Orwell Astronomical Society (Ipswich)
Solar Annular Eclipse, 14 December 2001
Once again NASA's 50 Year Canon of Solar Eclipses  directed us to an exotic part of the planet to see the Sun, Moon and Earth come into alignment! Six months previously, on the other side of the Earth's orbit, we had seen a spectacular solar total eclipse from Zambia. This time however the Moon was further from the Earth and the Earth was closer to the Sun so the Moon failed to cover the Sun completely and the eclipse was annular.
Fred Espenak's maps of the eclipse path showed just one small region where the eclipse was visible from land. The eclipse track traversed most of the Pacific, only hitting land at Costa Rica near sunset. The only dedicated eclipse trips we could find were very expensive and originated in the USA. As a result we scoured the holiday brochures for package tours to the area and found one by Kuoni that put us just a few miles north of the centre line on eclipse day, in Tamarindo, on the Pacific coast of Costa Rica.
We flew first to the capital city, San Jose, for a three-day stay, and it was immediately obvious that things weren't as expected. Instead of the clear blue skies of the dry season we were greeted by grey clouds and rain. Only the day trip to the rainforest lived up to expectations with a torrential downpour as we pulled up to the visitor centre. The excursion to see the spectacular volcanic crater of Mount Irazu was like standing on Dartmoor in thick fog!
After our time in San Jose, we flew to Tamarindo for the eclipse and our spirits rose as the local weather forecast predicted all-round sunshine. However, our hopes were soon dashed as we flew through all-round rain cloud for most of the journey. On our first day in Tamarindo it was generally cloudy and it rained. On our second day there, again it was generally cloudy and it rained! Day three was eclipse day. Yes it was cloudy but not quite as bad, until midday when it became completely overcast again. The partial eclipse started at 3.15pm and up to two hours beforehand we had no expectation of seeing anything of it. However, by 2.30pm, as we left the hotel for our observing site on the beach, large patches of blue sky appeared along with the Sun. By first contact the Sun was clear of the cloud and we were much happier.
Some cloud drifted in front of the Sun obscuring some of the partial phase but we were able to see most of the slow progress of the Moon across the solar disc. With less than 30 minutes until 2nd contact a rather menacing lump of thick grey cloud drifted across the Sun and we nervously looked at our watches. Minutes went by and the cloud barely moved. Ten minutes to go and still no Sun. Five minutes to go ... no Sun. With just a couple of minutes to go before 2nd contact the Sun did start to reappear as a nearly complete ring of light but with the Moon still touching one side of the solar limb.
The annular phase began with the Sun, although shining through high cloud, clearly visible to the naked eye without the need to use a solar filter. We took a frantic series of pictures over the next few minutes, some with a filter and some without. We witnessed most of the three minutes of annularity before once again cloud began to obscure the Sun. We felt lucky to have seen annularity on what turned out to be the best day of the week for eclipse viewing. The photos below were taken using a 500 mm Tamron lens at f/8 with no solar filter and an automatic exposure on 200 ASA film.
We felt all the more lucky when we met up with some friends who had observed from a hotel at the other end of the beach less than a mile away. From there the cloud had completely obscured annularity. A group of Americans who traveled from our hotel to the centre line about 30 miles south also lost the eclipse to cloud cover, glimpsing it for just a few seconds.
"Fifty Year Canon of Solar Eclipses: 1986-2035", NASA Reference Publication 1178 Revised, Fred Espenak.
Mike Harlow and Sue Brown were lucky enough to see the annular eclipse from their exotic viewpoint off the Tamarindo Pacific beach resort in north-western Costa Rica. However, please spare a thought for those of us that they left behind in the rain-sodden capital. As Mike and Sue and the other faces that we keep meeting on eclipse tours flew off from San Jose to the beach leaving Diana and me behind, we kept thinking: Costa Rica is a hot place. It doesn't rain much here. It must be clear here. We don't need to spend all that extra money travelling to the coast.
However, last minute planning can pay off, as it did for us at the 11 August 1999 eclipse. We concluded that we had to get out of the central valley in Costa Rica, as the rainy season was hanging on there for too long. We decided to catch a bus to the west coast at Puntarenas. The service bus would cost about $10 US for both of us return, but the Lonely Planet guide suggested that we would be mugged or pick-pocketed and that we should avoid the departure terminal at the Coca Cola Bus Station (named after the former soft drink bottling plant on the site) at all costs. As the day of the eclipse approached we began increasingly to doubt our decision and, on the day before the eclipse, we went to the Kuoni Travel Partners company office to ask advice on what best to do. Kuoni replied that we had two options - travel north to the volcano area or west to Puntarenas. They even phoned the Costa Rican weather bureau  to ask where would be the best chance of clear skies. The bureau indicated that the further we could go south-west within the annular track the better would be our chance of clear skies. We found a helpful travel agent offering two vacancies on a day trip on a luxury catamaran, heading south-west from Puntarenas - and only $99 US each: this clearly was our best option! Our hearts went out to Mike and Sue who, according to the weather bureau, had headed towards thick cloud!
So the day of the eclipse dawned. We caught the luxury coach from our hotel in San Jose and consumed a wonderful continental breakfast en route to the coast. We boarded the catamaran, which held about 60 people plus crew. Fruit and soft drinks were free and plentiful on the two hour cruise to the desert island of Tortuga, where we had to suffer a beach party, food and wine, in and out of the Pacific on our own, exclusive desert island. What you have to put up with in the name of astronomy...
About two hours before the eclipse, we set sail again on the Pacific to see the eclipse with our resident professional astronomer. Just two things were wrong: it was totally overcast and the astronomer hadn't arrived because he was ill. No problem, the tour guide latched on to Diana and me (possibly because our tee shirts listed the other eclipses we had seen) and we became the "tour experts". Everyone had been issued with complimentary eclipse glasses and had been given a safety talk, so the next job was to find some clear sky. The captain of the boat insisted on travelling further and further north which meant that we were going into thicker cloud cover. I managed to persuade him to slow down when the clouds thinned a bit and, miraculously, five minutes before the annular phase of the eclipse, an enormous patch of blue sky cleared. With the whole boat shouting at the captain to stop, he finally did!
The outcome: we saw the initial partial phase (1st to 2nd contact) intermittently, full annularity perfectly (about two and a half minutes duration) and then most of the final partial phase, the Sun setting in eclipse.
I'm glad that Mike and Sue saw the eclipse, since most other land based observers were disappointed. The newspaper headlines the next day were along the lines of The Eclipse That Nobody Saw and Eclipse? What Eclipse? I understand that Fred Espenak himself was in Tamarindo and didn't see it.
Kuoni Travel Partners also told us that if you change a couple of letters in the Spanish for Institute of Meteorology, you get Institute of Liars, apparently a big joke in Costa Rica. It didn't go down too well with Diana, who works for the British Meteorological Office!
Fred Espenak's eclipse web site eclipse.gsfc.nasa.gov/eclipse.html.
Mike Harlow, Sue Brown & Paul Whiting