July 11, 2010 Tatakoto Total
Solar Eclipse Report
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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 !