"Cold and alone" is how veteran eclipse-chaser and professional photographer Johnny Horne once described the attitude you adopt in the moments leading up to totality of a solar eclipse. Now I know what he means. Friends are dismissed with a few curt words and further questions are greeted with a stony silence. This is when you want to be alone. When you want the emotion of the occasion to be a personal experience. When you want to perform final equipment checks.
Racing across the Earth's surface at over 3000 km/h it would take the Moon's shadow about 60 minutes to cut a swathe across some of the most populated regions of Europe before plunging our little corner of the Balkans into near-total darkness. Cornwall, Munich, Lake Balaton in Hungary; all locations that we had considered in planning where to view totality from but discarded one-by-one in favour of northeastern Bulgaria.
A number of factors were to influence our decision to be in the path of the 11th August 1999 total eclipse of the Sun in Kamen Brjag. Weather was the most obvious. The NASA solar eclipse bulletins (available on the internet) had a simple message; "go East young man!" And that's what we did. Simply, the further East in Europe you went, the better your chances of it being clear on the day of the eclipse.
Another reason was accessibility. The Irish Astronomical Association had pre-planned a group trip to the Black Sea resort of Albena and we would be able to link up with this party in the same resort. The fact that this was one of Balkan Tours holiday destinations from their brochure made it all the more attractive - especially when Albena actually lay within the path of totality!
The first few days were spent in relaxed mode. I had risen at 5am the previous few mornings and climbed to the roof of our hotel to observe the thinning sliver of the crescent Moon as it marched inexorably towards its predetermined date with the Sun. Tuesday morning, pre-eclipse day, and the sighting was more difficult. Finally, against a brightening sky, a tiny golden hair floating just above the skyline was spotted. The Moon was just 32 hours away from New. In binoculars, Mercury was a small spark of light visible just to its right.
I must confess to having being rather underwhelmed by the whole occasion at this point. Maybe it was just a matter of que sera, sera. However, things were to move rather more quickly that evening. Terry Moseley, Andy McCrea, Rowan McLaughlin and I piled into Terry's rented car and headed towards Kamen Brjag, a small village about 100 km north of Albena. A minor traffic violation on the way resulted in a five leva fine (about €3) from the local Poletzi.
Terry had linked up with a group of professional Bulgarian astronomers during a recce trip in 1998 and they had organised a viewing site for our party in the grounds of a disused school in Kamen Brjag. This spot was to be a bit more private than down at the sea front and we would share the site with other groups of amateur and professional astronomers from Russia, Germany and Bulgaria itself. Already, crowds of, mostly young, people were arriving. A few stalls were selling fruit and drink and one group had T-shirts on sale. In a way though, there was a distinct lack of commercialisation about the whole event. This was even noticable in Albena itself.
Wednesday morning - eclipse day. Breakfast at 7am and final preparations. Two buses were to bring us to Kamen Brjag and our party, numbering about 70 people, climbed aboard in eager anticipation of what we were about to witness later in the day. A couple of heart-stopping moments when our particular bus stuttered briefly on the steep climb out of Albena, but nothing too serious.
Totality from Kamen Brjag was to last 2 minutes and 18 seconds. This was a gain of almost 30 seconds on what we would have seen had we stayed in Albena and a massive slice of time in relation to the brevity of an eclipse. My plan for the eclipse was to record the lead up to totality on video using a home-made filter and then let the tape run from 30 seconds before second contact through to the end of totality. A further series of shots were planned using the filter after the eclipse. Binoculars (20 x 60mm) would provide close up views of the eclipsed solar disk. During late morning I made a tape recording giving me a countdown from three minutes before totality until the eclipse ended. This would prompt me what phenomena to look for and also give a "15 seconds to go" warning that could be related to those viewing the event through binoculars or telescopes.
First contact came at about 12:45 local time when a tiny nick in the upper right corner of the Sun was seen through the eclipse viewers. At last a sense of the enormity of what we were about to witness. Over the next hour occasional glances confirmed the metronomic march of the black silhouette of the Moon across the solar disk. Around us, groups of people waited on the magical moment. Many sheltered from the heat of the mid-afternoon sun under what little cover this barren patch of land offered.
The hour preceeding the eclipse was a chance to observe the preparations of other groups at the site. Meticulous planning on the part of a number of IAA members ensured our observing site was private and barred the general public from access.
It was 1:45pm and just over 25 minutes to go. The quality of light had changed dramatically by this stage. Shadows had become extremely sharp and there was a certain harshness to the light. As I write this the image that pops in to my head is of greyness, as if a veil of volcanic ash had settled on the landscape. John O'Neill commented on the way the light level changed in "steps."
With just ten minutes left to totality the sky had darkened dramatically and cocks could be heard crowing on a nearby farm. A final few words of advice exchanged among our group and it was then our moment to be "cold and alone". A voice on the tape prompts me to look for Venus at the two minutes to go mark but nothing was seen. Birds were flying around confused now. A cacophony of sound from the trees before we knew they would be silent.
"Venera! Venera!" A shout from the Russian party camped near us. Someone had spotted Venus to the lower left of the Sun. I remember glancing at it during totality and being surprised at its indistinctness. Not that it wan't bright, just that instead of the normal brilliant arc-lamp we see hanging above the western or eastern horizons it appeared subdued, more a rosé in colour or like a pale whiskey. There was a certain haziness in the sky and this may have been a contributory factor. It was now just one minute away from totality.
An incredible darkness was ascending from the west. The Moon's shadow was sweeping rapidly towards us and would soon close over the dome of the sky. Crowds on the sea front could be heard cheering and a loud cannon report was the sonic boom of two Bulgarian Air Force MIG-fighters chasing the shadow.
Seconds left now and someone shouts "Baily's Beads!" It is too late to notice. So much is happening. I think "is the video ok?" Diamond Ring! Soon after the pale glow of the corona feathering the left side of the Sun becomes visible just before the final vestiges of light are extinguished. I am trembling. Oh my God, look at that prominence! It is totality. Around the eclipsed disk I note a number of prominences plainly visible to the naked eye. Even now, in writing this, I am still emotional just replaying in my mind's eye the sequence of events.
The sight through the 20x60s is awesome. Whoops and cheers all around - but nature is silent. An incredible detached prominence stuns us all. Yet I cannot recall seeing it. But the evidence is there on video when I make a remark later to someone on tape. So much to absorb in so little time.
The corona itself is a beautiful pearly light, very symmetrical but with a number of spikes. The 3- dimensional nature of the Moon in front of the Sun is striking. It looks nothing like the flat disks we see normally. The last time this was obvious to me was during the very dark lunar eclipse in December 1992. Another observation I make is the presence of very thin high-altitude cloud around the Sun. This pale cloud reminds me of a mackrel sky. It is also something I feel can never be captured properly on film, the only true record of the appearance of an eclipse being as a painting or coloured drawing.
My voice whispers "thirty seconds to go!" Someone triggers a camera flash. Oh dear! A microlite buzzes our observing location. I hope they don't ruin our photographs by coming too close to where we are. The thought that they are a little crazy in the first place doesn't enter my head initially. The sky is cobalt blue, a very metallic colour. Again, not true dark. Looking around the horizon I notice the light leaking in from outside the cone of the lunar shadow. It is a salmon pink. I think about how the books had described it as yellowish and wonder how they could differ from my observation.
"15 seconds!" I repeat the warning. Andy McCrea commented afterwards that he didn't believe me. We are urging the Sun to remain hidden a little longer. It is time to prepare to put the filters back on our optical equipment. Again, a beautiful diamond ring. And it is over. I feel lost, maybe even cheated. As an amateur astronomer it is the most overpowering sight I have ever witnessed and I momentarily feel that we should have been allowed to experience the event a little longer. Yet we cannot change the cosmos.
Later, I interview people for their impressions. All are looking forward to the 2001 eclipse in Southern Africa. The Perseids will peak the following night, but these 2 minutes and 18 seconds in Kamen Brjag will be treasured forever.