The Caribbean's Shortest Night

The Solar Eclipse of February 26, 1998 -
an eyewitness report and picture story
from Curacao, the Netherlands Antilles

By Daniel Fischer from The Cosmic Mirror

15 new pictures have been linked! (March 30, 1998)

The Solar Corona, photographed with a 10 cm f/10 Maksutov telephoto lens on Kodak Royal 200, exposure time about 1 second.

This first release contains only 7 pictures, all in front of the main text. More have appeared on five special pages, linked from the main text! And there will be even more in the future! The many links related to this story are all collected at the end of the main text!

The convenient way to follow the partial phases of an eclipse, with a telescope in eyepiece projection or with an improvised pinhole camera - unless you have to hold the pinhole...

The solar corona and a few prominences with shorter exposure times.

Left: the instrument with which the corona images were taken.
Right: an observer properly protected from the evil rays of the eclipse :-)

An eclipse for carnival...

But why did they always call it "Saros 130", on leaflets, on caps and t-shirts, even special beer cans? The total solar eclipse of February 26th, 1998, was a member of the 130th Saros cycle of eclipses, all right, but certainly not a particularly special one. Already discovered in antiquity, the Saros series is the period of 18 years and 11 and 1/3 days after which the relative positions of the Sun, the Earth and the Moon almost exactly repeat themselves, leading to very similar eclipses (only for locations 1/3 of the Earth's circumference apart, because of the 1/3 day) - but somehow the astro-merchandise producers of the Netherlands Antilles island of Curacao believed that "theirs" would be somehow unique.

The 130th Saros series had started to produce total eclipses in 1475 and will yield its 43rd and final one in 2232: The peak, with the longest eclipses, was already in the 17th century (with totalities of 6 1/2 minutes); now the length of the Saros 130 eclipses was down to just 4 minutes at best. But that is still a lot, compared to many other currently 'active' Saros series', and the event of February 26, 1998, had other advantages, too. While most of its path of totality didn't hit land, some of the places that would see a totally eclipsed Sun were both easily accessible and had excellent weather prospects. For most professional eclipse observers and scores of amateur astronomers and other eclipsophiles, the choice came down to Northern Venezuela, Aruba, Curacao, Guadeloupe and Antigua.

More pictures: Welcome to Curacao!

And thousands came: They were not to be disappointed. Only when they wanted to leave, in particular the small islands of Aruba and Curacao, many would later find that the local as well as formerly respected international airlines (esp. KLM!) would not have any more seats for them, despite timely reconfirmations, and were unable or unwilling to come up with solutions by themselves. Yours truly finally made it out of Curacao, only one day late and via Venezuela and Spain (instead of the Netherlands), to tell the story - which is otherwise a very good one: The incompetence and rudeness of the airlines stood in stark contrast to the preparations that e.g. the Curacao Tourism Development Bureau (CTDB) had initiated as far back as in 1995.

An eclipse committee had been set up to promote Curacao as a tourist destination for the eclipse at international trade fairs, to prepare the local infrastructure - and to make local entrepreneurs realize a unique market opportunity (for the next eclipse would hit Curacao only half a millennium later). By sheer coincidence the eclipse would take place only two days after the end of carnival, the annual event in this part in the world and even mentioned in the NASA Publication for the eclipse ("sober civilization should have returned before the Moon begins its own ceremony with the Sun"). But wouldn't the carnival parades and parties detract from the cosmic show, some on the eclipse committee feared.

More pictures: Carnival, eclipse-style

No way: The eclipse actually became part of the carnival activities! The central float with the carnival queen in the big parade (Gran Marcha) was given a cosmic touch, for example, and one of the countless dance groups could be spotted carrying dozens of Hubble Space Telescopes! (Actually they were meant to symbolize communications satellites, on behalf of a telecom operator, but they were clearly modelled after the HST.) Even more eclipse-oriented was a local parade in the West of Curacao where a substantial fraction of the groups (often from schools) related to the eclipse. By this time, less than a week before E day, that other event was clearly in the back of many peoples' minds.

And for some it was already more important than carnival: When the first participants of our eventually 22-strong German group arrived two weeks before the eclipse, there was already a big banner greeting its fans at the Hato airport, the newspapers were full with details about local preparations, and the CTDB was distributing both information leaflets and brochures (in the local language of Papiamentu, a confusing mix of Spanish, Dutch and more) and selling eclipse t- shirts, caps, posters and U.S.-made eclipse glasses, the latter only of mediocre quality, however. But there were alternative sources as well: eclipse filters could be purchased from fast food chains and even had for almost free, provided one had collected a certain number of "eclipse points" from the caps of bottles of a certain soft drink.

Living on an Island: Site Testing for E day

After the dreadful lack of eclipse-related merchandise and market ideas both at the Indian eclipse in 1995 and the Siberian one in 1997, now everything was different. Everywhere, you could buy eclipse t-shirts ranging from the elegant to the funny ("the eclipse will take your breath away ... but not your thirst" said the one from the local beer brewery) to the plain ugly. All kinds of eclipse-related artwork was on sale - and everywhere astronomy and gastronomy were beginning to merge. Many restaurants all over the island (nearly all of which would get touched by the Moon's umbra) were offering special combinations of eclipse watching and lunch, sometimes with champagne during totality...

The decision where exactly to observe the eclipse was a tough one indeed. The center line of totality passed right between Aruba and Curacao, so being at the Northwesternmost tip of Curacao would have been the optimum choice from a geometrical point of view: Here totality would last 3 minutes and 32 seconds. But here Curacao looks like Ares Vallis on Mars or even a weirder planet - you would either sit in a dusty desert or stand on incredibly hard and pointy coral rock. Nonetheless the CTDB was trying to make this "Watamula" spot (and two others in the vicinity) more livable: Big containers (from ships) were stacked up here to protect at least some people from the often very strong trade winds, and some basic facilities were put in place.

Going there, however, would set one back 60 U.S. dollars, and while several hundred eclipse travellers ended up in Watamula (most of them because they or their tour company had booked in advance), there were plenty of alternatives. You could have gone to one of Curacao's 40+ marvellous beaches, for example, or position yourself in any of a dozen villages in the Western part of Curacao (known in Papiamentu as Band' Abao). Compared to the Sprawling mini-metropolis of Willemstad, the island's (and the Netherlands Antilles') capital, Curacao's "Wild West" is a different world. Being almost completely covered by dense thorny vegetation and Kadushi cactuses, the freedom to move away from the network of roads into this outback (called kunuku) is limited.

Those roads, by the way, had been miraculaously freed of nearly all their impressive potholes two weekends before the eclipse - we wondered whether the impending cosmic event or the approach of carnival had brought about that activity. In any case, travelling around the Band' Abao was easier than ever now, provided one had still gotten a rental car (they started to run out about a week before the eclipse). The landscape of the West turned out to be more varied than one might have expected from the air: In some places there were true alleys with large trees, in others swamps with mangroves, like near the Everglades. And every few kilometers another wondrous lagoon (with yet another accesible coral reef and all its inhabitants).

Eclipse Science: With the Pro's in Westpunt

South of the either forbidding or expensive (or both) Watamula site and still experiencing 3 minutes and 30 seconds in the Moon's shadow over rolling hills was a settlement with the imaginative name of Westpunt (west point) - which had declared itself the official eclipse village. Here some side roads looked inviting for setting up the observing equipment on eclipse day. And here we also met the two professional eclipse expeditions that had made their coming to Curacao public beforehand: a group from the Royal Observatory of Belgium and an expedition from the Southwest Research Institute and the High Altitude Observatory, both from the U.S.

The Belgians had moved into a luxury appartement complex and put their remarkably small equipment on their terrasses. There was a 70 mm refractor on a small mount, in use in exactly the same configuration since 1973 (only once the photographic film used had been upgraded): The aim is to record the solar corona at various polarization angles, to determine the electron density distribution. Using the same basic instrument for 25 years guarantees continuity, but since 1991 the Belgians are also using a CCD camera with a telephoto lens for similar observations. This time their work will also be used to re- calibrate the UVCS instrument on the SOHO satellite.

The U.S. expedition had rented a complete house in Westpunt and set up several telescopes, large and small. The 1998 expedition of the High Altitude Observatory meant the end of an era in solar science: For the first time they didn't bring the famous Newkirk White Light Coronal Camera with its radially graded filter that has taken spectacular images of the full corona during many eclipses in recent decades (and being close to that experiment almost guaranteed clear skies, as the author experienced :-). The special filter that allowed much light from the faint outer corona to reach the film but blocked most of the bright inner corona, was necessary because the brightness range across the corona far exceeds the dynamic range of chemical film.

But now the HAO has gone electronic: A CCD camera with 2048 x 2048 pixels (a 4096 x 4096 pixel camera wasn't delivered in time) has replaced the film, and instead of the radially graded filter vastly different exposure times for several exposures will create the necessary dynamic range to capture the whole corona and all its structures (for later combination by computer). Other cameras in Westpunt were directed to specific sections of the corona, to study, e.g., details in the polar plumes. These ray-like structures above both poles of the sun are of so much interest to the solar physics community that a special conference was held on them in Guadeloupe during the week of the eclipse. In those precious minutes the plumes would be visible even with the naked eye - and that moment was now less than 24 hours away.

This time we knew rather precisely what to expect: A visit to Willemstad's new internet cafe had allowed us to peek at the SOHO LASCO C2 coronagraph's view of the corona of Feb. 25. This was no longer the nearly pure minimum corona of the eclipses of 1995 and 1997, when most of the activity was restricted to the Sun's equatorial plane: Now streamers could be seen at somewhat higher latitudes, and an especially dense area of the corona was visible above the Southwestern limb of the Sun, where a large sunspot groups had disappeared only days ago. This SOHO "preview" was not just to 'cheat' on the eclipse: We also wanted to know whether there would be major features way out of the Sun's equatorial plane that might warrant a special alignment of our cameras. It wasn't necessary.

Waiting for the Contacts

But would we see anything at all? Climate is what you expect, weather is what you get, many astronomical expeditions have learned in the past, and even modern satellite imagery was no real solution. On the views of the Caribbean from geostationary orbit, the area around Curacao had looked cloudfree almost every day for the past year - but the island was just a few pixels large. The past two weeks had told us the real weather pattern: lots of clouds in the morning that dissolved by 10 to 11 a.m. and didn't come back until late at night. Locals actually claimed that there were more clouds than normal (was that El Nino again...?), and that the temperatures (typically 29 to 31 degrees C in daytime) were too low (we didn't agree :-). The daily pattern looked pretty stable, fine for an eclipse at 14:12 hours local time (18:12 UTC).

February 25th, however, had been weird, with no clouds in the morning but many forming around noon - the eclipse might even have been compromised. Something was not right... And then February 26th dawned - with the darkest clouds we had seen in all the two weeks. Before we even knew it, it actually started to rain! But at least the old pattern of bad skies in the morning had returned - while those who had just arrived were worried, the 'oldtimers' knew what to expect. And indeed, around 11 a.m. the skies over Westpunt rapidly cleared up and the Sun relentlessly pounded on the observers now setting up their equipment. Some left for a more shady place (near Playa Lagun, with still 3'24" to expect), most stayed and coped with the heat: Soon Nature would provide some cooling the big way.

As with every eclipse, most of the time is spent by waiting, discovery last minute glitches in the equipment - and looking at clocks every few minutes. Our location in Eastern Westpunt (69o08'43" West 12o22'30" North 110 m elevation, according to a GPS receiver) exactly coincided with the place listed in the NASA eclipse book, and so we knew the four 'contact times' to the second. First Contact means that the Moon just touches the Sun: Most people were now staring intently at a large projected image of the Sun's disk. And then the first blemish was visible, only seconds after the predicted time of 12:40:43: The spectacle had begun. Within minutes the 'bite' the Moon had taken was also visible to the naked eye, even through the less- than-perfect 'official' eclipse glasses.

More pictures: Second Contact!

Things get really exciting only about one hour later: 30 minutes before totality the reduction of light becomes noticeable, the color of the light seems to change, shadows grow sharper, as the sun shrinks to a crescent. And finally substantial cooling of the air sets in. Many minutes before 2nd contact the planet Venus can be seen clearly, way below the Sun towards the West. The sky is now as cloud-free as one could have hoped, with only a slight haze remaining (as expected for this part of the world). No 'screen' is thus present for the Moon's umbral shadow to project itself onto - it just gets darker and darker. And then: the Second Contact. Actually not a point in time, but a breathtaking process, when the crescent Sun is cut up into "Baily's Beads" by mountains on the Moon, the inner corona becomes visible and then the last rays from the solar surface disappear.

3 1/2 Minutes in the Shadow

What happens next is perhaps the last thing about total solar eclipses that even modern technology cannot predict reliably: How dark or bright will the sky be once the photosphere is covered totally? The brightness of the corona plays a role (it varies with the solar cycle, being brightest at maximum activity), the size of the umbra, the clarity of the atmosphere. This time the sky over Westpunt is not as dark and deep blue as during the 1994 eclipse in Chile (when the Sun's activity was low and the shadow large) and probably not as bright as in 1991 over Mexico (when the Sun was active and the shadow large but the atmosphere full of Pinatubo aerosols) - perhaps the situation is closest to India, 1995. The sky has remained in a light blue, with only the inner parts of the corona really obvious and its long streamers fading into the background.

More pictures: The Corona, the planets and the end

Still, the corona is really getting more exciting now, moving towards the intriguing "butterfly" shape of 1983: The magnetic field of the Sun is clearly getting more complex year by year now, even though the number of sunspots is growing only slowly. Also still missing: lots of prominences of an exciting size. One substantial specimen is there, however, though overlooked by many in the excitement, which made the 'discovery' on later developped pictures all the more surprising. Photographs would also show a strange pink filament hovering over the Sun's North pole. And this time the solar system has placed Mercury above and Jupiter below the dark Sun, both very prominent and white - almost indistinguishable.

Everyone is clicking away now with one or more cameras or trying to memorize the out-of-this- world sight with the naked eye or binoculars. Some bats are flying around! And some weirdos in the distance burn off fireworks... A pre-programmed beep from a timer at precisely the middle of totality helps a lot to organize the flow of things, but one minute before Third Contact the finite length of totality is already apparent, with the Moon uncovering more and more of the inner corona on the Western limb of the Sun. It is particularly bright in the Southwestern region - as if we hadn't known that already from the SOHO views.

More pictures: Good-bye ...

And with a flash it's over: Baily's Beads appear again, the corona fades rapidly, it gets bright again. In the East the Moon's shadow can still be seen, racing away with Mach 2, as a greyish discoloration of the sky. The usual celebrations follow, but this time the waiting for the Fourth Contact is spent differently: While waiting for the First, I had discovered a little bar in downtown Westpunt - with a barkeeper from Cologne, Germany (close to where a number of our people came from). Loaded with a reasonable number of cold bottles of the tasty local beer (brewed with desalinated sea water) we return to the observing site one minute before the Moon finally clears the solar disk: another eclipse bagged from beginning to end, and in style.

How had things been in other places? In several locations on Curacao and Aruba shadow bands had been seen, especially after the 3rd contact, and one observer even seems to have been able to record this phenomenon on video tape - a rare achievement. Curacao seems to have been totally clear, but Aruba suffered from a local weather system: Only half an hour before totality in some, minutes before it in other places the Sun had finally been cloud-free. For 9 minutes CNN International had broadcast live from Aruba and Curacao, albeit with no reporter on location and switching between the two feeds all the time - probably the most confusing eclipse live coverage ever. Some 5000 observers may have been on both these islands alone. And in the ports of Curacao and Aruba or offshore a whole armada of eclipse cruise ships was sighted (a U.S. astronomy publisher alone had filled four vessels with eclipse watchers preferring the luxurious way).

The public in the comparably affluent Antilles seems to have enjoyed the cosmic show - and is already wondering when and where to repeat this supposedly "once in a lifetime" event. In contrast to many poorer places that get hit by eclipses, substantial parts of Curacao's population could in principle afford to travel to Europe for the 1999 "eclipse di solo": Large numbers go there anyway for better education and work conditions. By and large the media seem to have presented the eclipse as a thoroughly wonderful event, only occasionally going overboard with dire health warnings. (Exception from the rule: a radical Christian radio station in neighboring Bonaire that claimed that even during totality evil rays from the sun would come around the Moon...)

In South America, the eclipse experience had other aspects, too, as reported in the Venezuelan Week in Review: "Members of the Wayuu indigenous community from the Guajira desert peninsula straddling Colombia and Venezuela said the sun and the moon were making love and should not be disturbed. In Caracas, the eclipse cast an eerie, hazy twilight chill over the city. People gathered on main squares, peering at the cloudy sky while office workers looked out from windows. Pregnant women kept away, believing that an eclipse can leave skin spots on unborn children" - a bizarre superstition that was also reported in news media from previous eclipses around the world.

And finally, there was a novel kind of eclipse voyagers out in force this time, in addition to the established classes of luxury eclipse tourists and eclipse travellers (like us): "Crowds of New Age hippies staged wild Caribbean beach parties to the beat of 'techno' music," says the Venezuelan Week, "with up to 30 disk-jockeys flown in from Western Europe..." (On location in Curacao from Feb. 12 to March 2nd, with interviews with many eclipse travellers from around around the world, and Espenak & Anderson, NASA Reference Publication 1383, the Algemeen Dagblad - Caribische Editie Feb. 12 to March 2nd, and The Daily Journal (Caracas) - Week in Review March 2nd, 1998)

Daniel Fischer, Koenigswinter, Germany - posted first on March 5th, 1998;
updated March 6th, 13th, 24th (many more links)
and 30th (more details about the eclipse added, 15 more pictures linked),
April 2nd (more science added) and 6th (more links)

Links related to this and other eclipses -
and Curacao

This Eclipse (handbook), S&T's preview and a graphic representation;
IAU Eclipses, Eclipses homepage

Other Reports from our expedition:

V. Mette, U. Schmidtmann, U. Reimann, B. Brinkmann

Reports of my expeditions to earlier eclipses: Siberia 1997 + India 1995

1998: A major collection of reports and science results!

Eclipse science: LASCO images of the corona, leading up to eclipse day, further planned parallel observations with SOHO (plus a related news release), results from the HAO expedition, the SWRI and Williams College (Kern's pictures), the MSU's, NSF's and NCAR's plans and the GSFC site (plus plans with students).

There is also the Yohkoh view in X rays and an animated GIF of the Earth's shadow - in the UV as seen by the UVI instrument on the Polar spacecraft ...

Eclipse Pictures and stories: From Bob Yen (outstanding images: here's his story), Ralph Chou, Otto Farago, Bill Arnett, Olivier Staiger, E. Pauer, R. Brodbeck, G. Mahlberg (wild story!), T. Peters, H. Studer, J. Fakatselis (with a hi-res view of the extremely thin prominence!), P. Arpin, J. Leineweber, J. Godard, E. Strach (shadow bands on video), B. Brown, W. Carlos (image processing, also incl. Kern's data), F. Quarnstrom, S. Kowollik, M. Dandrea et al., B. Nunnelee, S. Taylor, L. Pertuz (Colombia), Venezuela, The Astronomer, Dale Ireland and others
(also a collection from Venezuela and from G. Foley).

News reports: Jan. 11: Fla. Today, Feb. 9: USA Today; ABC (travel); Feb. 19: CNN, Feb. 23: CNN and ABC, Feb. 24: CNN, Feb. 25: ABC and CNN, Feb. 26: BBC, CNN, ABC and CNN again, Feb. 27: ABC, Philadelphia Inquirer and St. Petersburg Times, Feb. 28: Sydney Morning Herald.
The eclipse was also covered by the Discovery Channel (their extensive 10-part online story starts here).

Previous live sites: Exploratorium and; various pages from Curacao (here's another one) and Venezuela; the Eclipse Zone and the Earthview Eclipse Network as well as the state of the solar cycle.

Eclipse beer ..., the Algemeen Dagblad - Caribische Editie, K-Pasa Curacao.

Coming attractions ...

The Total Eclipse of 1999 (a Swiss page)

(To be expanded further - more links, esp. to other tour reports, welcome!)

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