2012 was a great year for me. Not only did I publish my first book Total Addiction, I also had the most unusual of coincidences imaginable for an eclipse chaser – the path of totality crossed my home region of Far North Queensland in Australia. Very few eclipse chasers EVER get to experience such a thing! Instead of packing my bags to travel to some remote destination, all I had to do was to go home.
I arranged to spend six months in Australia in the lead up to and following the eclipse, to spend time with family, do Australian launch activities for Total Addiction, and to do my next eclipse research project.
It was about two months before the eclipse, and I was doing surveys and interviews with locals to get a sense of what they expected to happen, and how they were planning for the day. And that’s when I discovered there was a problem. The local people were not engaged about the eclipse. In fact, the opposite was true – some were planning to leave! I was shocked, stunned and amazed that for some people, there was zero interest.
I quickly realised what the problem was. The media reporting was putting people off – there were stories of how the eclipse was going to cause road chaos, the place was going to be overrun, and the main focus seemed to be the tourist dollars that was it was going to bring in. Eclipse chasers were referred to as ‘science boffins’, and ‘astrotourists’ – and locals were not relating to this. There was a perception that it was just an astronomy event, and you needed to be a scientist to enjoy it. All the information conveyed was pure science – there was nothing about the unique experience, or how special it was. Those who seemed to be aware of this aspect had done their own research. But once I was able to share what it was like, it was easy for people to understand that they were lucky to experience something so unusual or rare in their own community.
What was missing were personal stories about the eclipse – the amazing eclipse experience, the awe, the insights and precious moments under the Moon’s shadow that inspired so many people around the world to repeat the experience. There was no reporting on this as there were no eclipse chasers in the region. Except me.
So I decided to step up and do all I could to share the experience of totality, to make sure that the whole community understood it was of relevance to them, and that they did not want to miss it. I arranged talks at schools, restaurants, I delivered a two part lecture series at the local University (where I had undertaken my undergraduate degree). I met with people at libraries, community centres, local cafes and even at the markets. With every single interaction, I conveyed that this experience was amazing for EVERYONE! I wanted to make sure that people knew that they would remember the eclipse for the rest of their lives, and that it was important to make a plan for how to view and celebrate this rare once-in-a lifetime event in our community. The last time the eclipse occurred in that region was over 500 years before.
I also did many media interviews – TV, radio, newspapers – and the media were very keen to have an eclipse chaser share such a different aspect of the eclipse. I worked alongside the region eclipse coordinator, and took part in the major media briefing the day before. Good community planning had been going on for several years, but that personal element was missing. All of these efforts paid off, and afterwards I received so many calls and emails thanking me for sharing that important aspect and helping the community to understand how truly special it was.
Following the eclipse, I realised how I had never really thought about the community along the path before. As an eclipse chaser, the community for me was important, and it was wonderful to share the experience – but I did not consider the preparations, the waiting, or whether they were prepared. It was a huge oversight, and I realised how someone like me could play an important yet crucial role in eclipse planning. It was just so much more powerful because this was MY OWN community.
As a psychologist and researcher, I realised I was in a unique position to find out more about the process of planning. I wanted to ensure that we could learn from the experience, and so I interviewed some of the key people involved in planning for the eclipse in the region. It was interesting to hear, in hindsight, how they realised the eclipse was so much bigger than what they ever imagined. At first, they thought it was going to be ‘just another’ event, and it wasn’t until the few months when they fully believed how special it would be! They shared how the event would have a long-lasting legacy on all those involved in preparations, in addition to the whole community, and pondered about hindsight and what they would do differently.
I was privileged to be in this situation, and also to have a new insight into the eclipse experience. I wanted to ensure that I used my skills and experience to help future communities plan, and to help out on the ground especially with the important task of sharing the eclipse experience with locals – from a non-science perspective.
I was also collecting all the local and visitor stories for my next research project. But I felt I had to give something back – so I put together a book that told the story of the eclipse from the perspective of the community – Totality: The Total Solar Eclipse of 2012 in Far North Queensland.
This is how I then went on to become the Eclipse Coordinator for the Faroe Islands, for the 2015 total solar eclipse. And that is a whole other story!!