Total Solar Eclipse
Aug 11, 1999 Bucharest, Romania
The Road to Bucharest
The total solar eclipse of 11 August, 1999 was my first experience with this rare astronomical event. I had been looking forward to it and planning the details for nearly 2 years. This report details the travel, photography, astronomy and personal experiences of this unique trip.
Early research had shown that while the path of totality crossed much of Europe from southern England to the Middle East the chances of having clear skies at that time of year were poor in the west of the track but increased considerably the further east one went. Seeing the eclipse from France or Germany would have been easy and pleasant, but given the weather risk I decided to maximize the opportunity.
Turkey was a possibility, but the eclipse path would pass over a remote mountainous region. Best of all, from the perspective of clear skies, would be Iran or Iraq but these were rejected for obvious reasons. Bucharest, Romania not far from the Black Sea, seemed to offer the best combination of convenient access and clear skies; about 70% according to NASA's eclipse web site. From my home in Toronto I could get to Bucharest with a single plane change in London. The narrow centerline of the Eclipse was to pass right through the downtown of the city, so it became my destination.
© 1999 Milton Woolley
On the deck of the Intercontinental Hotel, Bucharest. The National Theater is in the background.
I booked flights and hotel reservations 9 months in advance, and at the time my travel agent reported with a laugh that the Intercontinental Hotel in Bucharest was amazed at how many reservation requests they were getting for that week, and couldn't understand why. Rooms were to become, of course, a premium commodity in the weeks leading up to the Eclipse.
I have been an enthusiastic amateur astronomer for some time, most recently using a Meade LX200 8" scope under the dark skies of my country house in Muskoka, Ontario. With a developing interest in solar astronomy, and in anticipation of the eclipse, in the fall of '98 I purchased a 3.5" Questar telescope. This scope is a Maksutov- Cassegrain design and folds a 1,400mm diffraction-limited optical system into a complete package, with motorized tracking mount into a carry-case that can comfortably be carried with one hand.
I have admired, and frankly coveted the Questar since as a teenager in the '60s I had seen their ads in Astronomy magazines and on the back pages of Scientific American. Since then Meade has brought out an inexpensive version of a 90mm portable SCT scope, but the Questar stands alone as a high quality portable, extremely well suited to international travel and eclipse work.
In the weeks leading up to the eclipse I did numerous test shots of the sun, confirming operation, technique and exposure. I wanted to leave nothing to chance since I knew that during the 2 minutes and 20 seconds of Totality things would be moving pretty quickly, and the next likely opportunity would be years away, if ever!
After 2 days in London visiting with friends, my good friend and travel companion for this trip, Milton Woolley and I flew to Bucharest. In the 2 days leading up to the 11th we were frequently on the Net checking the weather forecast, which called for partially cloudy conditions and very high temperatures. This was better than the forecast for the rest of Europe, which was truly dismal.
Landing in Bucharest on the 10th we encountered clear but smoggy skies, a temperature of more than 100 degrees F (+38C), along with appalling humidity. We were excited when the morning of the eclipse found the skies clear, though the heat and humidity were still oppressive.
Photographed with a Hasselblad XPan and 45mm lens on Provia 100
The Intercontinental Hotel had planned an eclipse buffet lunch at the mezzanine bar, 2 stories above the park opposite the hotel. A large outdoor roof-top patio provided an ideal venue for observation. There was room to set-up the scope, with a chest-level wide concrete ledge just in front of me; a convenient spot to place eyepieces, lenses and other accessories. With the air-conditioned bar just steps away, and a pleasant buffet lunch in the offing, we couldn't have had a more convenient and luxurious venue for eclipse viewing. The only uncertainty remained the weather.
We began setting up the scope and other equipment about an hour before penumbral contact. I had packed a hefty Manfrotto Tri-Man tripod and 410 geared head in my duffle bag, padded with clothing. I attached a Nikon F3 with waist-level WD3 eyepiece to the Questar at prime focus and loaded up with Fuji Provia 100 transparency film. We also had along a pair of Canon 15X45 Image Stabilized binoculars, and as will be seen these proved to be the salvation of Totality.
Looking at the sun though the Questar for the first time I was very pleased to see a large grouping of sunspots. We are heading toward the solar maximum of the seven year cycle in 2000, and these were as good a grouping as I've ever seen.
One of the challenges of solar observing and imaging is that a polar alignment of the telescope needs to be made during the day somewhat inconvenient, since Polaris is a bit hard to see during the day. I have developed a technique for doing this though that requires little more than a compass and knowing ones latitude. This technique is described and illustrated here.
When unpacking my equipment I found that I had forgotten to bring along a compass. Figuring out where north was by the sun's position I started a rough setup, but seeing what I was up to a Japanese videographer who was working next to me loaned me his, and I was aligned (I thought) within a few minutes.
Something was wrong though, and my alignment proved to be off on both axis. Less than one hour to go till first contact, and though a 16mm eyepiece the sun was drifting badly. I started to do a drift correction but because of the pressure that I felt I made the corrections on the geared head in the opposite direction to what I should have, and wasted close to half an hour in frustration as the alignment got worse rather then better.
When I realized my mistake it only took a further 10 minutes to derive a proper alignment. By this time though the first contact between the moon and sun was just minutes away. But.........
While the clear skies of the day before had continued into the mid-morning, by the time of first contact at 12:41 some thin clouds had started to gather to the west of the city. The still air which we'd had for the past day, and which made the hot and humid conditions even more oppressive, had changed to a gusty breeze. A real concern for astrophotography. I began making some exposures with the Questar, but became increasingly concerned as the clouds thickened and moved towards the sun. Soon the sun started to be covered by a thin fast-moving layer, which allowed some interesting observations but was disappointing for photography. By mid-penumbral contact the clouds had increased and in frustration I retreated from the heat into the restaurant for a quick bite to eat.
I went back outside about 15 minutes before totality and was pleased to see that the clouds had cleared considerably. But, they still remained threatening. The crowds in the park 2 floors below us had now gathered, and as the sky progressively darkened as Totality approached, their excitement, as well as that of those of us on the hotel deck, increased as well.
Eclipse '99, #2
Taken with a Nikon F3 and 3.5" Questar telescope with a full-aperture solar filter on Provia 100. The fuzziness caused by the ever-increasing cloud cover can clearly be seen here. By Totality conditions were visually still stunning but unfortunately photography had become hopeless.
Just before Totality was to occur at 2:05pm I loaded a fresh roll of film into the Nikon and got prepared to alter the exposures for the various events that I wanted to capture and observe; Baily's beads, solar prominences, and the corona. As totality was just one minute away, we all groaned as a cloud which had been threatening to move in, did, and as Totality began completely covered the sun.
I quickly switched from camera focus to eyepiece focus and during Totality Milton and I took turns looking through the scope and the Canon IS binoculars. The clouds obscured things enough to ruin any chance of photography during Totality, but visually it was absolutely stunning. We saw the Diamond Ring and a Corona which was diffused by the clouds, but still visible.
As a consequence I took no photographs during Totality, but the positive side of the thin cloud cover was that I was able to experience the eclipse visually rather than being totally caught up in photography which I had been warned against.
The Canon IS binoculars proved to be fantastic for this application. Because of the stabilization technology we were able to hold them overhead at an uncomfortably high angle and yet still had a rock-solid image. No other 15X binoculars could have made this possible.
If one has not experienced a Total Solar Eclipse in person it is hard through either photographs or descriptions to appreciate what a visceral experience it is. In addition to the unique beauty of seeing the sun being eclipsed by the moon, the way in which the world around one is affected is very moving. I was surprised by how dark it became. I had heard the effect described as being like twilight. To me though, it was almost as dark as night. Because of our vantage point on a large patio deck, two stories up, with an almost unobstructed view to the east and north, I was thrilled to observe how across the city in the distance we could see a band of light, almost like a 360 degree sunset. This is because the narrow eclipse center line is less than 60 miles wide, and so at a radius of 30 miles out from where we were, the sun was still illuminating the landscape.
We also experienced a dramatic cooling. During Totality the temperature felt like it dropped 10 degrees F, or more. This really brings home the realization of how life on our small planet is utterly dependant on the sun.
As Totality ended and the sun began to return the crowd below, and those of us on the hotel deck, clapped like children. It was quite a primitive emotion. Of course, eclipse luck being the fickle thing that it is, within minutes the clouds which had partially obscured Totality began to move on, and before last contact we had a virtually clear sky. Such is eclipse luck. I was able to do some additional photography with the Questar though during this latter part of the eclipse, which I enjoyed greatly. Even a partially eclipsed sun is an awesome sight through a high-powered telescope.
Several people who had been with us on the lead-up to Totality, and who had strangely disappeared, drifted back as we watched the moon depart the sun over the following hour. It seems that they had decided to hop in a taxi and try to find a break in the clouds. They apparently were successful, racing westward toward the airport though dense mid-day traffic. They were lucky enough to drive into an opening in the clouds and had a clear view of Totality. Good for them.
The eclipse itself was spectacular and I will definitely try and see the next one, due in southern Africa in June of 2001. I think that I've become an eclipse junky.
Viewing a solar eclipse should have been enough excitement for one day. But, we also had the great pleasure of attending a Luciano Pavarotti concert that evening. The government of Rumania had organized it, and it took place outdoors in the grand courtyard of the Piata Constitutiei, a colossal palace built by Nicolea Ceausescu. Attended by more than 50,000 people, the venue as well as the performance itself were an overwhelming experience.
This report wouldn't be complete without some observation on Romania, Bucharest and the people. This country, just 10 years after overthrowing the communist dictator Ceausescu, is still very poor and underdeveloped. The current government apparently consist of recycled communists, and the climb toward a free-market economy and a better life for the people is a slow one. According to a recent article in The Economist, even their neighbor Bulgaria is make faster progress.
Photographed with a Canon Ixus II - ELF II on Kodak Advantix 200 APS film.
Most telling for me was the attitude of the people. There was a air of repressed anger which I sensed from many people in the streets. Not directed at us, by any means, but seemingly at life itself, or at least their situation. I also found the Rumanian people very suspicious of foreigners with cameras, but I was able to take some street shots like the one above because of the small size of the Canon Ixus II.
We walked around the city a great deal and didn't see anywhere near as much overt poverty as we had expected, (Toronto has more street beggars these days!). But, there were many signs of the lingering effects of more than 40 years under an oppressive communist regime. Prostitution was an obvious one. Though illegal, large numbers of young women plying their trade seemed to be everywhere; on the street and in the bars and restaurants. Quite depressing.
We were also very puzzled by the almost complete lack of entrepreneurialism around the eclipse. This event saw the greatest influx of foreign tourists that Romania has ever seen. Yet, hardly anyone was to be seen selling eclipse tea-shirts, posters or other souvenirs, something that even the smallest event elicits in the West. It's almost as if as a people they've forgotten how to make money and thus improve their situation.
Another glaring example is with regard to one of the government's few eclipse initiatives the issuing of a beautiful eclipse commemorative 2,000 Lei bank note (worth about U.S. 12 cents). We had read about them before arriving in Romania and were anxious to pick some up as souvenirs. None were to be found anywhere.
On our last morning in Bucharest, before flying back to London, we decided to find out if they were real and available. Almost 45 minutes of exploring and asking where we might find some lead us to a branch of the Banc National where we were able to buy 25 bills at face value, (at a cost of $3.50). As simple as that. It amazes me that there weren't dozens of people standing on street corners selling them to tourists for $5 a piece. A superb entrepreneurial opportunity was completely missed by anyone.
The city itself though was quite beautiful once. Today, it is run-down and shabby. Streets and sidewalks are full of pot-holes, and beautiful old buildings, easily as lovely as those of Paris, are in terrible disrepair.
Bucharest is not a city that many people would put on their must-visit list. I understand that the rural countryside is quite beautiful, and it certainly appeared that way from the plane as we flew in. But, I am also told that outside of Bucharest there is almost nothing in the way of infrastructure for tourists.
My first total solar eclipse a Pavarotti concert, a visit with close friends in London and a chance to travel to an unusual part of the world with a good friend. All in all, an amazing week. The next total solar eclipse is in June, 2001 in southern Africa. If at all possible, I'll be there.