Return to Newsletter Index

One Happy Island, One Awesome Day

by Perry Pezzolanella

Everyone at one time or another has an important date circled on their calendar, often more than one year in advance. February 26, 1998 has been marked in my memory since 1991. It was during that year that I missed a chance to see a total eclipse of the Sun in Hawaii. (It was clouded out anyway.) In 1990, MVAS members were offered a trip to Hawaii for $1700. The club was still quite new, and I was only working part-time which meant a very limited income. There was no way to make enough money in time to go. I had to hunker down here in New York to see the Sun only 5% eclipsed between the clouds. I checked my trusty NASA atlas for solar eclipses. The next accessible eclipse would be 1998. I found that Aruba was in the path of totality. It seemed attractive but was still nearly seven years away. Fate brought Faith Thompson into our club for the first time about the time I would have been in Hawaii. Little did I know that my fate was already sealed for the 1998 eclipse.

On August 13, 1995, a group of us bid farewell to our president, Dave Bishop, who was moving to a new job in Rochester, N.Y. We honored him by viewing the movie “Apollo 13” as a group and enjoying dinner at Vincent’s. After dinner in the parking lot, I mentioned to Faith about a total solar eclipse that was to be visible from Aruba in the Caribbean on February 26, 1998. She became excited, and I was given the task of gathering information about Aruba and possible cruises. We had to make a decision in early 1996 whether to go on a cruise or stay on land in Aruba. Aruba had the best weather prospects and unlike a ship, it would provide steady ground for our cameras and camcorders. Faith ran with the Aruba idea and the rest is history.

Aruba became a reality when we landed in blustery, 90º heat late on a sunny Saturday afternoon, February 21, 1998. I knew then that I would experience a total solar eclipse at last! The entire island of Aruba was in the path of totality. I finally made it! The only catch was that our resort, the Tierra del Sol, was on the northwest end of the island where totality lasted slightly under 3 minutes. The southeastern tip was near the centerline and would see 3 minutes and 34 seconds of totality, only 9 seconds shorter than being on the centerline. We were on the wrong end of the island. Those extra 35 to 40 seconds may not seem like much, but I soon found out how precious they were. Faith sent me on a mission; I was to go out with Tom Battles the day before the eclipse and find a suitable site on the southeastern tip where we could set up our equipment. We needed a place where the unceasing Aruban wind would not be so strong as to interfere with our photography and videotaping and yet provide an open view of the Caribbean so we could see the oncoming shadow. The sand and wind ruled out the once favored Baby Beach. The high walls around the Coastal Refinery offered shelter, but the view was obstructed, ugly, and it smelled terrible. Finally, we checked out the tip of the island at Seroe Colorado (Colorado Point). The parking lots and lighthouse area on top of the hill were too windy, but Tom and I found a spot at the base of the hill that offered protection from the wind and had a great view of the Caribbean. This was to be our sacred ground. Tom got up at 3 A.M. on eclipse morning to stake out our claim in case a large crowd came early. A huge, dark cloud passed over him before the rest of us arrived. It rained briefly. Was our good luck about to end?

At 5 A.M. the rest of us stepped outside to be greeted by Venus blazing high in the east, Alpha and Beta Centauri sparkling in the south, and the Southern Cross tipping into the clear southwestern sky. It looked promising. Dawn broke as we loaded equipment and provisions into our jeeps for the 20-mile, 45-minute ride to the other end of the island. I was upset to see thick, dark clouds building to the south where Tom was. Off we went making good time at such an early hour. The dark clouds (which rained on Tom) dissipated producing a glorious morning. Cruise ships could be seen not far off the coast as we settled in, but soon big, dark clouds began to build rapidly over South America. Sure enough, they began to roll in. By 11:30 A.M. it was solid overcast and a shower struck. Eclipse chasers took to their wheels and headed north toward a clear slot (which later clouded up). A lady came by and told us that CNN said that it would clear up. I felt better and it was getting brighter on the southern horizon. I had my lunch and set up at my equipment safely away from any cacti.

The sky broke up in time for first contact at 12:38 P.M. when we saw the first bite taken out of the Sun. The clouds came and went until 1:30 acting as a pleasant filter for some pretty viewing. Then it cleared up dramatically into the clearest, haze-free sky yet on our vacation! My prediction that it would clear up during the partial phases came true and I was glad. I promised everyone that there would be a 75% chance for clear skies. We almost had the other 25%.

An eerie light fell over the island. Shadows became sharp and the shadows of our fingernails were like spooky claws. A few birds seemed to land and the temperature fell from 88º at 12:30 P.M. to 83º by 2 P.M. The streetlights came on in the distance. The crowd gathered above us began to get excited. Suddenly around 2:08 P.M. a dark, dusty band appeared on the horizon over the Caribbean. The famous shadow! Everything happened so quickly. The shadow swooped over us as the Sun became a sparkling diamond ring! As the ring faded, the eerie light all around us rapidly became a true deep twilight, almost night! Venus, Jupiter, Mercury, Mars, and a few bright stars came out. The Moon was the blackest spot in the deep blue-gray sky! The corona was streaming out behind the Moon like a huge magnetic field of hundreds of delicate white lines! I grabbed my binoculars and saw a solar prominence near the top edge of the Moon appearing like an orange seahorse! The horizon was a strange orange glow all around like a sunrise-sunset everywhere! I could barely see anyone around me. It was not night since only the brightest stars and planets were visible, and I could faintly see the controls on my camcorder. My video was coming out well even though I spent most of the time looking at everything with my eyes and not through the viewfinder. Suddenly I was startled to see an eerie orange band flowing in the sky along the horizon ahead of me and reaching halfway towards the eclipsed Sun. This was the retreating shadow cone and it moved right up to the eclipsed Sun. There was a beautiful pink fringe as the Sun suddenly burst out into the largest and most beautiful diamond ring you could ever imagine! The light suddenly came back and the scenery was brighter again as our shadows returned.

It was the quickest 3 minutes and 34 seconds I ever lived through, but now I could finally relax. Venus shone in the dim sky for awhile longer. It was only 80º, a typical night temperature in Aruba. We were all talking and having a great time describing what we saw. An Aruban family had set up near us before the eclipse (most everyone on the island had the afternoon off from work) and offered us cups, ice, and cold drinks from a cooler. It was greatly appreciated. A great feeling of satisfaction descended over us as we watched the cruise ships nearby and the Sun return to normal. By 3:36 P.M. it was all over as fourth contact came and the last speck of the Moon slid off the Sun. Besides packing up, there was only one more task to be completed. Dressed in our official eclipse uniforms (the new MVAS golf shirts), we had to pose for a group portrait. With that done, it was time to celebrate!

A wonderful dinner at the Buccaneer restaurant ended the most incredible day of my life! I had a Planter’s Punch (loaded with local rum) to really celebrate! I really felt great that night! The license plates in Aruba say, “One Happy Island”. We were very HAPPY to be there. It was one of the most awesome days ever!