"This Is It!"—Totality at Last!

Viewing a Total Eclipse 900 Miles Out in the Atlantic

The Philadelphia Inquirer, August 13, 1972

Libby Rosenbaum

[Philadelphia Inquirer]

There we were — my husband and I — out in the Atlantic Ocean some 900 miles east of New York City aboard the Greek Line's Olympia on a one-week cruise to view a total eclipse of the sun.

Aboard were more than 800 passengers from 40 or more of our United States. Some people even came from such far-away places as Venezuela, the Netherlands, Puerto Rico, Mexico, Alaska, West Indies, Hawaii and Europe.

Although they had traveled far, most came with their very expensive high powered telescopes and cameras, plus all the accessories that go with them, such as filters, lenses, tripods, etc.

ON BOARDING the vessel we had been handed a packet of printed material. We read "Everything You Need to Know for Viewing a Total Solar Eclipse But Were Afraid to Ask." The envelope contained all types of eclipse information, instructions for ordering special dark glasses for viewing the phenomenon and several other booklets and fact sheets.

We were informed that a large variety of mini-courses would be offered throughout the entire week. Starting as early as 6 A.M. we could attend Birding (identification of rare ocean birds), followed by Eclipse Briefing Sessions, Eclipse Photography, Celestial Navigation, Astronomy, Meteorology, Oceanography, Environmental Studies, Star Identification, etc.

There also were special classes for the children. Anyone who attended 15 or more hours of these courses was to be awarded a Certificate of Recognition from the New York State Maritime College. College credit was also given to those who registered for it.

The total eclipse was to occur Monday afternoon, July 10, 1972, two days after our cruise had started. This would give us time to prepare and educate ourselves for this great spectacle.

We knew that looking at the sun either directly with our naked eye or indirectly through the view finder on our camera could cause blindness. Therefore, we were somewhat confused and nervous about how we would be able to observe and photograph the eclipse.

WE ATTENDED the first astronomy course Sunday morning. Jokingly, our instructor told us there might be some aboard so frightened by this eclipse they would hide in the closet the moment it began. He was there now to allay our fears.

There was only one safe time, we learned, to look directly at the sun with our naked eye or through the camera's viewfinder. That was during the short period of the total eclipse (totality) when the sun's direct rays were completely covered up by the moon. This would last only two minutes this year (each eclipse varies).

During the period of the partial eclipse, before and after totality, no one was to look directly at the sun because even a little sliver could be blinding. Because we were all so anxious to view the partial phases as well as totality, special dark glasses were designed for us to be used at that time.

To receive these glasses, one had to sign a form stating that he accepted full responsibility for using them. An instruction sheet accompanied each pair of glasses. They were to be used only for intermittent and momentary views of the partial phases of the eclipse. We were to remember to take them off at totality.

After being reassured by our first lecture, we went on to Eclipse Photography to get instructions on how to use our cameras properly. Our instructor gave us many valuable tips for photographing the eclipse, but most important of all, he told us not to panic at the camera.

AFTER ALL this special preparation, some of the most experienced photographers and scientists had become so overwhelmed and captivated at the time of totality that they had forgotten to change their lens settings, readjust their cameras, take off their filters and even snap their shutters.

That could never happen to me, I said to myself. I am too calm, cool and collected to let a thing like a solar eclipse unnerve me. My husband, on the other hand, was not so sure about trusting me with our movie camera.

Following this photography lecture we saw the films: "Shadow Across The Sun," a documentary of the 1970 solar eclipse, and "Eclipse Over Siberia". I had read previously that the 1970 two and a half minute total eclipse drew at least 800 scientists and technicians from 14 nations with about $90 million in equipment. I could only guess how many dollars worth of equipment we had aboard.

After the films were over, I decided to relax on deck. I was not in the habit of concentrating for such a long and intense period of time and found myself becoming restless. My brain had not been challenged for many years, while changing diapers, washing dishes, reading nursery rhymes and fairy tales and chauffeuring my children. This was a unique experience and one that I had to get used to.

As the week progressed, I noticed my attention span increasing and my ability to sit, enjoy, and concentrate on these lectures improving. By week's end I was utterly fascinated by the courses I was constantly attending.

BY SUNDAY afternoon, my husband and I were starting to plan exactly where and what we would do with our cameras during the eclipse. This was our very first eclipse, but for a number of others aboard, it was not. These "eclipse chasers" had seen several eclipses already and would go to see even more.

We had met many interesting people so far, including astronomers, physicists, chemists, an astronaut, school and college teachers, professors, engineers, high school and college students, physicians, housewives, businessmen, planetarium directors, ornithologists and many others.

Most people aboard were concerned about the weather. Rain or even clouds would obscure the eclipse. Our cruise could be a fiasco? We had heard rumors there was a storm coming up and many clouds near the area where we were scheduled to see the eclipse. Would this trip be made in vain?

That evening, after the captain's cocktail party, dinner and the show, we went outside to see what the weather was like. Tomorrow was our big day and we were hoping for clear skies. To our great disappointment, we could not see the stars due to clouds and they even had to cancel the 11:30 P.M. star identification class. Lightning streaked the sky and it was very, very windy.

The following morning we awakened early to the most beautiful, sunny and perfect day yet. Everyone aboard was wearing his broadest grin. Our ship had been through a storm, but with expert guidance and calculation was now in a sunny opening surrounded entirely by clouds. An aura of excitement pervaded the ship. We ate breakfast quickly and attended our 9:30 A.M. eclipse briefing session.

HERE WE reviewed what we had previously learned and added more bits of our knowledge to our large store of information. We were fortunate to have instructors who were leading authorities in their fields. Their enthusiasm was contagious. They tried to convey to us the feeling we would have at eclipse time but admitted we would have to experience it ourselves.

We were 2 hours from our viewing point. The partial eclipse would start at 3:30 P.M. and totality would occur at 4:47 P.M.

'It all happened, just as they said it would. The moon was slowly moving in front of the sun...I was so awed by this moment.'

After a quick lunch, we were on deck to find a viewing spot. With more than 800 people aboard, we visualized a large crowd all squeezing into the best viewing area. Surprisingly, the people were spread out and it was not as crowded as we had expected.

We found a perfect spot next to the rail and either my husband or I stayed there from 2:30 P.M. until eclipse time.

I walked around the ship overwhelmed at the sight of all the men, women and children setting up, adjusting, fixing and peering through their cameras and telescopes.

ASTRONOMERS were on board to take advantage of this phenomenon, to look at the stars in the middle of the day and make certain studies that can only be made during a solar eclipse. I also understood that a team of astrophotographers had a 150 pound K-40 camera equipped with a 1200 mm lens to conduct a planet and comet search during the short time of totality. Also, aboard was an oceanographic team with an echo sounding device. I was just fascinated by it all.

Now the time was drawing near. The deck was crowding up and we were becoming tense. We were constantly looking at our watches. We checked to be sure we had everything ready. An announcement came to us over the loud speaker that the partial eclipse was now in progress.

Yes, it was finally 3:30 P.M. The moment we had all been waiting for. We all took out our specially designed glasses and started glimpsing at the sun through them. What a thrill. How amazing.

It all happened, just as they said it would. The moon was slowly moving in front of the sun. At first glimpse, only a tiny sliver was covered. Then a little more and a little more. Every three to five minutes I took a glimpse. I couldn't believe it.

People seemed to be talking more quietly now. Everyone was busy with his own project. I continued looking through my special glasses. I couldn't put them down. I, who had even been afraid to look through these glasses, was so awed by this moment.

COULD THIS really be happening, or was it a dream? Of course it was real, but hard to believe. Our instructors were right. No one else could explain this to you. One had to experience it himself. I looked around and noticed it was gradually getting darker. It was strange and eerie too. I felt a little helpless. Here was a situation I had no control over. I could now understand why eclipses have both fascinated and terrified our ancestors.

The time was drawing nearer and our excitement was increasing. It was getting much darker. More than three-fourths of the sun was now completely covered by the moon. We had been told that, as the eclipse occurred, the moon's shadow would be racing over the western horizon at over 2,000 miles per hour. We were all looking out for this.

Now we could see only a sliver of the sun as we peered through our special glasses. Were we ready? Our moment was almost here. We all made the necessary changes in our cameras as best we could in the dim, eerie light that covered our ship.

And then it happened. A hush had come over the ship. My husband excitedly said: "This is it!" The sun was now completely covered by the moon. Totality at last!

I took off my special glasses for this one brief time and looked directly at the sun. The oohs and ahs were heard from one end of the ship to the other. All that was visible now was the beautiful and startling outer ring or corona of sunlight around the moon and day had turned into night. These brilliant rays of light, like a white halo, extended for out into the dark night sky.

HOW THRILLING and exciting! To think — these three celestial bodies, the Earth, Moon and Sun, lined up in a row!

All cameras and telescopes were now operating (except those held by spellbound people). We all worked very quickly, for our two minutes would soon be over. Just as the moon started to slip away from the sun, the first burst of sunlight created a " diamond ring" effect in the sky.

Everyone clapped his hands loudly and the ship's band started to play. It was truly a joyous moment and well worth all the time and effort we had put into it.

FOR SEVERAL moments we stood there in awe, then put our special glasses back on again to continue to view the remainder of the partial eclipse. Some people started to pack up their equipment and leave the deck but we chose to stay. As time passed, more and more people left the deck, and soon it was all over.

Go To Eclipse'72 — Olympia's Voyage to Darkness

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