Meet the Solar Eclipse Mega Fans Who Travel the World Chasing a Blackened Sun

Every 18 months, a dedicated group of eclipse-chasers relocates to the sliver of the Earth where they can best see the next total solar eclipse.

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Mar 24 2016, 6:07am

All photos by Renée Alexander

A total solar eclipse is visible about every 18 months or so, somewhere on the planet. In order to see the full effect, you must be on what's known as the path of totality, which is a thin swath of Earth, the umbra, where the moon obliterates the sun entirely.

The closer you get to the path of totality, the longer it lasts. As it approaches, a shadow races across the land at about 1,000 miles per hour until the sun goes dark, revealing a corona of white light that emanates from a black wafer. This is the only time it is safe to view with the naked eye.

Total solar eclipses can be addictive. Once you've seen one, it's hard not to get hooked, which explains why there are thousands of "umbraphiles" who travel the globe, hungrily chasing their next astronomical high. Never let anyone tell you a partial eclipse is close enough—the difference between 99 percent and 100 percent is the difference between winning the lottery and winning a set of steak knives.

I got my first hit in the Australian outback in 2012. My longtime friend David Blackmore had been telling me about his eclipse-chasing adventures for more than a decade, and I was keen to experience it for myself. I flew from San Francisco to Sydney, rented a camper van, and drove it 1,500 miles north to Cairns, where I met David and a few dozen avid eclipse chasers from England, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, Malta, and the United States. We conducted a reconnaissance mission to find the perfect viewing spot and ended up watching the eclipse at sunrise from a dusty ledge just outside a sheep station in Palmerville, in Far North Queensland.

When the sun went dark, I felt a rush of adrenaline, akin to a four-story drop in a roller coaster—except that it lasted for more than two minutes. From that moment, I was hooked, and I started planning my next chase immediately after returning home.

And so it was that I set off for Indonesia on March 1 to see this year's eclipse, slated for the morning of March 9. The eclipse would be visible from a narrow band of Earth crossing Sumatra, Borneo, Sulawesi, Maluku, the Togean Islands in Indonesia, and in parts of Micronesia. At best, we'd get three minutes of totality in the open ocean. On land, we'd be lucky to get two.

Read: How Eclipses Destroyed Empires, Enabled Columbus, and Inspired the Birth of Science

David and I met in Jakarta and made our way to the Togean Island of Malenge, where we met veteran umbraphiles Simon Macara and Greg Brown. Between the two of them, they had experienced more than two dozen total eclipses, on every continent.

Simon told me he'd been fascinated by eclipses since childhood, but didn't see his first one until 1991, in Hawaii. "It was known as 'the eclipse of the century,' and it was that experience that changed my life," he said.

Simon and Greg had located a tiny, unnamed island on the eastern edge of the Togean chain, which they thought might be a good base to watch the disappearing sun. The remote location would provide approximately two minutes and 30 seconds of totality.

There was only one problem: It wasn't easy to get to. Simon had arranged for three boats to take 61 people of 15 nationalities to the island two days after our arrival on Malenge, but at departure time, two of the boats hadn't shown up and the third arrived without diesel. A local captain offered to take us in his 50-foot fishing boat, so we all clambered aboard with our camping gear, boxes of bottled water, and styrofoam coolers filled with melting ice and Bintang beer. Dangerously overloaded, the boat took more than five hours to reach the island, after dark. A handmade outrigger served as a dinghy, ferrying five people at a time to shore. David hung a mosquito net from a tree, and we slept fitfully on the sand beneath it.

When morning broke, we strolled around the tiny tropical island, which took all of six minutes. The sun rose high, and wispy clouds laid low on the horizon. Then, at 7:30, shouts rang out in a dozen dialects. "It's starting!" David and I brought our cameras and welding glass (for safe viewing) to the beach, and spread out a sarong on the sand alongside the other travelers.

The moon was just edging its way across the sun. Through my welding glass, it looked like a green wafer with a small bite taken out of the left side. Over the course of an hour, the moon took bigger and bigger bites, until the sun was entirely consumed. At the last millisecond, a brilliant pinpoint of light flashed, like the gleam of a diamond ring. In fact, this astronomical effect is referred to as the "diamond ring effect," and it signals the beginning (and end) of totality.

We set down our squares of welding glass and rose to our feet. Silence surrounded us as five dozen eclipse chasers stared, awestruck, at the shrouded sun and its glowing, white halo. A tiny red dot—a solar flare—made a brief appearance on the lower left edge. For 150 seconds, no one made a sound.

It's difficult to convey the feelings that accompany a total solar eclipse. David described it as a rush of emotion, followed by a natural high. Kiriko Satsuma, a Japanese expat living in Australia, was reduced to tears. Unlike the adrenaline rush I had experienced the first time, this eclipse had a calming effect on me, as if my heart had melted.

The light became other-worldly, as if dusk had been summoned for a 20-second encore. A 360-degree sunset lingered until another brilliant flash of light signaled the end of totality. A collective sigh rose from the beach, followed by loud whoops of joy. We began milling around, high-fiving, hugging one another, and basking in the human connection that comes from being reminded of our tiny place in an infinite universe.

Why would anyone undertake such a long, arduous journey for a few minutes of astronomical ecstasy? For David, it's the opportunity to view the stars and planets during the daytime, when they are in a different position than at night. A full-time world traveler, he also appreciates the fact that eclipse chasing takes him to random, remote locations he would never otherwise explore. Simon, who has lost count of the eclipses he has seen, calls it the "Greatest Show on Earth" and thinks everyone should experience it at least once. When I asked him in 2012 what I should know as a newcomer, he said, "Just remember that we are driven by the desire for a true mystical experience, and don't forget your eclipse glasses!"

On our return trip to Malenge, we reminisced about the morning's events and started planning for the next total eclipse, only 18 months away. It will be visible in a skinny, swooping line from Oregon to South Carolina, with the maximum viewing clocking in at about two minutes and 35 seconds just outside Cerulean, Kentucky. David and I have already conducted one "reccie," locating a few potential viewing locations in the high desert of Central Oregon.

I won't tell you where it is, but you can find your own perfect spot by studying the line of totality on NASA's website.

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