One of my hobbies is astronomy, a branch of which is chasing solar eclipses. Solar eclipses occur when the Moon passes in front of the Sun in the course of its orbit. About once a year there is a narrow strip across the Earth where this event is visible. This year, an annular solar eclipse was visible in the Pacific. An annular eclipse occurs when the Moon appears smaller than the Sun - the Sun appears to be like a ring. Another condition is the total eclipse, when the Moon appears bigger than the Sun and blocks the Sun out completely, turning day into night.
I decided to view this eclipse from Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, because it was easily accessible and inexpensive to get to. I dragged along my parents and my sister, because this seemed like a good opportunity to show them an eclipse, and it was easy to talk them into visiting a resort town.
I flew down on Alaska Airlines flight 278 out of Los Angeles, California on June 8, 2002. It took me the same amount of time to drive from my home in San Diego up to the airport as it did to fly from LA down to Puerto Vallarta!
We flew over my house in Ramona, and down the eastern coastline of the Sea of Cortez.
When you're going on an eclipse chase, clouds are something you definitely don't want to see. On the flight down I saw some nasty thunderstorms which did not make me happy. The weather forecast wasn't good for eclipse day.
Puerto Vallarta (PV) was "discovered" when the film "Night of the Iguana" with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton was filmed there. Wait a minute... on my last big eclipse trip I stayed at the Chobe Game Lodge in Botswana Africa where Taylor and Burton were married... am I unwittingly doing an Elizabeth Taylor or Richard Burton tour in the course of chasing eclipses?!
Strolling around PV, we saw some interesting things. This place, located near Taylor's Casa Kimberley home, was selling tickets to see the eclipse. I wonder what those tickets entitled you to?
The day before the eclipse I decided to drive south on Highway 200 to check out possible viewing sites. The coastline has some nice spots, many of which aren't developed much.
The landscape is tropical around PV, turning to thick jungle as you head inland. As you move further south, it turns more temperate with pine trees. Then it gets drier, becoming desert-like with cactus. In the area between the pine trees and cactus were banana plantations, which is near where we saw this fellow, a 4 or 5 inch tarantula spider that was trying to get across the road.
On the way back to PV it rained. Hard. That's not an encouraging sign on the day before an eclipse!
"SEML" stands for the "Solar Eclipse Mailing List", an internet mail exploder for eclipse chasers like me. The owner of that list, Patrick Poitevin, decided to hold a get-together of eclipse chasers in Puerto Vallarta the night before the eclipse. The Hard Rock Cafe on the Malecon in downtown Puerto Vallarta was the venue.
There was a pretty good turnout as evidenced by the photo below. I had fun getting to match names with faces. I wish I could have met all of you but there wasn't time.
When we awoke on June 10, 2002 in Puerto Vallarta we were greeted with a cloudy sky that had large clearings. Astronomers call these "sucker holes" because only suckers (American slang for "gullible people") try to use them for viewing the sky. Still, the clearings were large and if in the right place would let us see the whole eclipse. Toward the south and the path of annularity there were some thick low clouds clinging to the mountains. There was about 7/10 cloud cover. This day was by far the clearest and driest of the four days I was there.
We had to decide whether to stay in PV and settle for a 97% eclipse or else try to see what I came for: annularity. There were "sucker holes" floating over PV but no guarantees that they would be in the right place at the right time, so I reasoned that if I must take chances I would take the chance with higher payoff: annularity. We left our hotel at 4:00pm, plenty of time before the eclipse would start at about 7:30pm and max out at 8:33pm.
I decided to try to reach the centerline on the beach northwest of the town of Cruz de Loreto, out past Hotel Desconocido. I knew that there were some river crossings, but the land around here was very dry (there were several kinds of cactus prominently visible) so I thought the river couldn't be too bad.
As we drove through Cruz de Loreto the locals were shouting and laughing at us. The reason why: we had a little rental car with only 4" of ground clearance on a road where 4WD is recommended. Click here for a picture of me pointing out the clearance with my thumb. It had such a low ground clearance that the chassis bottom scraped speed bumps when we went over them. Soon after passing through the town and seeing the signs for Hotel Desconocido we came to an eight-inch-deep river. We just didn't have the guts to ford it in this car.
After we turned around and headed back out to Highway 200 (for some north-south mobility), I saw many cars and a bus with eclipse chasers going the opposite way, and all of them had vehicles that would be able to cross the river. I was jealous. Back on Highway 200 we chose to head south because of a big "sucker hole" in that direction.
At kilometer 104 on the 200, we were encountering some hills that would block the view, so I decided to give up on that hole, and go back to the road to Cruz De Loreto because it had good visibility west and there was a viable hole forming about a degree off the horizon. My hope was that maybe it would drift lower in altitude and open up.
This was turning into a wild goose chase! I can't believe I was chasing sucker holes...
We found a nice spot on the side of road with decent visibility; there was a distant mountain that would block the view right at sunset but it would have to do. GPS and my eclipse program said that I was less than a mile south of the centerline there. This spot was a mile or two west of Gargantillo.
We waited and waited, while the "sucker hole" closed up! Then it started to rain. From bad to worse... I didn't want to set up my gear in the rain, so I left everything packed up.
Locals were driving by, motioning for us to watch the eclipse. They were pointing to where the Sun would be. It was good to see they were informed about it. Some of the staff at our hotel in PV had proper eclipse glasses.
We waited more, and began to consider heading back south in hopes of catching the southerly "sucker hole" mentioned earlier, but with only about 20 minutes to go to second contact, there was little hope of making it. We would have had to break the speed limits and fly through at least two little towns. By now the rain had stopped.
I decided to bite the bullet, this would be our observing site for better or for worse.
Then a small miracle happened. Lo and behold, 8.5 minutes before second contact, a super bright orange point of light peeked out from where the original "sucker hole" had been. There was a narrow horizontal ribbon of clear sky that had been invisible! I didn't have any equipment set up because it didn't seem like there was any hope left and it had been raining, so I had to scramble to get my scope out. I doled out cameras to each family member and told them to take all of the pictures they could.
The point brightened while I took out my scope and started to focus. Suddenly there were two points of light, separated by half a degree! We were seeing a horizontal slice of the sky, and as the Sun and Moon set we were getting a glimpse of bits of it at a time. I started taking pictures frantically but there was no time for proper focusing, I just set it roughly and snapped away while peeking up to enjoy it visually.
The two points merged into a bar, which was the upper limb of the uneclipsed Sun. Then the whole thing slid below the clouds about 5.5 minutes before second contact. Mega-Bummer, Dude. At least I saw it, so now this one can go into the "saw partial" list as opposed to the "clouded out" list. I calculated that the eclipse was at about 89% when I saw it.
After the Sun and Moon sank below the sliver of clear sky, we saw a beautiful ray of light pivoting up into the sky from that sliver. You can see this orange ray faintly, extending upwards from the bright orange sliver of clear sky:
The sky darkened quite a bit in the next few minutes during maximum eclipse, then brightened again, before slowly darkening a final time as the Sun set. There were some beautiful cloud formations to the upper right of the Sun. This picture was taken within seconds of maximum eclipse, during annularity. It should give you a feel for the darkness.
There was a large "sucker hole" to the south. Folks situated near the southern limit probably saw annularity. Click here for a picture of this hole.
After a few snapshots we packed up and headed back. Mexican roads are notoriously dangerous at night, but this was the fourth time driving this stretch (down & up on site inspection yesterday, down earlier today, and now back up) so we didn't feel too crazy for doing this. Road conditions were similar to what we encounter in backcountry San Diego so this type of driving wasn't unfamiliar. It was dark, foggy, and rainy, with animals in the road and crazy drivers. At first we saw lots of frogs in the road, from about 1 or 2 inches across in size up to 6 inches across and 4-5 inches high. After hitting the coast there were 3-4 inch crab crawling across the road, most were a bluish-white color but one was pinkish-red. We left a lot of roadkill for the birds to eat the next day.
There was a bad car or bus accident on one of the curves in the opposite direction (away from PV). I hope those folks are OK, and I hope that no one behind us got into trouble. We probably had a half hour head start on people who were on the centerline at the beach, so I expect that most of the hardcore chasers were behind us.
Back in PV, We stopped into Pizza Hut for dinner and got back to the hotel at around 11pm. The next day the remnants of Hurricane Boris arrived in force. Had the eclipse been a day eariler or a day later we would not have seen it at all. We went home satisfied, having seen something of the eclipse after it looked like we would get nothing. My next chase will be a total solar eclipse in Australia in December 2002.
Solar eclipses I have observed (or attempted to observe):
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