THE FEEL OF TOTALITY
“A total eclipse of the Sun is one of the most dramatic and awe-inspiring events of the natural world.”
A total eclipse allows you to experience the three-dimensional nature of the universe – the Sun, the Moon, and Earth are all in perfect alignment, and you are standing in the shadow of our magnificent Moon. The scale is unimaginable, yet here it is happening right on top of you and around you. It is real. You can literally feel the ominous shadow before it arrives. The temperature drops. The wind picks up speed. The Sunlight slowly dims, bathing the surroundings in an eerie twilight that produces colours with shades rarely seen in the natural world. Then it is time. Moments before totality a wall of darkness comes creeping towards you at speeds of up to 5,000 miles per hour – this is the full shadow of the Moon. You feel alive. You feel in awe. You feel a primitive fear. Then – totality. In this moment there is just you and the Universe.
After what seems like a brief moment of eternity, the Moon continues on its journey and the shadow races away, marking the return of the light. The whole event is eerie, unnatural even, and stunningly beautiful.
Pictures do not convey the experience of totality. Nothing you read, see, or hear can prepare you for the spine-tingling, goosebump-inducing experience of the total eclipse. The eerie twilight that confuses birds and other animals and, at times, humans, is like no other experience you have ever had. It is impossible to be a passive observer.
You do not simply see a total eclipse. You experience it. You are immersed in it. You are completely overwhelmed by it. Many people say that the experience of totality changes their lives. It’s very hard to capture the feel of an eclipse, but here is one of my eclipse chasing colleagues – David Makepeace – filming the 2010 Total Eclipse from Patagonia. This clip gives you a ‘feel’ for totality.
Total Solar Eclipse in Patagonia 11 July 2010
TWO KEY THINGS TO REMEMBER:
1. You MUST be within the path of totality to experience these things. Only in totality – when the Sun is 100% covered by the Moon – will the full effect be felt. If you are outside of this path, you will experience a partial eclipse. Even a partial eclipse where the Sun is 99% covered will NOT give you the full effect. 99.9% covered – still no good. You must be fully within the path.
2. To view a solar eclipse safely, you need to use solar filters to ensure the Sun does not cause damage to your eyes. When you are in the path of totality, the moment when the Moon is completely covering the Sun it is perfectly safe to remove your solar filters. If you do not, you will not see anything at all and you will miss all the above. If you do – you may just experience one of the most intense moments of your life.
WHY SHOULD YOU SEE A TOTAL SOLAR ECLIPSE?
It is difficult to describe to others who have not experienced a total solar eclipse what the fuss is about. Most people cannot understand how an astronomical event can trigger such intense emotions, and why people would want to chase them. But believe me – it is one of the most intense nature experiences you can have.
There are three aspects to the eclipse experience, making it very unique among other astronomical events.
Like other astronomical events, the eclipse is interesting in that it shows the movement of our Universe. One celestial body (our Moon) moves in front of our Sun. There is a coincidence of scale that makes the beauty of the eclipse possible – the diameter of the Moon is 400 times smaller than the diameter of the Sun, but the Sun is 400 times further away. Also, the total eclipse is quite rare in any one location, so many people have never seen one before.
The total eclipse is not something that you simply observe through a telescope. It changes the environment around you. Not only is it beautiful – the Sun’s corona is visible to the naked eye and it is stunning. But it also changes the temperature and environment. There are changes above you, around you and within you. You also experience quite intense emotions during the lead up to totality, so it is unexpectedly emotional.
The totality experience challenges us to think about our lives. We feel the vastness of our Universe, and recognise that we are a very small part of it. This feeling of insignificance is empowering. Many feel a sense of connection to humanity, and recognise that our lives are fleeting – just like totality. Some find the totality experience as a turning point to make important life choices. A small number then go on to become eclipse chasers.
These three aspects to totality are difficult to communicate to those who have never seen a total eclipse. People will understand the scientific appeal of a rare celestial event, but they cannot imagine the emotional or transformational response until they feel it. As a result, us eclipse chasers doing interviews in the media can often come across as a bit ‘out there’. We aren’t – we are just trying to share our experience of something that is so exciting and thrilling yet is beyond words. If you are truly listening to us, you will hear they key message – you do NOT want to miss this experience. It truly is one of the most awe-inspiring sights in the natural world.
“A feeling of reverential respect mixed with fear or wonder”
WHY IS IT SO INTENSE?
I have spent thousands of hours interviewing and analysing my research on the eclipse experience. What I can say is this – when people talk about the experience of totality, they use words that are outside the usual everyday experience. Words such as exultation, sublime, incandescent, euphoric. They struggle to find words that do justice to the experience.
The two central emotions that everyone describes are awe and primal fear – an unsettling fear seen in response to the creeping darkness of the approaching shadow. Both of these emotions are intense, and I describe these further in my book Total Addiction.
It is difficult to describe what it is like to experience a total eclipse in a few simple words or sound bites. To understand this further, watch this twenty-minute video of my interview with Slooh, recorded live during the Annular Eclipse of September 1, 2016. I describe how even ‘hard-nosed’ unemotional folk well up with tears during totality.