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The 2003 Antarctic Total Solar Eclipse - Trip Updates

by Fred Bruenjes

Please visit the main page first for background information. This page is for any late information about the eclipse. Be sure to bookmark it and check back. I only have a slow 9.6kbps GSM cellphone internet connection here in Cape Town so updates will be brief and photos small.

FYI: My friend and fellow eclipse chaser "Klipsi" is posting daily updates from the icebreaker expedition.

Sunday-Monday November 23rd-24th, 2003: Cape Town to Antarctica and the Eclipse and back

At 7:20am we got the command we'd been waiting for: be packed and have your bags in the hotel lobby in half an hour. We drove to the airport and boarded the plane (A Russian Ilyushin 76TD cargo plane).

The seats were normal airline seats, universally uncomfortable for me. I was sitting in seat 4D (aka 17), an aisle seat. This is me:

There were 80 people on board. At the back were two porta-potties, and behind them was the cargo section.

I got invited into the navigator's pit. Bumped my head on the way in. The plane is being flown by crack Russian test pilots - the most experienced pilots there are. We crossed the Antarctic Circle (66 point something degrees south latitude) at 13:35UT and celebrated with champagne.

A bit less than six hours after taking off we landed at the Novolazarevskaya airstrip, which is also the ALCI (Antarctic Logistics Company) base camp. People were slipping and sliding across the ice, it's just like being on a skating rink. Everyone was acting like children, we were all REALLY excited to be here!

Me again, this time with my cold weather gear on. Even with all my gear on I was still cold. Temperature was about -6C (21F).

This is the mess tent, the hub of all activities.

This is where I was going to stay, but yesterday's storm blew several tents down.

Instead we stayed in an aluminum storage building.

Here's the inside:

The NHK (Japanese TV network) was here to broadcast the eclipse and do documentaries on Antarctica. They were being rather rude, we were told not to interact with them and to stay clear of their tents. This is their 3 or 4 meter satellite uplink dish, with the red RF tent and yellow video switching tent next to it. They ultimately used a location away from ours for the eclipse broadcast.

My first activity was a sightseeing flight up into the mountains. We got a great view of basecamp after takeoff.

Two planes took off simultaneously. They are Russian Antonov 2's (AN2's), the largest flying biplanes in the world.

In this view from the cockpit we could see the mountains we were visiting, some 100km from basecamp. The sky was super clear.

We landed in a valley to take pictures. It was SO cold here, 12F with 13mph winds.

We could see amazing mountains all around. This one must be thousands of feet high.

I managed to get my picture taken before scurrying back onto the plane.

There was no liquid water to be seen, only the frozen stuff for countless miles...

Before landing we flew over the Schirmacher Oasis. This is beachfront Antarctic property.

Here is the Russian Novolazarevskaya base, an assemblage of old trailers and containers. The Indians run a nearby base called Maitri.

After returning we ate dinner (horrible cold tasteless stuff) and headed for the eclipse site. I went in the advance team with Vic & Jen Winter, David & Wendee Levy, Bob Shambora, and some other folks I don't know. We drove in a tracked vehicle that belongs to the Indians.

Upon arriving at the site there was a problem, South wasn't where it was when Jen surveyed the site in February. A large rise would block our view of the eclipse. To come all this way, spend all this money, have perfect weather, and miss the eclipse because of a snowbank would not do. We could not move south or west due to crevasses. East was no better. So that left north, we started hiking that way in the hopes that as we got further from the ridge we would see over it better. We arrived at a suitable place only about 30 minutes before totality. There was no time left to set up all of the equipment I had brought, so I had to prioritize and set up whatever I could. It was so bone-chillingly cold that batteries and cameras were dying left and right. Put a fresh battery in and it's dead within minutes. My fancy Meade LXD55 tracking mount decided it was in the northern hemisphere and refused to track the sun in the correct direction. Oh well.

Standing next to me was David & Wendee Levy, next to them was Jen & Vic Winter, then Bob Shambora. We made sure to stand line-abreast so as not to get in each other's way.

The seeing was absolutely terrible, on the order of several arcMINUTES. Extinction was about two stops. David Levy spotted shadow bands around 10 minutes before totality, an exceptional amount of time. This is the first time I have ever seen shadow bands. They looked like a shadow of smoke. We could see the Moon's shadow coming in well to the left of the Sun (see below, darkening of sky). The anti-solar shadow was huge and black all the way to the horizon, I wish I could have gotten a picture of that (the camera died due to cold).

As totality approached I blindly took pictures with my cameras, hoping to get something. Because we had backed up from the designated observing site there was someone in my field of view. You can see him just left of the sun. This is the second contact diamond ring, you can see some red prominences and whitish corona. I have corrected the color to remove the reddening that comes from the low solar altitude, to better show the prominences. The ridge was still high enough to block part of the sun.

Totality was wonderful, I concentrated on observing visually while working cameras with the back of my mind. My binoculars were out of focus and I had a hard time adjusting them because of the cold. Looking around, I did not see any aurora. There was some spatial variation in sky brightness but nothing I would consider aurora. I could only see two radii of corona. The color below is closer to what was seen with the eye.

All too soon the eclipse ended and the sun peeked out from behind the moon. We were absolutely elated, we had done it! We (well, several hundred of us) became the first people to see a total solar eclipse from Antarctica. A whole continent, 6 billion people in the world, and we were the first ones. Amazing! This also marks the first time I've seen the midnight sun, as the eclipse was just after midnight local time. As I packed up my equipment (pretty much everything had died from the cold, no point in sticking around), David made a call in to the Discovery Channel for a live interview and related his descriptions with schoolboy giddiness. The third contact diamond ring is below, you can still see a hint of corona around the left guy. Shadow bands again were visible for 10 minutes after totality.

We returned to camp satsfied and fulfilled, and also dead tired. The shed was unbelievably cold. I was cold the whole night, I never got warm. The next morning was time to celebrate.

We were scheduled to visit the Russian Novo and Indian Maitri bases today, but the weather forecast said that a big storm was coming and if we didn't get out NOW we would be pinned down for days. I was happy to leave, I got to see the eclipse I came to see, I got to see the continent I wanted to see, and I wouldn't have to spend another cold night here. We began loading the plane.

We took off at 14:25 UT, exactly 24 hours after landing. On the flight back I got to see some icebergs out the window.

We landed at Cape Town about midnight local time, cleared passport control, collected our luggage, cleared customs, and took our bus to the hotel. I took a hot shower, called home to relay my success, dropped immediately to sleep, and dreamed of the next eclipse: Tahiti in 2005. Much warmer weather there.

Tuesday November 25th, 2003: Cape Town Post-Eclipse Celebration

Today was a rest day, for people to sleep in, wash up, and relax after the frantic pace of the past few days. In the evening we went to the Bloemendal Restaurant for a post-eclipse wrapup and celebration. The restaurant is on the top of a hill in wine country, with a great view of Cape Town. Being astronomers we were immediately drawn to the sunset and the view of the sky after dark. Here the Moon, Venus, and Mercury set against Table Mountain.

We had an impromptu star party.

Finally we got inside and had dinner...

David Levy and others shared their feelings about the eclipse. Thank you gifts and certificates were swapped among all.

Afterwards some members of the group went over to the Herschel Monument for a late-night star party and observing session at that famous location. I was too tired to attend.

Wednesday November 26th, 2003: Cape Town to Home

Everyone is flying home today. I am writing this from the hotel lobby as people check out of the hotel and say their goodbyes. We all can't wait to meet again in Tahiti in 2005, the Sahara Desert in 2006, and the North Pole in 2015!

Thursday November 27th, 2003: Arrived Home

I arrived home safely and with all of my luggage in time for Thanksgiving dinner. This concludes updates to this page. In the coming days and weeks I will be adding items to the main page.

Please click here for the pretrip and November 16-22 updates.

Please visit the main page first for background information. If you've already read it, then instead please visit my main astronomy page, or check out my homepage.

All text and images are © 2003 Manfred Bruenjes - All Rights Reserved. Image inlining (aka hot linking) and framing are strictly prohibited. Email for permission before using an image or text.