a status symbol and a point of achievement and pride amongst lifetime chasers.
While a typical total eclipse might give you 2 or 3 minutes of totality, the event of 11 July 1991 turned out to be one of the longest eclipses of the century, plunging us all into almost 7 minutes of unearthly magic. Not bad for my first try. Baja California Sur, Mexico, is the thin peninsula that extends south of the state of California along mainland Mexico’s Pacific side. In the days leading up to the eclipse, the town of La Paz was flooded with scientists and chasers from around the globe transforming this sleepy coastal village into Astronomy Central.
Mexico was well prepared for this event. The government spent lots of time and money to promote the eclipse and to manage the converging interests of thousands of people. And they did a great job. The official Mexico eclipse logo (at top of the page) was everywhere in the newspaper and on billboards, hats, T-shirts and pamphlets, and the local parades, dances and parties in the street in celebration of the eclipse went on for almost a week.
The North American media always make a big deal of any eclipse that falls between its shores and this one was certainly no exception. In addition, numerous films were made about this eclipse including one feature film entitled “Eclipse” by Canadian filmmaker Jeremy Podeswa.
On the day of the eclipse, my friend, Amy, and I drove to the highest hilltop we could find in La Paz as the partial phases unfolded in the sky above our heads.
With the crowds of chasers along the beach and in town, it looked as if we had picked a perfect spot to watch the Shadow of the Moon approaching us.
When the shadow finally swept across us I couldn’t believe my eyes. It got so dark all the street lights went on in the town below. Night!! But it wasn’t night. It was the monstrous Moon’s shadow fresh from a run across the open Pacific. I watched as the monstrous Moon shadow cut through the sky heading straight for me at 3000 kilometers per hour. The wind picked up and the temperature dropped. The sky was being cut in half! Through a piece of welder’s glass I watched the perfectly black disc of the Moon cross the final inch of the face of the Sun reducing it to a single sliver of brilliance. The town of La Paz faded into silhouettes before my eyes as the Moon’s veil of darkness swept up every living soul from west to east. Planets and stars appeared over my head in a sky that was now deeper and more magical than any twilight I had ever seen. I blinked, dropped my welder’s glass, and looked up with my naked eye as the Moon finally hid the last burst of sunlight behind its jagged edge. With the Sun now totally hidden behind the dark side of the Moon, I took my first few breaths in the Moon’s umbra – the alien world known as TOTALITY.
I shook off the goose-bumps as best I could but the hair on the back of my neck was up to stay. With my naked eye I could see past the edge of the Moon to the surface of the Sun where brilliant pink and red explosions of gas were leaping up into space. These prominences looked as if a crimson jewel-box had tumbled open from behind the black limb of the Moon. And burning in every direction was the atmosphere of the sun – long, thin, luminescent streamers of gas and magnetism that cut into space like swords for 3 million kilometers in every direction!! It was sublime. It was as if our little spot on Earth had fallen out of time. It was as if we had been arrested in a dome of dark blue sky so the universe could peer in at us with its one giant eye to see if we were paying attention. All of a sudden I was in a relationship with the universe. I had never seen or felt anything like it before.
Six minutes and fifty seconds of totality marched across my face in an instant. I’m not sure if I breathed or not. When it was over, I was an eclipse chaser.
I didn’t know it at the time because it was my first, but the shape of the corona on 11 July 1991 was the most exquisite. It has become the standard by which all other coronas have been judged. Absolutely magnificent! It’s no wonder I haven’t been quite the same since.