If Monday’s total solar eclipse will be your first, you have some catching up to do.
For decades, certain solar enthusiasts have been jetting across the globe in pursuit of total eclipses, sojourning through jungles and deserts and glacial grounds, all to experience the fleeting seconds of totality, when the moon obscures the sun.
They’re called eclipse chasers.
If they sound like a group of fictional, astronomical superheroes, perhaps that’s precisely what they are. They battle forces like exhaustive travel plans, airline fares, and time off work to ensure they partake in the glory that comes from witnessing a total solar eclipse.
Bill Kramer, a retired computer scientist who logs hundreds of the eclipse aficionados on his website, eclipse-chasers.com, said this laborious hobby doesn’t make sense to someone who has never witnessed a total solar eclipse.
“You can’t put words to the event,” said Kramer, who spends most of the year living in Jamaica. “You don’t see a total eclipse of the sun — you behold it.”
Only after beholding the spectacle can one truly grasp why both professional and amateur astronomers are eager to chase them around the globe, he said.
“One of the first questions you ask at the end of totality is, ‘When’s the next one?’ ” Kramer said. “No singular eclipse is sufficient to view.”
For some, “eclipse chaser” doesn’t cut it. Glenn Schneider, an astronomer based in Arizona, prefers “umbraphile” — shadow lover.
“ ‘Umbraphile’ really was intended to convey that deep, emotional connection with the event,” Schneider said. “It’s somebody who has a deep, lifelong passion and commission to chase the lunar shadow.”
Schneider has seen 33 total solar eclipses, holding the record along with two other chasers.
The undertaking of chasing a total solar eclipse, much less 33 of them, is marked with plenty of obstacles, from cross-country travels to evaluating the risks of venturing into remote areas within the path of totality.
Even if everything goes as planned, there is one potentially infuriating element of the experience that is out of an eclipse chaser’s hands — the weather.
“I’ve been clouded out three times,” Schneider said, citing eclipses in Canada, Colombia, and Alaska. “Each one of those was pretty traumatic and awful.”
His ventures range in scope, some of the travel commitments being more strenuous than others, like the time he chased a total solar eclipse from a Boeing 747 aircraft over Antarctica.
But it’s not as if he is simply able to refuse the more burdensome total solar eclipses — Schneider said he really doesn’t have a say in the matter.
“It’s not a choice,” he said. “An umbraphile couldn’t imagine missing a total solar eclipse, where as an eclipse chaser might pick and choose — it became hard-wired into me after seeing [my] first total solar eclipse in 1970.”
Though international adventures would come later, Schneider’s first total solar eclipse in 1970 required just a 12-hour bus ride from New York City to Greenville, N.C. He had started preparing for the experience seven years earlier, when he was 7 years old.
During the intervening years, Schneider rigorously rehearsed a detailed regime, perfectly allotting every fraction of the eclipse’s two minutes and 53 seconds of totality for a specific purpose. He’d spend a certain amount of time with his telescope, then his binoculars, then he’d focus on capturing the spectacle with this or that camera, he said.
But after seven years of preparation, then-14-year-old Schneider’s routine fell to pieces once he witnessed the sun’s obliteration, and subsequent revival, from the football stadium of East Carolina University.
Not a picture was taken.
“I literally couldn’t move,” he said, remembering his binoculars hanging over his neck, untouched. “Nothing could have taken my attention away from that.”
Though immobile during the eclipse, he said his life changed forever.
“When it was over, I sat there staring at the sun itself, oblivious until someone shook me into a mundane reality of the time that’s in between eclipses,” he said.
Before he knew it, he was a full-blown umbraphile.
Unlike fellow eclipse chasers who have dedicated their careers to astronomy, Jeanne Loring is a stem cell biologist and professor at the Scripps Research Institute in California.
Loring, who has seen 12 total solar eclipses, doesn’t see herself as one of the serious eclipse chasers, she said. Instead, eclipses are a reason for her to invest in something different than the day-to-day stressors that come with being a professor.
“This was a way . . . to be absolutely certain that we had a vacation that could not be changed,” she said. “Eclipses only happen when they happen; you can’t put them off until next week — it’s unlike anything else I do, it’s not changeable.”
Because it’s an obscure hobby, Loring is sometimes met with raised eyebrows when she tells people the celestial cause behind her excursions to Easter Island, Aruba, and Bolivia, to name a few.
“I think they think it’s some kind of cult I belong to,” she said. “But if they’ve seen one, they’d understand.”Kiana Cole can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at @kianamcole.