July 11, 2010 Tatakoto Total Solar Eclipse Report
by  Edwin Aguirre & Imelda Joson


The path of totality for the July 11th eclipse began at sunrise over the open waters of the South Pacific some 1,800 km northeast of New Zealand . The Moon’s umbral shadow then quickly swept across Mangaia in the Cook Islands, through the remote atolls in French Polynesia and into Easter Island (Rapa Nui), before ending at sunset in southern Chile and Argentina.

We were invited by Astronomical Tours to lead a group of nearly 40 eclipse chasers to Tatakoto, a tiny isolated atoll (coral reef island surrounding a lagoon) in French Polynesia’s eastern Tuamotu Archipelago about 1,200 km east of Tahiti. This is the most daring expedition we have led so far owing to the vast distances involved, mainly over the ocean. But as everyone knows, diehard eclipse chasers would go to the ends of the Earth just to spend a few moments basking in the glow of the Sun’s glorious corona.

Tatakoto is an elongated ring 14 km long by 4 km wide, with less than 250 permanent residents. The island features hectares of coconut plantations, pinkish white coral-sand beaches, a blue lagoon, and a small airstrip. Its main exports include copra (dried coconut meat) and the meat from giant clams.

Tatakoto lies within 20 km of the eclipse’s central line. The duration of totality here lasted 4 minutes 28 seconds, with the Sun 36 degrees above the northeastern horizon.

Friday, July 9th

Our journey began with a 5 ½-hour non-stop flight from Boston to Los Angeles . In L.A. we boarded an Air Tahiti Nui Airbus A340-300 for the 8 ½-hour flight to Papeete , the capital of French Polynesia and the largest city on Tahiti . (The island is situated 20 km north of the eclipse track, so residents here experienced “only” a 98.7 percent partial eclipse that Sunday!)

From the Faaa Airport , our group was transferred to the Intercontinental Hotel, where we stayed overnight before flying to Tatakoto. We spent that evening meeting and greeting our tour members who were coming in on separate flights. Our group was truly international in scope — we had members from the U.S. , Canada , England , Belgium , Germany , Spain , the Netherlands , Japan , and Hong Kong . Fortunately, everyone could speak English!

We also checked and weighed all luggages bound for Tatakoto. This was required because of the strict weight limits imposed by our chartered flight (per person it was 22 pounds or 10 kilos for check-in baggage and 11 pounds or 5 kilos for carry-on). That was why in addition to lightweight clothes, we could bring only one small telescope — a Takahashi FC-60 apo refractor — and a Gitzo tripod with a Manfrotto geared head, plus our Canon EOS 7D and Digital Rebel XT DSLR cameras and a Canon Vixia HF S100 hi-def video camcorder. The rest of our belongings were left in the hotel for safekeeping.

In the hotel lobby we met our longtime friends and fellow avid eclipse chasers Fred Espenak and his wife, Pat Totten, and Glenn Schneider. Fred, a retired NASA Goddard Space Flight Center astronomer, co-authors with meteorologist Jay Anderson the NASA eclipse bulletin series, which is considered by serious eclipse chasers to be the “bible” on solar eclipses. Glenn, an astronomer at the University of Arizona ’s Steward Observatory, was with our group onboard Holland America ’s cruise ship, the Veendam, for the 1998 total solar eclipse in the Caribbean Sea . We all had a nice reunion.

Saturday, July 10th

Early the following morning — the eve of the eclipse — we boarded our 48-seater Air Tahiti ATR 42-500 turboprop plane for the 2 ½-hour flight to Tatakoto. Along the way, we briefed our members on what to expect and what to look for during the eclipse (we had about 10 first-timers, or eclipse “virgins,” in our group). We also discussed safety precautions while on the atoll (we warned them about heat exhaustion, dehydration, coral cuts and scrapes, and insect bites; we also told them to watch out for falling coconuts, sharks prowling the surf, poisonous cone shells, etc.).

Looking out the plane’s window, we noticed a lot of scattered cumulus clouds along the eclipse path, which caused some concern among our members since totality was less than 24 hours away! Fortunately, the sky had turned to a mix of bright sunshine and broken clouds by the time our plane touched down on Tatakoto’s airstrip.

At the airport, we were greeted by the island’s mayor and town officials as well as the local families that would host our stay on the atoll. Our team was then broken up into groups of five or six and then brought by van and pickup trucks to the guest houses in Tumukuru, the island’s main settlement. Our own group included two from Japan and one from Canada .

The guest houses where we stayed for the next three days and two nights were wonderful. Since Tatakoto is one of the most remote islands in the Tuamotus (planes arrive here only once a week and ships once a month), we were expecting our accommodations to be very rustic. Some even thought we would have to camp out on the beach in tents. Before the trip, we tried to do some research about life on Tatakoto, but there was very little background information about the island on the Internet and in travel books.

It turned out Tumukuru has 24-hour electricity (240 volts, 50 cycles), and the bungalow-style house where we stayed has flush toilet, shower, running water, three nice bedrooms with mattresses, closets, and electric fans, a well-furnished living room and dining area, and a small kitchen with a refrigerator and upright freezer.

The town’s post office even has Internet access. We brought a quad-band GSM cell phone to Tatakoto and the reception on the island was even better than in Tahiti — in fact, we described the eclipse to our mom in Boston right after totality!

The meals the family prepared for us were like a feast. They were not really Polynesian dishes but more like American and European food. They consisted mainly of beef, sausages, ham, fried potatoes, and steamed rice plus Tahitian-brand bottled spring water, beer, and cola. For dessert, they served us native fruits that looked like guavas but tasted like lychee, as well as chocolate cake and ice cream. For breakfast we had omelet, firifiri (Tahitian doughnut), and coffee. We were in heaven!

Just a short distance from our guesthouse is the Tatakoto primary school. Professional astronomers from the University of Hawaii’s Institute for Astronomy (IFA) had set up a camp on the school’s soccer field to observe the eclipse, but we didn’t get a chance to meet or chat with them because we were so busy attending to our own group. The IFA folks had brought telescopes and other instruments which they kept in their air-conditioned tents.

After a sumptuous lunch prepared by our host family, a group of us went to the lagoon to scout for a suitable observing site along the lagoon’s southwestern shores. Another tour group of about 40 more eclipse chasers would be joining us at the site on eclipse morning. They would arrive from Tahiti around 6 a.m., stay a few hours for the eclipse, have lunch, and then fly back to Tahiti that same day.

With the help of Google maps, a Magellan GPS, and a compass, we found the perfect spot – a picturesque section of the beach facing the turquoise waters of the lagoon and overlooking a motu (islet) lined with palm trees. The ground at the site was made up of compacted sand, suitable for setting up tripods. The area was also very wide and flat, and had a clear, unobstructed view of the entire eastern sky.

(Unfortunately, from our vantage point we would not be able to see the approach of the Moon’s shadow too well since the western sky was blocked by tall coconut trees. That was why earlier that day we also designated the town’s wharf as an alternative site for those who wanted to watch the approach and retreat of the Moon’s shadow. It was not as photogenic as the lagoon, but it offered a clear, open view of the Pacific from west to east.)

It was getting close to sunset by the time we reached Tumukuru, and we headed straight to the wharf where we watched the Sun slowly dip into the Pacific. At the last moments before the Sun’s limb disappeared below the horizon, we glimpsed a brilliant “green flash” for about a second or so, and then it was gone. It was a good omen!

Sunday, July 11th — Eclipse Day!

The following morning — E-Day — we woke up early and were already on the beach by 4 a.m.

The beach was still dark and deserted, but we were anxious to see what the sky conditions were. They didn’t look promising at all — thick, dark clouds blanketed the horizon all the way to the zenith. We even had to cover our telescope and camera backpack with plastic bags since light rain started to fall over our site at dawn.

We debated whether to move our group to our backup site on the eastern end of the atoll, which was a 45-minute drive on dirt roads. First contact was scheduled to occur at 7:27 a.m. local time, so we didn’t have much time left.

Adding to our stress level that morning was the fact that the battery of the minivan that brought us to the lagoon had suddenly died. We needed all the vehicles we could get if we had to relocate our group to the other site. So we pushed the van across the sand to try to kick-start it. It wasn’t an easy job! Fortunately, with the help from some passersby, we were able to get the van going again.

According to the locals, this year’s weather on the atoll was unusual — it was mostly cool and cloudy. In previous years, it was mainly hot, sunny, and humid. Tatakoto’s weather, they said, is also much localized — it could be raining on one end of the atoll and sunny on the other.

We noticed the weather pattern on the island was like a giant conveyor belt — bands of clouds and rainshowers pass through with gaps of sunshine and blue skies in between. So we finally decided to stay put and take our chance. Shortly after the Sun rose at 5:45 a.m., wind from the east began to blow, and the low-lying clouds started to dissipate. We could finally glimpse blue skies through the clearing. We felt so relieved!

The second tour group landed at the airport shortly after 6 a.m. and immediately joined us at the site. From the air, they could see what the cloud pattern looked like around the atoll. They also had the latest weather satellite data that morning. They basically confirmed our suspicion that a huge cloud break would be moving in over our site by the time of totality!

By this time our own group also arrived at the site. We now had more than 100 people on the beach, including Tatakoto’s mayor and his family and some local residents and vendors. Everyone scrambled to find their own private spots and hurriedly set up their telescopes and video cameras. Many opted to just sit back, relax, and enjoy the show visually through eclipse sunglasses, filtered binoculars, and hydrogen-alpha telescopes.

First contact occurred with the Sun 21 degrees high. The Sun continued to play hide and seek with the clouds throughout the partial phase of the eclipse. We saw through our camera’s viewfinder the two sunspots of AR 1087 and the tiny spot of AR 1088 being occulted one by one by the Moon’s rugged limb.

In the meantime, we unpacked the American and Philippine flags we had brought especially for the occasion, tied them to the branches of a nearby tree, and let the colors wave majestically in the gentle breeze. They were our lucky charms. The Philippine flag has been with us for the past eight eclipse expeditions, starting with the total solar eclipse in 1988 in General Santos City, South Cotabato .

About 30 minutes before second contact, the rapidly dwindling crescent Sun entered a huge break in the cloud cover. We knew right away that, except for some very thin passing cirrus, we would definitely see totality. Everyone was ecstatic!

Totality was set to begin at 8:46 a.m. local time, with the Sun hanging 36° above the northeastern horizon. As the moon’s 241-km-wide shadow swept over the site at more than 3,100 km per hour, a prolonged, slow-motion diamond ring marked the last vestige of the Sun. And then the corona suddenly flashed into view. People cheered and shouted in joy; many remained silent, furiously shooting the eclipse with their cameras and camcorders.

July 11, 2010  Total Solar Eclipse Video

The corona was surprisingly full of structure even though the Sun was just coming out of a very deep minimum, displaying at least four long streamers that extended asymmetrically in opposite directions and tapered off into the deep, velvety blue sky. And hairlike brushes delicately traced magnetic-field lines above the Sun’s polar regions.

Numerous prominences — those brilliant red flame-like eruptions projecting from the edge of the Sun’s disk like a necklace of rubies — were visible to the naked eye. An especially large loop prominence could be seen at the 11 o’clock position during third contact.

Adding to the mesmerizing visual drama unfolding above was the planet Venus gleaming through a break in the clouds a short distance from the darkened sun. And on the ground, the eclipse’s 360° sunset painted the entire horizon in a vivid, yellow-orange glow.

Four and a half minutes after totality started, the sun’s reappearance on the opposite side of the Moon was heralded by another spectacular diamond ring. The total eclipse was over, and daylight returned very swiftly as if a giant celestial dimmer switch had been turned off. The Polynesian gods had answered our prayers and blessed us with a clear view of totality!

The eclipse took place in central Gemini, just 45 arcminutes east of the 3rd-magnitude star Delta Geminorum. Upon reviewing our images of the corona, we found out we actually recorded this star embedded in one of the coronal streamers.

After the two groups finished packing their equipment, the mayor of Tatakoto hosted a feast at his home to celebrate the day’s success.

Later that afternoon, we went to the island’s primary school and presented the mayor, the school’s headmaster and the children of Tatakoto with a telescope we had brought with us. (Three months prior to the trip, we were able to convince Celestron to donate a brand-new AstroMaster 90AZ refractor for the school.) The telescope came with an altazimuth mount on a steel tripod, a small finder, two eyepieces, a star diagonal, The Sky planetarium program, and manuals.

We assembled the telescope for them and showed them how to use it. The kids then eagerly waited in line to take their very first look through a telescope. (There were no suitable targets at the school so we simply aimed the scope at a distant coconut tree.) They were all very excited and happy.

The island is blessed with some of the clearest, darkest and most pristine skies we’ve ever seen, and the telescope would be a superb tool for the children to explore the beauty of the night sky.

After dinner that evening, we all went back to the school where the people of Tatakoto had prepared a special cultural show for us. Over the next two hours, we were treated to authentic, traditional Polynesian music, songs, and dances. These were not professional artists performing, but ordinary folks who wanted to showcase their talents and their culture. It was a wonderful presentation. At the end of the show, the dancers invited several of our members to join them. Everyone had a great time.

Since the sky was crystal clear that final night on Tatakoto, we hosted a stargazing session for our members at the town’s wharf. At latitude 17 degrees 21 minutes south, the island offered a spectacular view of the Milky Way. With practically no light pollution or smog, the night sky was studded with countless stars from horizon to horizon. Scorpius blazed directly overhead, and to the unaided eye, the dense star clouds of Sagittarius appeared like balls of cotton crisscrossed by dark lanes. People armed with binoculars had a fun time scanning Carina, Crux, Centaurus, and the other far-southern constellations.

By the time our star party ended after midnight, we could see the Small Magellanic Cloud rising in the southeast. We wanted to keep on taking photos of the Milky Way, but we still had to pack our things for our early morning flight back to Tahiti .

Monday, July 12th

After breakfast, we said our final goodbyes to our wonderful host family and exchanged gifts with them. Our group was given beautiful necklaces made of seashells as well as crowns made of straw. In return, we presented the family a couple of fishing rods and a small tent that we had originally brought for our group.

The people of Tatakoto were so warm and friendly, and their generosity and hospitality made us really feel at home. Although only a handful are fluent in English (they speak mainly French, Tahitian, and their own native dialect), which made communicating quite a challenge, we were able to get by using a lot of pointing and hand gestures. It was quite a learning experience for all!

En route to the airport, we passed by the post office to pick up postcards with eclipse stamps that were issued and postmarked in Tatakoto on July 11th. We bought five of them as souvenirs for a total of 1,000 French Polynesian francs (about US$12).

At the airport, there were more emotional farewells as the other members of our group joined their hosts for some final group photos. Although our stay on the island was very brief, we really bonded with our respective families.

The eclipse was the most exciting thing that had ever happened to Tatakoto. Unlike French Polynesia’s well-known islands — Tahiti, Moorea, and Bora Bora — Tatakoto is a relatively unknown atoll far from the usual tourist destinations. But it’s a hidden gem waiting to be discovered by the more adventurous travelers and explorers. We promised our hosts that, given a chance, we would visit Tatakoto again and spend more time exploring the island and learning more about its fascinating history, culture, and people.

After an uneventful 2 ½-hour flight, we landed at Faaa Airport in Papeete . Our group was then transferred to the city’s pier for the ferry ride to the island of Moorea , less than 30 km away to the west. The waters between Tahiti and Moorea were a bit choppy, and some of the ferry passengers became seasick. After disembarking in Moorea, we were taken by bus to the Intercontinental Hotel, our home for the next two nights.

At the hotel we saw some members from Sky & Telescope ’s Easter Island tour, including our good friend Dava Sobel, who was a guest lecturer on the S&T tour. Dava is an international best-selling author whose works include the highly acclaimed books Longitude and Galileo’s Daughter. She was on our tour in Rome during the 2004 transit of Venus so it was a happy reunion for us. She had breakfast with us the following morning and we caught up on the latest news. Her current project involves writing a play about the life of Copernicus.

We later learned that observers on Easter Island ( Rapa Nui ) also saw the eclipse high above the giant moai statues. The IFA astronomers at the Tatakoto primary school were equally successful. Some lucky eclipse chasers on one part of Mangaia in the Cook Islands also saw the eclipse, but others did not (the clouds were that low and local).

Observers on the Hao and Anaa atolls in French Polynesia’s Tuamotu Archipelago , as well as passengers aboard the cruise ships Paul Gauguin and the Aranui 3 , were also rewarded with views of totality. Eclipse watchers in El Calafate in Patagonia , Argentina , saw totality (and the Moon’s umbral cone), with the setting Sun only a degree or so above the Andes Mountains .

Unfortunately, others were not so lucky. A group of about 40 travelers, including well-known Canadian astrophotographer and writer Alan Dyer, were at the airport on Hikueru Atoll in the Tuamotus when a cloud moved in at second contact and completely obscured totality.

Fred Espenak and Glenn Schneider didn’t have to worry about the weather. They led a group of about 40 people aboard a specially chartered Airbus A-319 jet that intercepted the Moon’s shadow some 2,500 km east of Tahiti . Passengers cruised above the clouds at an altitude of about 39,000 feet (12 km), and they were able to extend the duration of totality to 9 minutes 23 seconds!

We have already observed eclipses both on land and at sea, and an airborne eclipse chase is what we want to try out in the near future.

Tuesday, July 13th

Moorea truly is a tropical paradise. It’s a favorite destination for honeymooners. This beautiful island features rugged volcanic peaks and sheer cliffs covered with lush vegetation. It’s stunningly photogenic no matter where you look.

The Intercontinental Hotel itself is magnificent, with white-sand beaches, emerald-green lagoons teeming with coral reefs and colorful fishes, and private bungalows sitting over the water. People spent the days relaxing and having fun while sunbathing, swimming with dolphins, snorkeling, scuba diving with sharks and manta rays, jet skiing, kayaking, or driving around the island on 4 x 4s or dune buggies.

However, paradise does come with a hefty price tag. Moorea, like Tahiti and Bora Bora , is a very expensive destination. Everything has to be flown in or shipped to French Polynesia , and the French Government levies heavy taxes on all goods and services on the islands. We can’t imagine how the locals manage to survive.

You should be prepared to spend serious money while on the islands. The currency here, French Polynesian francs, runs about 70 to 90 per U.S. dollar, depending on where you exchange your money. A liter of bottled water can cost you about $5 at the hotel bar; a can of Coke $10 at the airport. In addition to tourism, Tahiti ’s main industries are the production of vanilla and black pearls.

In the afternoon, we had a few hours of free time so our tour members and new friends, Paul and Ruth Young from California, offered to take us in their rental car to Opunohu Bay so we can do some surf fishing. It’s a beautiful bay with warm, crystal-clear waters, gentle waves, and a scenic view of Mount Rotui . Another perfect day in paradise!

Wednesday, July 14th

In the afternoon, our group returned to Tahiti by ferry for a final overnight stay at the Intercontinental before flying back home.

Thursday, July 15th

Since our Air Tahiti Nui flight was not scheduled to depart until 10 p.m. that night, we still had a full day to explore Tahiti and do some last-minute shopping for gifts and souvenirs.

A very nice couple from our group, David and Phyllis Brewer from California , had a rental car and they offered to drive us anywhere on the island. We chose to go to historic Point Venus on Tahiti ’s northernmost coast.

This was the site where Captain James Cook observed the transit of Venus in 1769. A white concrete monument enclosed in a red fence now marks the spot, which is just a short distance from the Point Venus lighthouse constructed in 1867. Unfortunately, someone stole the plaque on the transit monument either in the late 70s or early 80s and it had not been replaced since then.

While we stood next to the monument, we tried to imagine the hardship and ordeal that Capt. Cook had to endure while sailing from England to Tahiti, and what Tahiti must have looked like at the time.

After more than 240 years, the transit of Venus will again touch the shores of Point Venus. On June 6, 2012, the planet’s ingress across the solar disk can be viewed shortly after local noon but unfortunately, its egress will not be visible. The Sun would have set that day with the transit still in progress.

Also present at Point Venus is a huge boulder adorned with plaques commemorating the British ship HMS Bounty and her crew. In 1789 a group of renegades led by Fletcher Christian mounted a mutiny against the ship’s captain, William Bligh. The mutineers settled in Tahiti and in Pitcairn Island , where some of their descendants still live today. The main author of the 1932 novel “Mutiny on the Bounty” — James Norman Hall — also lived in Tahiti , where he died in 1951 and is buried there. His house has now been converted into a museum.

It was a very nice (but windy) day when we visited Point Venus. Later that afternoon, we went to a local shopping center to buy some gifts and souvenirs before heading back to the hotel. That evening, we were transferred to Faaa Airport for the long flight home.

Friday, July 16th

After a delayed departure in L.A. due to severe thunderstorms on the East Coast, our plane finally touched down in Boston late in the evening, but we didn’t get home till past midnight on Saturday morning. It was an exhausting but very satisfying trip. We can’t wait for the next total solar eclipse — on November 13, 2012, in Queensland , Australia !


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