There’s a total solar eclipse somewhere on Earth once every 18 months or so. And whether it’s passing over a barren, ice-cragged coast of Antarctica, a remote African desert, or a lonely patch of ocean, you can be sure there will be an umbraphile — a shadow-loving eclipse chaser — there to see it.
Eclipse chasers are people who plan their lives around (and spend small fortunes on) eclipse travel. This year, of course, they’ll be joining millions of people in the United States to see the total solar eclipse on August 21.
We wanted to know: What’s so special about total solar eclipses that you would chase them around the world? So we called up eight eclipse chasers and talked to them for hours, asking them all a similar set of questions. Their responses were much more moving and poetic than we anticipated. Chasing eclipses is not about a cheap thrill. It’s more like a pilgrimage, but one with a constantly moving shrine. “There are insufficient superlatives in the English language, or any language for that matter, to adequately describe the experience of a total solar eclipse,” one told us.
These responses have been lightly edited for length and clarity.
How many total solar eclipses have you seen?
Rhonda Coleman, eclipse-chasing resident of Bend, Oregon
Six. … I'm a very modest chaser. Some people have [seen] dozens.
Glenn Schneider, astronomer at the University of Arizona
Bill Kramer, a retired computer engineer who runs the website Eclipse-chaser.com
Sixteen total solar eclipses.
Fred Espenak, a retired NASA astrophysicist who has predicted the next 1,000 years of eclipses
I've been to 27 total eclipses and I've seen about 20 of them. Seven clouded out.
David Makepeace, eclipse chaser and filmmaker
This one in America will be my 16th.
Joe Rao, meteorologist in New York
I've seen a grand total of 11 total eclipses.
Kate Russo, clinical psychologist and author of Being in the Shadow: Stories of first-time eclipse experience
I've seen 10 total solar eclipses, and of those, two were clouded out.
Mike Kentrianakis, astronomer with the American Astronomical Society’s solar eclipse task force
I have seen 10 total solar eclipses.
Tell us about your first time
They say you never forget your first kiss, you never forget making love for the first time, and as far as an eclipse chaser goes, you always remember your first time in the shadow.
I flew to Mexico to see a girl. I didn't go to see an eclipse. And then the eclipse came, and it completely floored me.
I was completely unprepared for the vision I saw in the sky, and for how intense the feeling was of all of a sudden being lifted in my consciousness off the globe, off this two-dimensional life I was living. It opened up a three-dimensionality that I was not prepared for. ... In some sense, I've spent the past 26 years also trying to come to terms with that.
We were bobbing in the water, clear sky all around us; the sea was relatively calm. This eclipse darkness wall came flashing across the water — and covered us in darkness. And there was this eclipse. “This is like looking upon the eye of God.” That's the nearest thing I could equate it to.
I was literally transfixed, I couldn't move. I couldn't operate my cameras. I didn't even think about the telescope. My binoculars hung around my neck and I just stood there staring up at the hole in the sky. ... When it was over, I just stood there unable to move until somebody finally shook me back into reality.
By the time the total eclipse ended … I had already promised myself that once in a lifetime was not enough. It was just spectacular and much too short. I've been to the majority of them since then over the past 47 years.
I had no idea that it was going to be so powerful and emotive and euphoric and exciting. ... It's very unlike any other experience. This is why us eclipse chasers are so passionate. We so want to share this experience with other people.
What does it feel like to experience a total solar eclipse? Why are you hooked?
There are insufficient superlatives in the English language — or any language, for that matter — to adequately describe the experience of a total solar eclipse.
I always tell people my fifth eclipse is when my hands stopped shaking during totality. I made a comment of that, and a guy who's seen more eclipses than I came back and said, "Really? Your hands stopped shaking?"
When I talk about seeing a total solar eclipse, nobody gets it. Nobody can actually understand what it's like in that situation because it's just not within our human experience. The rules of nature are turned upside down, so we just cannot imagine it.
How much alien stimulation can the mind process in just a little over two minutes? If I told you that I was in a major thunderstorm, or I saw a gorgeous sunset, you can relate to that. Because I'm sure you have experienced a big thunderstorm in your life, and I'm sure you've seen more than your share of beautiful sunsets. When I tell people about my first total eclipse, or any total eclipse, it's impossible to relate that.
It's very ... it almost is like a bit of a dreadful feeling. It's like, "Whoa, wait a minute. What's happening to my planet?" ... It's a topsy-turvy world. It's not like night. It's not like day. It's not like twilight. It's like nothing you've ever felt before.
You experience the music of the spheres, as Kepler called them, the mechanics of the solar system in action.
You get an overwhelming sense of humbleness and how small and petty we really are compared to the mechanics of the solar system, the clockwork of the universe. These events that are taking place, that in no way can we affect or stop. It gives us a sense of how tiny we are and yet how we're connected to the whole system. All this happens all at once.
I saw the total eclipse and I realized that I was living in a much deeper, much more dynamic universe than I had previously considered.
This is the grandest of all astronomical spectacles. It's actually the greatest natural wonder that you could possibly see. Except, of course, the birth of a child.
How do other people typically react to totality, when the sun is completely covered by the moon?
Daylight suddenly changes to an eerie twilight in just a handful of seconds, and that's dramatic enough. Then it tends to get quiet. The bright sun that was there just moments ago has vanished. It's replaced by this black orb of the moon.
You hear some people saying: "Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God," and they just say it for three minutes. Others are totally speechless. Some people might even be praying. Others, just tears of joy running down their cheek.
Even really hard-nosed scientists can get very, very moved during totality, and it's not uncommon to see people afterward with tears and hugging and feeling very choked up.
What’s the farthest you’ve gone to see one? Or the most difficult journey?
You do crazy things to see a total eclipse of the sun. In 1990, for example, I managed to get a commercial airline to change the itinerary of their flight. I noticed that there was one particular flight from Honolulu to San Francisco where if they were to delay the flight by 41 minutes, they would be over the Pacific Ocean, and they'd be able to see a total eclipse of the sun. I contacted the airline ... they thought it was a heck of a great idea, and they did it.
The most extreme eclipse chase that I've ever been on I saw from the coast of the far side of Antarctica. This huge, gorgeous Russian icebreaker ship that took more than 100 eclipse chasers from the tip of Africa down through the Indian Ocean to the Antarctic coast. Then we positioned ourselves precisely in the path of totality and were able to witness humanity's first glimpse of a total eclipse of the sun from the ice continent.
The first eclipse I saw by air, which was in 1986, was one of the most difficult eclipses to get to. Only nine people on earth actually saw that eclipse as a central total eclipse. The width of the path was less than a kilometer. We had to fly about 1,000 kilometers out of Reykjavik, Iceland, between Iceland and Greenland to see that. That was before the days of GPS navigation. It was a rather, rather dicey thing to do.
Is a partial solar eclipse just as good?
The difference between a 99 percent eclipse and a 100 percent total eclipse is enormous. I like to use the analogy [that] it's like getting five out of six numbers right on the jackpot. If you got five out of six, you were close, but you lost. ... Only 100 percent counts.
When you come across someone who says that they thought it was overrated, if you ask a bit about where they were, it turns out that they didn't see a total eclipse. They saw a partial eclipse, but they're convinced it was a total.
Is it an “addiction”?
I tell people, total eclipses of the sun are like potato chips. When you see it for the first time, the first thing that comes out of your mouth after the eclipse is over is, "When's the next one?" And you become hooked.
It almost becomes like there is not a choice. You plan your future travels and life years and years ahead. It's not like there's any question where you're going to be taking your vacation 12 years from now. You've already got it figured out.
The corona looks different every single time. You don't know how many Baily's beads or what kind of prominences you'll see shooting off the surface of the sun. It is an experience of the most grand and exalted nature, so why would you not want to immerse yourself in that as much as possible?
Does eclipse chasing come with a cost, personal or otherwise?
Financial, I'll give you that.
God, I probably spent over $100,000 doing the travel in the past two and a half decades. You could say that I've been so caught up in the learning and in the growth personally that's come from this that I've put off marriage and a family. I've sort of resisted the accumulation of material possessions so that I have the funds to be able to afford this kind of travel.
Are eclipses a form of psychological balm?
It's like something that is a reminder of how wonderful life is. It gives you life insights that you normally get only at times when you've experienced loss.
How many more eclipses do you hope to see?
I figure if I live to be 87 and beyond, which I'm doing pretty well so far, my last one will be, again in the United States, when I'm 87. I think it's going to be in North Dakota or something like that. I think I can get there. I'm 58.
I've already told my daughter where she needs to go to watch the 2079 eclipse on May 1, 2079. I don't expect to make it, but I hope she can.
I certainly hope to see another dozen or more eclipses.
Our life is now measured by a greater cycle. It's no longer a second and a minute hand, and an hour, a day. But if you start using eclipse cycles, how many do you have? Not that many.
Should first-timers try to take pictures?
Anytime you've ever taken a picture of the full moon, it never captures how it felt in your eyes and in your heart, you know what I mean? It seems to fill the sky, but your photograph will only be a memory.
The photograph just doesn't do it justice. It's almost like looking at a shadow of a building and not looking at the building. It's a representation of what you would know it to be ... a sketch of a missing person.
Don't try to photograph it. Please don't.
Trying to photograph your first total eclipse of the sun is like ... your first girlfriend or boyfriend. You're not very good, it's over very quickly, and you just want to do it again.
I recommend not trying to photograph it unless you are really a hardcore, absolutely-have-to-photograph-everything-in-your-life kind of person. ... You don't want to be dealing with technology during the eclipse.
Totality ... I absolutely guarantee it will seem like eight seconds.
Whatever you do, don't use a flash. Because it's dark and you've got people that are looking at the eclipse. Are you going to flash blind them?
Should everyone try to see a total solar eclipse?
It should be on everybody's bucket list, and if you don't have a total eclipse of the sun on your bucket list, I personally will take a giant pencil with an eraser and erase something from off that bucket list and add total eclipse of the sun, because everybody, as they say, has to see it.