Many Many Years Ago...
On 11th July 1991, a total solar eclipse took place on a band stripping from Hawaii to central Brazil. The nearly-seven-minute-long totality made the headlines all over the world. Turkey was no exception. A good article about that eclipse, the phenomena in general and the future eclipses in a science magazine was the spark for a then 14-year-old junior high school student.
Yes, I had some interest about astronomy and heard about the eclipses that family members saw, but not a single astronomical observation of any kind had I done to date. The map showing the future eclipses made the push. It showed two total eclipses passing through Turkey: 11th August 1999 and 29th March 2006. So I had to wait for more than 8 years. (I did not realize how lucky I was, then.)
The time passed by. It was more than enough for me to gain experience. I made nearly all available kinds of astronomy as a hobby. I had also enough knowledge about the kinds not available, including solar eclipses. But seeing none at all was adding to my obsession. (I was clouded out on 12th October 1996, partial eclipse.) Counting the months turned into counting the days. How did 2953 days pass? No idea whatsoever.
It was 7th August 1999 when I departed from Bursa. My first stop was in Ankara. There, I joined the solar eclipse expedition arranged by Middle East Technical University AAS and METU Tourism agency. I had served as technical consultant when planning the trip.
Our plan was to send a small pioneer group of campers three days in advance to determine a suitable observing site for the other 400 people. The primary observing site was chosen as Mount Ilgaz National Park. I chose to be a member of that group to take the advantage of a high-elevation (2000 meters) observing site coupled with moonless nights.
Others would help our guests around the university campus. An interesting seminar about eclipse mechanics, what to expect during the event, some slides of past eclipses and future eclipse paths was given by our American guests Timothy D. Skonieczny, Paul Strong and David L.Harrington. Sad to miss it, but you can’t have everything. (Fortunately, the seminar was recorded on video.)
In the mountain three days and especially three nights passed. The sky was dark blue in the day and pitch-black at night. In the morning of 10th, thin sliver of the old Moon was still visible in conjunction with Mercury at dawn. It was just beautiful. Nothing could go wrong now.
But it did. When we woke up on 11th, the blue sky was gone. It was 0800 in the morning, only 6 hours to go; and big gray clouds were passing overhead. No problem, we have still much time, I thought. Thinking of a few hours as "much" was really ridiculous, after 8+ years. One important thing to do was to bring a little 8" telescope back... from a peak just a kilometer away! With the help of Alkim, it was done at around 1000 hours. But no sign of clouds breaking.
The buses arrived at 1130. Still no change in the weather. We called the people at the Kastamonu Airfield. That place had been chosen to be our secondary (runaway, I call) observing site. Fortunately better weather there, but we lost 20 more minutes to decide. Now, we had some 60 minutes to first contact and about 40 kilometers of road winding down the mountain.
1250 hours. 7 minutes to first contact. We finally arrived. Minutes passed as I frantically set up my equipment. I had double cameras for the prime focus of my Meade 8” LX10, one being spare. A third camera for wide angle shots.
1258 hours. First contact; I suppose. I did not see. How can I possibly lose my solar filter?
1306 hours. I finally found the filter and mounted it. My first solar eclipse of any kind had started already. I mounted the focal reducer for a 1250-mm focal distance. The camera then. OK. First exposure. All right. Note the time down: 1308. Two minutes passed already?
At that time, I looked around and started to get familiar with the place. Some hundred Japan tourists had located themselves near the tower building. We were closer to the runway; in fact just at the taxi route, still under construction. The airfield itself is located some 10 kilometers south of Kastamonu, and centerline.
Finally I had my gear set up. I started my photographic program. Simple. Two exposures every 4 minutes. Or I thought simple. The big scope was an attraction to the people. Can’t you leave me in peace? Waiting for this so long. Please...
It did not work out. Maybe shouting, yelling and biting was the solution. The time was passing slowly. I took my photographs and the fight against the clouds and intruders continued. I could do nothing about the clouds and the northeastern breeze, but I was partially successful in expelling.
1345 hours. It started to get somewhat darker now, especially due northwest. Erhan came with an empty bottle. He asked me if one could find water around. I said yes, probably in the airport building. Then he asked me if I could fill the bottle. What the hell?.. Then, I looked up at him. He was smiling. How close to death he just got! (Someone else did get us water, but it drained very fast.)
Clouds were scattered to the sky, especially to the southern half. A northeasterly wind was bringing them in front of the Sun-Moon. But I was unusually calm now. I still don’t know why, but the unease had gone away with the shrinking photosphere. Maybe I trusted the clear northern part.
1405 hours, T-18 minutes. The wind stopped. Clear weather now. I remembered the eclipse wind. It soon started to blow from northwest. One prediction coming true. With the shrinking crescent, the sky was considerably darker now. The clouds were dirty yellow now, instead of light gray.
1416 hours. Two more exposures and first film out. I switched to the second camera. Two exposures again and my photographic schedule continued. I changed the finished film in the first camera.
But, at 1420, the schedule was history. I started shoot the Sun-Moon very frequently. At 1422, the hairline crescent started to break into beads. It was time to switch to the first camera. T-1.5 minutes. The sky was darkening very fast. The shadow of the Moon started to rise at the northwest. I lost my control and yelled. - Call of the wild? Everyone was shouting, yelling and screaming. I heard the Japanese making a good deal of noise, too.
1423 hours. Finally I mounted the camera to the T-Ring. Filter off. The sun was reduced to a bright spot now. A few seconds later, the corona blossomed like a huge shiny flower. And Totality! I had waited for more than 8 years for this moment and it was happening now before all my senses!
But when I looked through the telescope, it went black. Where the hell is the corona? I lost some valuable seconds to locate it with the finder. And it was finally there.
“Prominences! Huge prominences! Beautiful!” a high school student near me was shouting while looking through his ETX. He was right. Prominences were all round the Moon. 4, 5, 7?.. More? I hadn’t seen such a thing. While draining my source of film, I tried to memorize it all; a task that I would never succeed. The color of prominences were something between pink, yellow, gray and very bright. One was detached, flying on its own. I could not see a distinctive color of the corona, but later I saw that the slides captured it green.
All my 1.5-degree field of view was filled with corona. It would never be enough to see everything. When someone shouted “Venus, I see Venus!” my mind charged. I looked up and saw the bright planet. Then I spent some more seconds to find Regulus. Yep, it’s there. I took two wide-angle shots. No more time for other stars or Mercury, sadly. 1425 hours. I looked due northwest and saw the brightening horizon. God, is it so quick? Just as I looked through the scope, a double-diamond ring exploded. One more shot and I mounted the filter back on. The southwest was still dark, but the shadow receded away rapidly. It was really over. People were congratulating each other. I was really relaxed after the ultimate experience.
Then, my routine photographic schedule took over. People were wandering around now. Few were interested in the celestial pair. Soon, they started packing. The buses would take them to the barbecue party. Someone came over and asked me if I was de-mounting my gear. Hey, I spent much time and money for this; staying till the last second. I also felt thirsty and hungry, but my GI tract could wait.
The partial eclipse was over at 1543 hours. So was I, completely exhausted. After packing my equipment, I walked to the building for water. When I looked in the mirror, a sunburned face looked back. In no other way would I stay in full (?) daylight for more than 4 hours.
The 2-minute 18-second totality was just enough for me to digest. Or was it? I don’t really know. A four minuter would suit better, maybe. But this was, and always will be worth waiting anyway. Now I really know why a person spends thousands of dollars to travel halfway round the Earth to see it. (In contrast, I was only 530 kilometers away from home.) Reading about it or looking at the photos is not the thing. One should live it. And I mean "living" it!
This total eclipse had been the first one in Turkey since 19th June 1936. The next Turkish total eclipse will take place on 29th March 2006. The duration of the totality we experienced was nearly the longest possible in Asia, and will not be exceeded until... well, 29th March 2006. Nearly 7 years, 2422 days to be precise, to go for a 3-minute 46-second darkness. Not so far away, I think.
Note: Just four days after I was back home in Bursa, the earthquake struck Izmit and around. It was a frightening experience for us. Unfortunately, it was much worse for many. Please remember the people, whose last sun set in Marmara, on 16th August 1999...