I’ll need to get a Thesaurus out for this one. Amazing! Incredible! Breathtaking! Awesome! The list goes on. But for me, that’s what seeing my first ever total eclipse (from Earth) was like. Wow, just wow. I was fortunate enough to be asked by National Geographic to help host a live event from Oregon, one of the first locations in the U.S. to experience totality. That in itself was quite an adventure. It came together only days before the eclipse, and originally I was supposed to be on an airplane, flying eastbound to “chase” the Moon’s shadow as it raced across the Earth’s surface at nearly 2,000 mph, in order to get a few precious extra seconds of totality.
However when I arrived in Oregon plans had changed, and when we had our production meeting with our Pixel Corp. video team we had settled that I would help to host the two hour long show, along with the “star,” veteran Natgeo broadcaster Cara Santa Maria.
Cara and I met for the first time the night before eclipse in that production meeting, and it was a good thing we did, to have time to develop some chemistry. I was frankly a little nervous about having to spend nearly two hours on air, I wasn’t sure I’d have that much to talk about, and there would be a lot of “uh, ummmm, well, it’s great to be here in Oregon, there are a lot of people here, look- the sun turned dark!” Boy were those fears unfounded. That time on air just flew by, the experience was really incredible to see in person, and as the program progressed (aired on Facebook, Youtube, and Periscope) we were told that we were the top trending channel on youtube and peaked at over 2M viewers at one time. It was a pretty cool intro for me into the world of live “reality” TV broadcasting!
Before I talk about the eclipse itself, I want to talk about a very unexpected and pleasant surprise from this trip. Oregon. I had never visited Oregon, and I must say it was a real treat. I now know places like Redmond and Terrebonne and Bend and Madras. Smith Rock park, Mt Hood national forest, the high desert of eastern Oregon. Places that I had never visited or even heard of, but that I fell in love with pretty quickly, and can’t wait to go back and visit and photograph and get to know better. But back to the main event….
I’d heard it said that on a scale from 1 to 10, a partial eclipse is an 8. And that’s probably true- if you have safe eye protection you can simply look up and see a big bite taken out of the sun, which is pretty amazing. If enough of it is gone, it starts to get dark and even a little chilly. About 10 minutes before totality Cara and I both had goosebumps from the drop in temperature. But it was still daylight during this “partial eclipse” phase, and you would not have even noticed anything was happening unless you were warned in advance. But a total eclipse- that is an entirely different ballgame. As in, the difference between 9 yo kid-pitch little league and the Big Leagues. It really is like a million on that same 1-10 scale, it’s just way beyond anything I had ever experienced in life. Shortly before the actual eclipse, I could hear people hollering and yelling; there were probably a thousand people up on nearby Smith Rock. I could see genuine emotion on the faces of some of the crew around me- joy and awe and wonder. It was something that really touched deep inside what we are as humans- some kind of primal fear at the sun disappearing and wonder and excitement knowing what was happening from a physics point of view and seeing this amazing sight for the first time.
Throughout this process I had been taking shots of the partial eclipse with a powerful sun filter- but I took that off and began to shoot the total eclipse right at the moment it happened (second contact for the astronomy nerds out there)- and caught a beautiful “diamond ring” as well as some bailey’s beads, caused by the sun’s light spilling unevenly around the Moon’s craters. And then I put the camera down and just stared in awe. I had never seen anything like that- the corona, the suns uber-hot upper atmosphere, was huge- and visible to my eyes for the first time in my life! It was incredible and surreal and frankly alien- it reminded me of what we might see through the eyes of a really creative Hollywood sci-fi movie director. We would chuckle and think “that’s neat but silly, cause it’s obviously not real.” Except, this was real, visible for the first time to millions of Americans with the Moon’s help.
And then I took a moment to look around. The sky was dark, but not pitch black. You could see a ring of orange pink dusk color around 360 deg of horizon, which was weird, because normally you only see that in the west where the sun sets. Seeing planets in the middle of the day was bizarre- Jupiter and mars and Venus and even mercury. But that corona- my eyes kept being drawn to the sun itself, seeing that bizarre black hole covering it, with a huge corona surrounding it. And a bright red-orange spot that was very evidently visible on the Sun; Cara and I both talked about it, and later I realized that it was a giant solar prominence, evident in the photographs I took. Just incredible, being able to see Earth-sized nuclear explosions shooting off the surface of the sun, with my naked eye. I’d raise my camera every few moments to take some manual exposure shots of the moon, quickly changing shutter speed, and then back to staring at the moon- eyes wide open and mouth probably agape.
It was interesting to see Cara’s reaction; I was right next to her, and she gave us all a heads up that she would be crying, just before totality. And sure enough, in the powerful emotional moments of totality, she did shed some tears. Of joy and wonder, not fear or sadness. It was just that kind of event. Impossible to describe with words. But once you’ve seen one you know what I mean. Something that I will take with me, in the recesses of my memory, til the day I die.
And as I sit here, knees bent, laptop in my stomach, hands cramped, typing in row 29 of my booked-solid airline flight back to Houston on WAY overpriced WiFi (is this eclipse pricing?), my next task will be to open up the internet and start looking for the next chance I’ll have to go see a total eclipse in person. For, though I waited nearly 5 decades to see this one, I’m hooked. And I’ll need to satisfy this new-found habit of mine….