July 22, 2009 ALP Total Solar Eclipse Expedition To Jiaxing, China
by Edwin L. Aguirre & Imelda Joson

When our tour group arrived in Shanghai on Monday afternoon (July 20th), the sky was hazy but sunny. The same was true on Tuesday (July 21st) -- we enjoyed abundant hazy sunshine throughout the day, so everyone was optimistic about the prospects of seeing Wednesday’s eclipse. During dinner at the hotel’s restaurant in Jiaxing, however, we heard a series of thunderclaps followed by brilliant flashes of lightning. Not a very good sign. Shortly afterward, the wind picked up and rain came pouring down.

By midnight, the rain had subsided to a light drizzle but the sky was still overcast. We were now getting really concerned about the weather condition so Imelda and I, together with Michael Bakich of Astronomy Magazine, reviewed the latest forecasts for the area and downloaded/analyzed the most recent weather satellite images. It looked like a massive front had moved in and got stalled along the eclipse path, and it was bringing in lots of clouds and thunderstorms to the entire eastern half of China.

We considered moving to another site -- to Huzhou to the west or across the Yangtze River Delta to the south -- but predicting where the wind would blow and the clouds would move during the next 12 hours proved very tricky. The consensus was to check the satellite images again one last time before dawn and decide whether to stay at our original intended spot or relocate elsewhere to try and search for a hole in the cloud cover.

Everyone in our group was up early that Wednesday morning. We checked the satellite images again, but there was no significant change in the front's cloud and wind pattern. Our local tour guide even called his Chinese contacts in Hangzhou and Shanghai, but the weather conditions at those locations were also not very promising. The weather office in Jiaxing predicted that the wind would shift from the northwest to the northeast by the time of the eclipse. If it did, then the sea breeze would help push the cloud band far enough south that it might give us some clear skies. So ultimately, the three of us (Imelda, Mike, and myself) decided to try our luck at our original observing site -- the Nine Dragons Hill Resort, which is right on the coast. This beautiful private resort lies very close to the eclipse centerline and is about an hour's drive east of Jiaxing.

When we got there, the sky actually started to improve during the partial phase. The clouds began to thin out, allowing us views of the rapidly dwindling crescent Sun. But about a minute or so before totality, it started to rain and it didn't let up until well after third contact. Although we missed seeing the diamond ring or the corona, the darkness that prevailed that morning was no less than dramatic. It was as if the sky's light switch was suddenly turned off at second contact. It got so dark that we could barely see our hands held in front of us. All the lights in the marina turned on automatically during totality. Everyone in our tour group just stood there in the rain, gazing skyward in complete silence and admiring the eerie, unearthly darkness. Soon afterward, totality was over and daylight came back quite abruptly.

Attached you'll find three images taken by Imelda -- snapshots of me with our 3-inch Takahashi FS-78 fluorite apo refractor and Canon EOS digital SLR camera and our group members observing under a tent, as well as a view of the partial phase taken by her with a Canon 100-400 mm EF-L IS USM zoom lens (no solar filter was needed).

This was the first time we had watched an eclipse under an umbrella. (Luckily our telescope and camera gear didn't get wet.) The eclipse of 2009 broke our personal record of eight out of eight successful eclipses. But we didn't feel too bad about what had happened. We knew from the beginning that the weather prospects in China was poor since it was the middle of the monsoon season, and that we only had a 50/50 chance of seeing totality. Still, we were hoping for the best. (We even brought to the site the ALP banner, which Jun had loaned to us.)

The rest of our stay in China more than made up for the eclipse. In Shanghai we were able to take a night cruise along the Huangpu River, climb the Oriental Pearl TV Tower in Pudong, visit the water town of Zhujiajiao (also known as the "Venice of the East"), tour Shanghai's Old City, Yu Yuan Gardens and the Jade Buddha Temple, and take the Maglev (magnetic levitation) high-speed bullet train from downtown Shanghai to the PVG airport (the train attained a top speed of 431 kilometers per hour!).

In Xi'an we saw the famous life-size terracotta warriors guarding the tomb of Emperor Qin (Imelda even obtained the autograph and had her photo taken with the Chinese peasant farmer who accidentally dicovered the tomb in 1974). We also saw the Golden Buddha at the the Greater Wild Goose Pagoda, Xi'an's Islamic mosque, and the City Wall's South Gate. In addition, we also had a chance to tour silk, pearl, and jade factories, as well as an art gallery that taught us the traditional art of Chinese watercolor painting and calligraphy (writing Chinese characters using brush, ink, and rice paper).

In Beijing we toured Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City, the Temple of Heaven, the Summer Palace, Beihai Park, and the Ancient Observatory, and saw the Giant Pandas at the Beijing Zoo. The highlight, of course, was the visit to the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall of China outside Beijing. Overall, it was a fantastic trip, though the weather was quite hot and humid.

Next year, we'll get another chance to see the Sun's corona. The same company -- Astronomical Tours -- which had invited us to lead the tour to China, had asked us again earlier this year to lead one of its tours, this time for the July 11, 2010, total solar eclipse in the South Pacific. We will be observing with our group from Tatakoto, a small island (actually an atoll) in the Tuamotu Archipelago in French Polynesia (see the attached map). We'll be staying overnight in Tahiti before boarding our chartered turboprop plane to Tatakoto, which lies about 1,200 kilometers (700 miles) east of Tahiti. The tour was offered to the public only in late May this year, but it filled up very quickly and is now sold out as of today. The tour is limited to only 35 people since this is the plane's passenger capacity.

Tatakoto lies very close to the eclipse centerline. Totality here is expected to last 4 minutes 25 seconds on the early morning of July 11th. (Tatakoto is the last land area before the Moon's shadow reaches Easter Island.) Tatakoto features white sand beaches, coral reefs, a blue lagoon, a small airstrip, a village with about 255 native people, copra plantations, and clam farms (see the attached image of the atoll as seen from space). We'll be observing right on the beach, near the airstrip. Here's the link to the tour:


Tatakoto Atoll

Tatakoto Map

For 2012, we're planning to observe the May annular eclipse in Northern California or Arizona. Why not join us there? The chance of cloudy skies in China is about 60 to 80 percent, while it's only 10 to 40 percent for the western half of the US (see Jay Anderson's website http://www.eclipser.ca/ ).

For the total solar eclipse in November that year, we are planning to see it from northern Australia as well. This will be a good excuse for us to visit Imelda's aunt and cousins in Melbourne. We're thinking of going to Hawaii -- or the Philippines -- for the June transit of Venus. It's going to be a very busy year in terms of travel!


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