yduJ watches the Sun hide behind the Moon

We went to Antigua to watch the sun hide behind the moon at 2:31pm on Feb 26, 1998. Ken and I had done this once before in Hawaii in 1991, where we had seen the eclipse, but it was among clouds and so the view was not as wonderful as it might have been.

We were in Antigua for a week, so we had more time besides the 2 minutes 45 seconds we would spend in the dark, and did a bunch of other touristy activities as well.

Adventures in Trip Planning

We had originally intended to go to Montserrat, where there is an active volcano, which we thought would be really cool. Unfortunately, the volcano got a bit too active, destroying the airport and causing our villa to become needed for refugees. When my travel agent informed me of this back in July, the best solution seemed to be to simply get accommodations on Antigua, through which we were already flying. I was concerned that we would not be able to find anything at this late date, given our earlier experience in Hawaii, where we had had quite a difficult time getting accommodations. Fortunately for us Antigua must not have been a main destination for this eclipse, or something, because we got quite a nice place with a view of the harbor and a nearby beach, although we were unable to get a separate villa, which would have been nicer than a motel-like arrangements that we ended up with.

The Island and Its People

Many of the guide books that I read, and some things that I heard from other people, implied that Antigua might be more like Bermuda than like other Caribbean islands, so I was somewhat surprised when this turned out not to be the case. Like Bermuda, most of the inhabitants are black, but unlike Bermuda where everyone speaks with clipped British accent, in Antigua the accent is the slurred accent that you expect in the Caribbean. Everything is run on "island time", another Caribbean stereotype. Since we were on vacation, we relaxed and went with the flow.

Dinner was often an adventure, although it was with only one exception excellent. We would go to restaurant, sit down, and wait patiently. A waiter would show up, and kind of talk to us about what they might have to serve us. Of course when we actually asked for some specific dish, they might not actually have it, despite having just been listed by the waiter talking to us, not a menu. Eventually, we would each decide on a dish that they actually had, and then we would wait patiently again. Meanwhile, we can hear the people talking to each other in the kitchen, though we can barely understand them because their accents are so thick, and they are speaking in some sort of Creole. Sometimes we wonder if our food is ever going to come; sometimes we play cards to pass the time. When it finally arrives, it is tremendously lovely, prepared with a delightful selection of spices, and lots of interesting side dishes including fried plantain.

There were street vendors selling T-shirts and other souvenirs; as in many countries it was somewhat difficult to fend them off. Interestingly, while they had a large selection of T-shirts, their stock was extremely low, and thus one might find a T-shirt but be unable to get it in one's size. We did end up with a nice collection, however.

The island had been used by the British during various wars in earlier centuries, and has a large collection of forts, most in considerable disrepair, though others have been restored and renovated for use as tourist destinations (shops, etc.)

The Eclipse

We arrived three days before the eclipse, and had driven around the island looking for possible sites to view the eclipse. We picked an abandoned fort called Blockhouse Hill. We found an old structure with trees growing up through it to stash our gear in; it was a bit hard to find shade and coolth. There were lots of other people wandering around; most of them were locals, with only a small percentage being tourists like us. Fortunately the hill was large and it was pretty easy to find a space where our car would not be blocked in.

We set up our tripod and binoculars outside the abandoned building and slapped the solar filters on the binoculars for viewing the partial eclipse. Because the eclipse takes about an hour and a half between the first contact and totality, we had a bunch of time to just laze around, using our solar filters to check the progress of the moon as it crossed the sun.

Unlike in Hawaii, we had fairly clear skies all morning, although there was an ugly cloud sitting over the center of the island. We had to just hope that it would never come towards us. There were also scattered puffy white clouds all through the sky, which were wandering around, so we had to be prepared to uproot and trot a few hundred feet if a cloud should threaten the sun near totality. We got lucky, and did not have to move.

As totality approached the light got dimmer, and took on a somewhat eerie quality. Someone said they thought this is what it would look like on Mars in full daylight. The amount of light is about that which you get during twilight, but the colors are different because the sun is so high in the sky; you still have all the blues.

We had chosen our location up high on a southwest facing bluff, so we could try to watch the shadow as it approached. We could see the island of Montserrat about 25 miles away across the ocean. Montserrat was plunged into darkness about two minutes before totality began for us, which was really quite cool to watch, and gave us a good idea of when the shadow would be approaching. It seems that the ocean surface is not a good place to see a good shadow line, because while we saw the ocean surface getting dimmer and darker, we never saw an obviously demarcated shadow line.

I watched the arc of the sun get smaller and smaller (through my solar filter) as the world around me got dimmer and dimmer. I did not really see any Bailey's Beads (discontinuities in the arc of the last bit of the sun caused by mountains on the moon), which I understand I should have been able to do. The moment I could no longer see any sunlight through the filter I looked up in the sky with my naked eye: it was totally awesome. Not only could we see the hole in the sky provided by the moon and the corona of the sun, but we could see stars! (Well, OK, planets.) Mercury and Jupiter were both very close to the sun, and Saturn was visible somewhat further away. In theory some other stars would have been visible, but we didn't see them; I guess some high cloud cover was obscuring them. It was kind of cool listening to the chorus of "Oh wow" that started up at the moment of totality. We had two minutes and 45 seconds of totality so there was some time to look around at the sky and the world; at the horizon we could see sunset colors off in the distance: pale pinks and oranges, and that was way cool too.

We had all set our watches before leaving the states, but we ended up with a spread of about six seconds among us. Rather than trying to guess which of us was most likely to have to correct time to set an alarm for the end of totality, we decided to set countdown timers for five and 10 seconds before the end, hitting the "go" button just as totality began. When the first alarm went off I grabbed the filters and slapped them onto the binoculars to save the optics before the sun came out, and then I took the last glance at the eclipse, where I was rewarded by a beautiful diamond ring. (This is caused by the sun peeking between two mountains on the moon and is similar to Bailey's Beads.)

The sun continued to come out from behind the moon, treating us to the eerie lighting effect again for 5 to 10 minutes. We hung out for another 15 or so minutes, and then packed up and headed down the hill to go play tourist again. The eclipse was still partial of course for another hour, so we took a peek through our filters occasionally while we were bumming around the island until fourth contact, the point at which the moon is no longer covering any of the sun.

Definitely way cool.

SCUBA Diving

The scuba diving in Antigua was reported not to be very good by rec.scuba, although some messages suggested that it might be being improved by new focus on environmentalism. Unfortunately the former messages were more correct. There was a lot of dead coral, and a smaller amount of brand-new live coral. It was still fun to dive, and there were a fair number of fish. We saw at least three eels poking their noses out from between rocks, and once we saw a cloud of ink that signified a departing octopus. One of the reasons there is so much dead coral is that the boats mostly anchor, rather than having permanent moorings available. Each boat that anchors kills some coral, so every day new coral is killed, whereas with a permanent mooring coral would only be killed once when the mooring was installed, and then the rest would be safe.

Unfortunately, the locals don't really seem to be environmentally aware. We also saw this when we drove around the island. We stopped the car at a pretty looking ravine, and got out to go have a look. However just over the rise, as we looked down, we saw a tremendous amount of garbage dumped down the ravine. They treat the sea similarly, and so not a lot of thought is given to installing moorings. The dive shop operators said that things are improving (we did use a mooring for one of our dives), but they have a ways to go. Contrast this with our trip to Florida, where anchoring is prohibited, and moorings are required. There, we saw essentially no dead coral, and lots and lots of life.

One of the things that I like to do when scuba diving is to go slowly along the reef or rocks, and look for interesting things in the crevices. However, when one is on a dive with a leader, one often has to follow along at the leader's pace, which is usually faster than I like. Again, I contrast this experience with my trip to Florida, where our dives did not have leaders: we were on our own recognizance to return to the boat within 45 minutes or an hour, allowing for careful exploration of the reef below (with more responsibility for not getting lost). Only on one of my Antigua dives was I able to poke around at my own speed. I felt like I kind of wasted the first dive, and I had an OK time on the second. The third was the enjoyable one; it was part of a class that I was just tagging along with, and the instructor was paying attention to the students, which left me and my buddy to basically take care of ourselves. I'm going to have to figure out how to arrange to get dives like that one and the dives I had in Florida in the future.

I did have a good time, just not as good a time as I had on my trip to Florida earlier in the year.

In addition to scuba diving we also spent some time snorkeling, which was actually just as nice as the scuba diving in its own way, and cheaper, too!

An Aerial Tour

On our last day in Antigua we arranged for a charter plane to fly us over the island of Montserrat, specifically to see the volcano. It was a puddle jumper that held five passengers (five small to medium-sized passengers, and that created a bit of commotion at the beginning of the flight as they weighed us all -- we did fit). It is a 15 minute flight over to Montserrat, so our hour's charter would allow us half an hour flying over the island.

Montserrat is composed of three mountains in a line: two small ones in the north, and volcano itself (much larger than the other two) in the south. This volcano is not like the Hawaiian ones: they have red lava which turns to black rock when it hardens. Montserrat's volcano mostly emits ash and pyroclastic flows, which turn to gray rock. Nearly the entire cone of the mountain is now covered in gray. The capital city used to be nestled up against the mountain, and the ash is up to the roof lines of those structures that still exist. In many places pyroclastic flows reached out into the sea and formed semi-circular bits of land that jut out into the ocean. (New real estate! Buy now!) The ocean itself is nearly opaque with the ash all around the island extending a fair distance out from shore.

From Antigua we could see Montserrat, and when it was not covered in cloud, we could see ash and smoke coming out of the top of the volcano, and drifting off with the trade winds. In the plane we got to see that smoke and ash up close and personal; the pilot took us right up to the lip, which was neat. I was very glad after we saw Montserrat that we had not stayed there; there would have been no scuba diving, and it probably would have been filthy with ash everywhere, and it probably would not have smelled too good either. Fortunately for the Montserratians, the two northern mountains are still habitable, although they did not really have any cities or towns, so they are having to rebuild from scratch.

After our tour of Montserrat, we got to fly over Antigua on the way back. Interestingly, the ocean near the northern half of Antigua is also somewhat opaque. I asked the pilot about this, and he said that it had been that way ever since the last hurricane. I don't understand what mechanism would have caused this, but it made me glad that we were staying in the south, where the water is clear.

We continued in our plan of spending lots of money this day by chartering a catamaran for the afternoon. It was interesting sailing this boat, about 40 feet long, and contrasting it with the feel and performance of Ken's 27 foot trimaran. It took a lot more force to handle the tiller, and it seemed as if the boat did not go as fast as Ken's would have in the similar wind. Of course, this boat had a lot larger and fancier accommodations, and being a catamaran rather than a trimaran causes it to lean over less, which I like.

This was a fun trip, not just for the main attractions, but also for the little things. Our motel was near a beach, and they had little sailing dinghies which we sailed all over the harbor. Swimming and snorkeling were fun, and of course the eclipse was awesome. I probably won't go back to Antigua however: there are a lot of other Caribbean Islands and it would be more interesting to see another island, and one which might have better diving.