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Report on the Total Solar Eclipse of 1999 Aug 11

by Jacques Guertin (Diyarbakir, Turkey)

On August 11, after travelling across the North Atlantic Ocean for nearly 4,000 km, umbral shadow of the last total solar eclipse of the 20th century and of the millennium would traverse England, central Europe, Turkey, and India. In spite of numerous warnings about travelling in the Kurd regions of Turkey, four PAS members, Jeff and Jhanna Buel, Jacques and Huguette Guertin, took their chances and went to southeastern Turkey to view the eclipse. The 85% chance of clear skies coupled with a chance to visit wonderful historic sites were most compelling.

The Expedition

August 6—8. Packing for eclipse trips is always a challenge. This trip is somewhat worse since I’m bringing a G11 mount (through the kindness of my good friend, Ken Lum) for my 152-mm aperture Maksutov. The problem was that my Astro-Physics 900GTO had not arrived, although I had ordered it more than a year earlier! Huguette and I fly from San Francisco to New York where we are joined by the Buells and Sandra Stewart and Mathew Marcus, also avid eclipse chasers from the San Francisco Bay Area. After flying about 11 hours from New York, we arrive in Istanbul, Turkey, a city that essentially straddles Europe and Asia.

August 8—9. Suffering from jet lag, we nevertheless visit the Blue Mosque of the sultan, Ahmet Cami (with its 6 minarets and internal shimmering 20,000 blue tiles), St. Sophia Church, and the fabulous Topkapi Palace.

August 10. Arriving in Diyarbakir, a southeastern Kurd city (about 100 km from Syria, 200 km from Iraq, and 400 km from Iran), we are greeted by Turkish soldiers toting AK47s and Uzis. Of course, we abide by their strong suggestion not to take any pictures on the airstrip of the airport. It would take nearly three hours to unload our luggage from the plane! It seems that they had only one small hand cart. And, boy is it ever hot–105 °F. But, it’s dry and there isn’t a cloud anywhere.

That afternoon we explore the planned eclipse site, Ba ğdere, on center line, about 50 km northeast of Diyarbakir. In the evening at dinner, about 80 TravelQuest eclipsers discuss plans for the next day’s eclipse. Although the locals have set up tent shelters for protection from the sun and TravelQuest is supplying plenty of water, I fear that large crowds of Kurds are likely to be around me while I’m setting up my equipment and may even want to view through the optics during totality! Thus, I decide to explore the possibility of staying at the hotel to view the eclipse. Since Diyarbakir is only about 12 km from the southern limit of the umbral path, I would be sacrificing 49 seconds of totality, getting 1m20s instead of the 2m09s that I would get if I were on the center line. However, I would benefit with likely more interesting edge effects such as more Baily’s beads and a larger, longer-lasting chromosphere.

August 11. Eclipse day! After perhaps only three hours sleep (does anyone ever sleep much the night before an eclipse?), I get up early to look for a suitable location to set up my equipment. I eliminate the hotel parking lot and swimming pool because from these locations, the hotel itself might block out the sun at eclipse time. I remember that earlier someone had mentioned that I might be able to get up on the roof. So, after a brief breakfast, I convince the hotel manager to let me up on the roof. My first reaction on seeing the roof was jubilation. There is ample room for many people, the floor is tiled and flat, and the 360 ° view of the city is spectacular (no obstructions whatsoever). It would be perfect for seeing the arrival and departure of the moon’s shadow. The only negative is the noise and floor vibration from large air conditioning and ventilation motors. I could live with the noise but the floor vibration is a concern because I would be photographing at 3,000-mm focal length. Nevertheless, the advantages of the roof location seem to outweigh this one disadvantage. And, perhaps the floor vibration would be sufficiently damped by the time it got to my camera. I would chance it.

Hauling my not-so-light equipment from my hotel room to the roof was not easy, especially since I had to climb a narrow rung ladder to get to the best roof location. It is now 11h00. At home in practice sessions, it would take me 40 minutes to set up the equipment. Here, it takes me a little over two hours! The problem was that I couldn’t find many of the assembly bolts. The numerous flights no doubt had shifted things around. I am finally set-up with only 5 minutes before First Contact. (That’s better than 5 minutes before Second Contact!) Meanwhile, Sandra Stewart has set up not far from me along with a few others from our TravelQuest group. And, Huguette is milling about taking it all in and snapping wide-angle shots. (For this eclipse, Huguette chose to leave her telescope at home and just enjoy the visual experience.)

13h15m33s. Theoretical First Contact. Although my 6X eyepiece on my camera gives me an effective 18,000-mm focal length view of the sun, I don’t observe the first lunar bite until about 30 seconds after the theoretical First Contact. Nevertheless, I announce First Contact well ahead of anyone near me. (It is always a relief to see the moon’s tiny first bite because you now know that at least, you’re in the eclipse path on the right day!) After the initial excitement of this beginning of the eclipse and taking a first photo, I realize that not only can I see the effect of the floor vibration on the sun’s image, but the wind has increased to perhaps 60 km/h and there are thermal problems as well. So, the sun’s image is so poor that I can’t see detail within the numerous sun spots nor can I see the mountains of the moon in profile against the sun’s disk. But, there isn’t enough time to set up elsewhere. . . .

14h00. The sun is now a little more than 50% obscured by the moon. The only cloud in the sky momentarily blocks the sun. I have a reputation for attracting clouds but this is ridiculous. But, it dissipates. Meanwhile, I think all hotel staff is now on the roof. Of course, they are delighted at the view of the partially eclipsed sun through my telescope. But then, one of the managers gets an ominous telephone call. He tells us that we must all move away form the edge of the roof otherwise, we will be forced off the roof by the Turkish army! You see, the Turkish army was having maneuvers near our hotel and because they could clearly see our telescopes, they thought we might be spying on them and taking high-resolution photographs of their operations. Since they were armed with tanks, rocket launchers, assault rifles, and more, we did not hesitate to comply.

14h25m. Less than 15 minutes before totality. It is getting noticeably cooler. In fact, the thermal problem has disappeared and the wind has died down to near zero (as it almost always does near totality). Of course, the sun’s image is now much improved. There still remains that annoying vibration from the roof motors and the accompanying noise prevents me hear my audio countdown tape.

14h34m. Five minutes before totality. It is much cooler now. Rather comfortable from the 105° a little earlier. But, I’m sweating anyway, no doubt more increased tension. And, the ambient light has changed color, somewhat like just before sunsets. Suddenly, there is complete silence. The roof motors have stopped!!! Management has shut off the ventilation system to the whole building! I can’t believe my good luck. Now I can hear my audio countdown tape and the image of the thin crescent sun is incredibly sharp. I immediately thank management and just in case there is a God, I thank God too. Then, Huguette points out a red beacon light near me that would likely come on during totality and possibly interfere with our observing and photographing the eclipse. Management responds immediately and throws a large switch that probably shut all power to the hotel. Gads. This must be close to a miracle. By this time, I’m an emotional wreck and try to calm down enough to concentrate on my photography.

14h38m. Huguette sees them first. Fantastic shadow bands. (Later, Huguette told me that not only were they rolling along the ground but they were also shimmering.) Of course, I never see them, being too busy with preparing to take pictures. Now cusps of the crescent sun are rapidly dwindling. A quick glance reveals the black moon already covering most of the sun and a bit of corona!

14h39m22s. Second Contact. A brief diamond ring followed by Baily’s beads and the corona pops out as totality begins. The chromosphere is unbelievable, nearly half way around the edge of the moon, and there is a huge hedge-row prominence with numerous smaller ones all around the black moon were the sun used to be moments ago. After getting off three shots, I stop photographing to look into the telescope and see if all is OK. The alignment is perfect and the focus seems fine. Great. However, I refocus anyway to be safe. Of course, all this time I’m looking at eclipsed sun at an effective 18,000-mm focal length. And now I see a fantastic detached "arrow-head" prominence floating in space, including small pieces leading from it to the surface of the sun! (Later, I measured the prominence on the photographic film and estimated that the prominence tip was 115,000 km [72,500 miles] off the sun’s surface!)

14h40m10s. Only 30 seconds remain of totality. I have only enough time to try for an inner corona shot with a 1 s exposure. Unfortunately, I forget to open the rear shutter of the camera as I click the front shutter–thus, getting no exposure on the film. My audio tape tells me that now there are only 20 seconds left. I go back to my exposures for prominence and chromosphere and manage to get off three more 1/8 s exposures. It is now 85 °, 20 ° cooler than 30 minutes earlier.

14h40m42s. Third Contact. A sudden brightening of the ground around me. I look up to see the second diamond ring as the last total eclipse of the millennium ends. As usual for all total solar eclipses, it seems that 1 minute 20 seconds has gone by in a flash. Everyone, including hotel staff, are celebrating loudly. Naturally, I’m going a little crazy myself. Once again, Huguette sees great shadow bands. Obviously, I’m too pumped to see anything going on around me.

This was an eclipse with a symmetrical corona that looked like a daisy with numerous spiky plumes and unbelievable prominences, including a chromosphere that never really disappeared during all of totality (it simply ran around the edge of the moon from one side to the other). This has truly been one of the most outstanding eclipses that I have ever witnessed. And, I have seen 15 of them! A few hours later, the main TravelQuest group returns from Bağdere, tired, sunburned, but obviously happy. We congregate at the pool to compare our experiences, continuing on at our celebration dinner that evening.

August 12—16. On August 12, we depart from Diyarbakir, leaving behind great memories and millions of watermelons, the main product of the city. The following days, we visit the historical sites of Cappadocia, Ankara (the Capital City of Turkey), Kuşadasi, on the Aegean Sea and the site of the great mausoleum of Kemal Ataturk, (the one single person who did the most for the Turkish economy and infra structure), and Ephesus, no doubt the finest archeological site in the world.

August 17, 03h02. I am nearly thrown out of bed by 45 seconds of shaking and rocking. Being very tired from the previous day’s escapades, I go back to sleep thinking that some large truck going by caused the shaking. Of course, the next morning we hear the truth–a 45-second, 7.4-magnitude earthquake has devastated Gölcük and Izmit, two cities only 400 km from us in Kuşadasi! Currently, it is estimated that more than 20,000 people have died from the earthquake. Fortunately, there is no damage where we are, so we are able to continue our touring. (We discover the bad news that our bus driver’s home in Izmit has been completely demolished. Fortunately, his family is OK but living on the street. Although obviously disturbed and sad, he chooses to stay with us for the remainder of our touring. Of course, we share his grief but are grateful that he does not abandon us.)

A long day is spent visiting the ancient Roman city of Aphrodisias (home of the goddess, Aphrodite) and the huge, brilliant white, limestone cliffs, mineral waters, and hot springs of Pamukkale.

August 18—19. We return to Istanbul where we visit more mosques. But, the most fun area is the colorful spice market where the vendors engage the tourists in bizarre entertainment. We end our grand tour of Turkey with a gala dinner on the gorgeous Istanbul Boğazi waterway that runs to the Black Sea. This Mediterranean region is truly the play area of the rich and wealthy.

August 20. After flying 11 hours from Istanbul to New York, 6 hours more to San Francisco, we still arrive on the same day, the result of flying west and gaining 13 hours in time zones.

2001 Total Eclipse of the Sun

The next total eclipse of the sun takes place on June 21, 2001. The best viewing locations are Angola and Zambia, Africa, and Madagascar. Weather prospects over these locations are excellent, with an approximate 80% chance of clear skies. The NASA Reference Publication on this eclipse published by Fred Espenak and Jay Anderson should be available some time this year. I plan to issue a Nite Skies article on this eclipse.


I wish to thank Jay and Judy Anderson for their help on technical problems and Aram Kaprielian of TravelQuest for the excellent travel arrangements. I also acknowledge the detailed write-up of eclipse circumstances in the NASA Reference Publication 1398, by Fred Espenak and Jay Anderson (March 1997).

1999 Total Eclipse Reports and Photos

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