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Wide Angle Eclipse
Eclipse Over the Dark Continent
As the total eclipse began, we were enveloped by the Moon's dark shadow.
The horizon glowed with twilight colors and Jupiter was visible just below and left of the eclipsed Sun.
Two thorn acacia trees are silhouetted during the three and a half minutes of mid-day darkness.
The image was featured in Sky & Telescope's Gallery section (September 2001).
Custom Print Available

2001: An Eclipse Odyssey

Report on the Total Solar Eclipse of 2001 June 21

by Fred Espenak (Chisamba, ZAMBIA)

The first total eclipse of the 21st Century occurred on 2001 June 21 as the Moon's umbral shadow traced out a 12,000-kilometer long path across southern Africa and Madagascar. From the center of the 130 to 200 kilometer wide path, totality lasted from 2 to nearly 5 minutes. See the NASA 2001 Eclipse web site for complete details.

After our fantastic 1999 eclipse trip to Turkey, Gary Spears (Spears Travel) and I wanted to follow it up with an equally successful tour to Africa in 2001. To ensure that all would run smoothly on our eclipse safari, Gary, Pat Totten and I visited southern Africa in March 2000. This permitted us to develop a great itinerary with the best accommodations and an ideal site from which to observe the eclipse. These pre-eclipse site inspections have proved essential to the planning and execution of a winning eclipse expedition. The eclipse trip this June also included several days at the Kingdom Hotel in Victoria Falls and a wild game safari in Hwange National Park with fantastic sightings of African animals in their natural habitats!

The Experience of Totality is one that is not soon forgotten, since it is only during the few brief minutes of a total eclipse that the Sun's beautiful and elusive corona can be viewed. Each event attracts scientists, naturalists and spectators from around the world to the narrow path of the Moon's shadow. With good weather prospects, political stability and an international airport in the path of totality, Zambia was the logical choice for the eclipse. The tropical nation expected to gross $15 million from the influx of an estimated 20,000 tourists for the celestial spectacle. President Chiluba announced that the solar eclipse brought more tourists to Zambia than any other event in history as he proclaimed June 21 a national holiday. Most hotels and lodges were fully booked a year in advance. In the days leading up to the eclipse all commercial airline seats were filled to capacity and seven charter flights carried an additional 1300 visitors.

Our own plane was one of these charter flights. We didn't want our trip to hinge on the capriciousness and unreliability of commercial airline schedules in Zimbabwe, since we couldn't afford to be late for the eclipse! We also wanted to avoid flying through Harare due to the tension and political strife plaguing the region or risk the possibility that President Mugabe might commandeer our aircraft for one of his wife's spontaneous Paris shopping sprees. With a charter flight, we could bypass Harare and all these potential problems by flying directly from Victoria Falls to Lusaka, Zambia's capital city.

Lusaka is inside the 170-kilometer wide eclipse path, so all 78 of us breathed a unanimous sigh of relief when our flight touched down about 24 hours before totality. No matter what happened now, we were in the path! As we collected our luggage and passed through customs, we could sense the carnival atmosphere that already prevailed in the airport. Customs officials, guards and airport personnel were asking us for solar filters because they were in short supply. Fortunately, we had lots of extras thanks to the generosity of Mark Margolis (Rainbow Symphony) and Pat Steel (Thousand Oaks Optical). In spite of a widespread publicity campaign and the free distribution of tens of thousands of filters, less than 1% of Lusaka's citizens had viewers for the eclipse.

Without the talisman-like protection of solar glasses, scores of people reportedly locked themselves indoors for fear that the eclipse would render them blind. Younger residents seemed to have a better grasp of the situation and many resorted to using the silvered plastic from chip bags, beer bottle labels and tea envelopes to watch the partial phases.

As we left the airport and loaded our gear onto two large coaches, we gazed up at the beautiful, sunny skies. Although we could see smoke from local crop fires, the sky was cloud free. After driving through Lusaka, we took the Great North Road highway 40 kilometers north to Chisamba and our observing site near the centerline. Many eclipse chasers were drawn to this region since it offered the maximum eclipse duration of over three and a half minutes. During our visit to the area in March 2000 we discovered a wonderful series of guest cottages at Fringilla Farm. Unfortunately, they could only accommodate half of our group, so the rest lodged at the Lusaka Hotel back in the capital. Coaches ferried the Lusaka group to the farm for dinner on June 20 and for the eclipse the following day. Our Fringilla hosts Allan and Lisa were ever cheerful and made us feel most welcome.

Pat Totten
2001 Eclipse Expedition at Fringilla Farm
Pat Totten adjusts her telescope as the eclipse begins.
The 78 members of the Spears Travel 2001 eclipse expedition observed the
celestial event from a horse pasture especially prepared for the big event.
Total Solar Eclipse of 2001 Jun 21 (Chisamba, Zambia)

The observing site was a large fenced horse pasture, just a kilometer north of the centerline, offering unobstructed views of the sky in all directions. Located a short walk from the Fringilla cottages, the pasture was freshly mowed in preparation for the big day and a makeshift latrine, constructed from old farm machinery, was located on-site for the group's use. A large thorn acacia tree at one end of the field offered shade from the bright equatorial Sun, and a refreshment stand beneath it offered a light lunch and cold beverages.

During the night preceding the eclipse, I slept restlessly in anticipation of our impending rendezvous with the Moon's shadow. The monotonous base beat of a New Age Woodstock-like music festival four kilometers away could be heard throughout the night and added to my insomnia. I couldn't help comparing the cacophony of this mystical 'eclipse-in' with an earlier time when superstitious civilizations frantically beat drums and gongs to frighten off evil demons before they completely consumed the Sun. How ironic that such mysticism, ignorance and fear concerning the natural rhythms of the heavens still persist into the New Millennium.

As I lay awake, my greatest concern was the weather. Ten years of meteorological records indicated that we had a 70% probability of seeing the eclipse, but I was now anxious about the remaining 30% chance of cloudy skies. What good are the years of detailed planning not to mention considerable financial expense if the weather fails to cooperate at the appointed time? A single errant cloud can spell disaster for observations of the Sun's corona during totality. In spite of our sophisticated knowledge and computer predictions, it is humbling to realize that we are still subject to the irrepressible forces of nature.

Fortunately, the morning of June 21 dawned brilliantly clear with not a trace of clouds. A light haze from local fires persisted along the horizon, but offered little threat to our chance of viewing the eclipse. Despite these reassuring signs, the partial phases of the eclipse would not begin for another seven hours and I knew the weather could change dramatically in that much time. With my stomach bunched in a knot and no appetite, I forced myself to eat a quick breakfast before setting about the task of transporting two large trunks of equipment the short distance to our observing site.

I'd already given two eclipse presentations to the group and had made myself available to answer all questions before the big day. Now it was time to get to work on my demanding schedule. Polar aligning my telescopes while tracking on the Sun was the most time consuming and first item on my list. My equatorial mount actually carried two small fluorite refractors (80 mm and 90 mm respectively), which needed to be aligned with each other before the alignment of the mount with Earth's rotational axis could begin. I also had an array of nine 35-mm cameras and three video camcorders to prepare before the eclipse commenced.

As my work proceeded, more and more of my fellow eclipse chasers joined me. A forest of telescopes, cameras, telephoto lenses and tripods sprang up in the pasture while a tremendous sense of anticipation and excitement filled the air. The sky remained cloud free as morning progressed. Yes! We were going to see totality!

Fred Espenak
Preparing for the Total Eclipse
Fred Espenak spent hours setting up two refracting telescopes,
three video cameras and nine 35 mm cameras to capture the total solar eclipse.
Total Solar Eclipse of 2001 Jun 21 (Chisamba, Zambia)

We took numerous photos of each other and our invasion of the grassy meadow. Locals occasionally stopped by to stare at the crazy tourists and to request more solar filters. Pat Totten served as our eclipse "reporter on the scene" as she video interviewed any and every person she could find. She also acted as a good will ambassador by distributing countless solar filters and patiently explaining their use to our new Zambian friends.

Meanwhile, our unofficial meteorologists Mike Branick and Greg Shanos prepared their thermometers and weather instruments to make measurements during the eclipse. They would later report an 11 degree C drop in temperature with a minimum some 11 minutes after totality ended. At the far end of our pasture, Drs. Joe Davila and Nelson Reginald led a team of NASA/Goddard scientists in an experiment to measure the velocity of the solar wind in the corona.

Among our group of 78, there were 16 (20%) people who had never seen a total eclipse before. Four of them belonged to the Lemon family (Chris, Dale, Mitch and Ryan). Two of our European members, Hendrik Hohne (Germany) and Luca Bertagnolio (Italy) were clouded out during the August 1999 eclipse, but the sudden darkness they experienced almost two years ago had galvanized their determination to see totality in 2001. My fellow runners Peter Hui, Mariann and Allen Albjerg were also present to witness their first total eclipse. I guess they got tired of hearing me talk endlessly about eclipses and decided to experience totality for themselves.

Of course, our stalwart Thompson Tour guides Michelle Lazurus and Mark Reading were completely new to eclipses. They couldn't possibly imagine what kind of experience they were in for as they watched us with amusement and wonder!

Diamond Ring
Celestial Diamond Ring
Just before the total eclipse is complete, the last rays of sunlight peak out along the edge of the Moon.
This celestial "diamond" is set in a gossamer ring of light formed by the Sun's corona.
Total Solar Eclipse of 2001 Jun 21 (Chisamba, Zambia)

Naturally, there were many eclipse veterans in the group. Easy-going Gary Spears had a huge grin on his face as he watched the clear blue sky in anticipation of witnessing his 5th totality. His son Austin saw the 1998 eclipse in Aruba as did Gary's sister Carol. Charlene and Chuck Spears (Gary's folks) were on hand to make sure that another Spears Travel eclipse trip ran without a hitch. Hong Kong members Tommy Tse and Annie Yau On-Yee had previously seen 4 and 3 totals respectively. Oklahomans Barbara and Jack Wells had observed 3 and 5 totals each, while Sara Willcox had 4 clear TSE's on record. My Tottenville High School science teacher Paul Hirsch and his wife Leni were there for their 5th total eclipse. With 5 totals already under his belt, twelve year old James Lambert is well on his way to seeing more corona than any of us! Bill Glass had seen a respectable 7 totals while Sandy Stewart and Bob Fingerhut each had an impressive 8 clear eclipses on their score cards. Going into 2001, Mike Barrett had an enviable record of 9 out of 9 and he was confident of achieving a 10th success. My own "batting average" was 800 (12 clear eclipses out of 15). However, the most experienced eclipse chaser of the trip was William Welbon. He'd been to 19 total eclipses since 1932 and had seen 16 of them!

By late morning, I found myself surrounded by many of my old friends from previous eclipses: Pat Totten, Ken Bertin, Bob and Wendy Shambora, and Eli and Dalia Maor. Bertin served as a bodyguard to fend off anyone (for their own protection!) who came too close to me while in my cantankerous "eclipse" mode. Lunch hour passed me by as I anxiously attended to hundreds of details with my photographic equipment. Everything had to be ready before the eclipse began.

All telescopes and lenses were trained on the Sun at 13:41 (11:41 UT). Shouts of "First Contact!" reassured us that the computer predictions were correct; we were at the right place and time. The coal black silhouette of the Moon crept across the Sun's disk as great sunspots were gradually hidden from our view and the temperature began to drop. Twenty minutes before totality, the air was filled with the evening songs of African crickets. Their serenade would continue until well after totality ended. The Moon's umbral shadow was now sweeping through central Angola and on towards us with a velocity of 2700 km/hr.

Looking around, I noticed that the sunlight had taken on an anemic, metal gray color and shadows formed by the rapidly shrinking crescent Sun appeared peculiar. With five minutes remaining, the northwestern sky was growing dark with the approach of the shadow. Time seemed to accelerate and an eerie pallor hung over the landscape.

One minute to go! Solar filters were carefully removed in preparation for second contact. As the Moon's shadow rose up from the horizon, it surrounded and enveloped us while the Sun's crescent dwindled to a single dazzling arc. From a local village just half a kilometer away, we could hear the inhabitants break into spontaneous screams, cheers and applause when the corona sprang into view forming a magnificent diamond ring in the sky. Bob Shambora shouted "shadow bands!" as these ghostly apparitions rippled sinuously across the ground. Then the last bright bead of sunlight vanished from the Moon's rim. Totality had begun!

Composite Solar Corona
The Solar Corona of 2001 Jun 21
This photo is a composite from 22 separate negatives.
They have been processed and combined in Adobe Photoshop
to closely resemble the naked eye appearance of the solar corona.
Note the bright red prominences visible along the Moon's edge.
Compare this image with a more highly processed version which reveals subtle structures in the corona.
Total Solar Eclipse of 2001 Jun 21 (Chisamba, Zambia)
(click for more information)

Although I had much to accomplish during the few precious minutes of darkness, I allowed myself some time to view the corona with both naked eye and telescope. It was a textbook example of a solar maximum corona - very circular with radial streamers reaching out in all directions. A large, crimson prominence was visible along the Sun's eastern limb even before totality began. Now it stood out like a laser red beacon embedded in the transparent, gossamer webs of the corona.

As I ran through my camera sequences, I noticed that it seemed darker than most of the previous eclipses I've seen. Between photographic exposures, another stolen glance at the spectacle revealed Jupiter shinning brightly five degrees west of the eclipsed Sun. The seconds passed quickly while an occasional, misguided camera flash punctuated totality.

Corona and Jupiter
Sun's Corona and Jupiter
During totality, Pat Totten caught the Sun's corona
and the bright planet Jupiter in the frame of her Pronia camera.
Total Solar Eclipse of 2001 Jun 21 (Chisamba, Zambia)

The western sky was growing brighter with the rapid advance of the shadow's edge. Through my telescope, I watched the Sun's red chromosphere appear along the western limb of the Moon. A bead of sunlight flashed into view and was quickly joined by others (Baily's beads) which merged together to once again form a blindingly bright crescent. Totality was over as the corona was quickly lost in the glare of the returning Sun.

My fellow travelers were filled with mixed emotions of joy, apprehension, disbelief and awe, but all were in unanimous agreement about the sheer beauty and grandeur of nature's greatest spectacle. As the final partial phases of the eclipse drew to a close, plans were already being forged for the next total eclipse of the Sun on 2002 December 04 . But would we return to Africa or go to Australia?

2001 Total Eclipse Photos and Reports

2001 Total Eclipse Custom Prints

Solar Eclipse Photographs

Copyright Notice

All photographs, text and web pages are © Copyright 2001 by Fred Espenak, unless otherwise noted. All rights reserved. They may not be reproduced, published, copied or transmitted in any form, including electronically on the Internet or WWW, without written permission of the author. The photos have been digitally watermarked.

The photographs may be licensed for commercial, editorial, and educational use. Contact Espenak (at MrEclipse) for photo use in print, web, video, CD and all other media.

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Last revised: 2008 Jan 28