Pages Navigation Menu
Categories Navigation Menu

Solar Eclipses Have a Funny Way of Messing with your Head

By Matthew Whitehouse, Boeing Observatoy Manager

Total solar eclipse over the coast of Queensland, Australia, 14 November 2012.
Image: Alex Cherney/

3 a.m., Wednesday, November 14, 2012, Trinity Beach, just north of Cairns, Queensland, Australia. Our group of astronomers and fellow students led by one of my graduate school advisers awakens in a seaside apartment complex to prepare for the morning’s total solar eclipse. We were there filming footage for a documentary featuring our astronomer colleagues and their eclipse research. After a quick breakfast, I stepped outside onto the apartment’s terrace in the predawn darkness and saw that the sky was clear and star-filled. It was from this terrace, overlooking the Pacific Ocean, that we would observe the eclipse’s grand spectacle. Unlike our afternoon eclipse in Columbia this August, this eclipse over far north Queensland began just as the Sun was rising, with totality at a bright and early 6:39 a.m. As I noted with excitement the clear skies, one of the astronomers in our group quipped “eclipses have a funny way of messing with your head.” A line I will never forget, spoken by a veteran eclipse chaser.

I had arrived in Cairns the Sunday before. All week, we watched eclipse fever take over this small city sandwiched between the Queensland coast and rainforest-covered hills. Eclipse chasers and scientists from all over the world were converging on Cairns and the excitement in the air was palpable. But there was one problem, one thing everyone was talking about: the weather. November on the tropical north Queensland coast is the beginning of the summer wet season. Although there were a few odd sunny spells, every day seemed to be dominated by clouds, rain, and wind. The weather forecast for the entire week was dismal. A newspaper headline trumpeted in a giant-sized font “TENSE WAIT ON ECLIPSE WEATHER.” I had traveled 8,000 miles and braved the 14-hour flight from the US West Coast to Australia, and we’re going to get skunked by the weather?

As morning twilight began, we went out onto the seaside terrace, with the rhythmic sound of ocean waves providing a suitably mysterious soundtrack. As the Sun rose and the eclipse got underway, clouds began to move in. Even with the clouds, we were able to use eclipse glasses to see much of the eclipse’s partial phases. But as totality neared, the clouds began to thicken. Clouds began to pass directly over the Sun, limiting our view to sporadic 30-second windows. Still, the celestial drama unfolded in spectacular fashion. About a minute before totality, the clouds completely covered the Sun. Then, the shadow of the Moon swept in with breathtaking speed, plunging us into a darkness far more eerie than morning twilight just an hour before. As totality began, the clouds parted, giving us a brief window to view the truly awe-inspiring sight of the fully eclipsed Sun. Before totality ended, the clouds moved back in … but even with the less than ideal weather, the eclipse was incredible. After the eclipse, I took a long walk on the beach to reflect on the awesome natural wonder I had just seen.

It has been a joy sharing my firsthand experience in Australia as we engage and train our guests, students, teachers, and community leaders in preparation for our solar eclipse here in South Carolina this August. With the eclipse almost upon us, I think my astronomer colleague’s comment about eclipses having a funny way of messing with your head is a good one to keep in mind. Unless you’ve experienced a total solar eclipse directly, there’s literally no way to have any concept of the spectacle that awaits. A total solar eclipse is a roller coaster of sights and sounds, and there is this weird sensation of feeling totally out of control. Even with our modern scientific knowledge of eclipses, experiencing one creates a sense of profound awe and even a little bit of fear. One can easily see how total solar eclipses were considered to be terrifying events in the past.

And now, with the Great American Eclipse of 21 August 2017 just a few weeks away, I encourage you all to get ready for this awesome experience. Plan to see the eclipse with friends and family. Make sure you have eclipse glasses ready; be sure to wear them during the partial phases and remove them during totality. And when totality happens, put away your cameras and smartphones and just watch as the celestial drama unfolds all around you.