Terrible Photographer versus Total Solar Eclipse

There are about 70 total solar eclipses per century, but each one is visible only from a narrow stretch of the Earth, and only for a few minutes. Therefore, being in the right place at the right time under suitable viewing conditions to experience full totality qualifies as a once-in-a-lifetime event. I travelled from Sydney up to Palm Cove (a beach resort just north of Cairns) to see the total solar eclipse of 14th November 2012. Here’s what happened.

Arrive in Palm Cove on 13th Nov. The eclipse will take place tomorrow morning. Sunrise will be at 5:34am and the partial eclipse will start at 5:45am, shifting to totality at 6:39am until 6:41am. Then, there will be a second period of partial eclipse as the moon’s shadow drifts away, ending at 7:41am. For now, the weather oscillates threateningly between sunshine and deep, dark cloud cover.


Palm Cove, the day before the eclipse.

Up at 5:15am. Wander out of the hotel to the beach as first-light barely shines through the clouds. I’d somehow expected this huge stretch of East-facing beach to be packed elbow-to-elbow, but the idea that I’d have to fight for a good viewing spot is immediately revealed to be ridiculous. Unanticipated spaciousness has been a recurring pleasant surprise since I’ve been in Australia.

Quick hotel breakfast as the sun rises at 5:35. Clouds above the horizon will obscure the sun shortly, but there’s still a good chance of visibility over the next hour. The crowd around me seems to consist mostly of TV crews and local radio stations.


First light from the beach.


Breakfast sunrise.

It’s time. Luna begins to slide before Sol, and the ambient light takes an eerily dim, greyed nature… because there’s a massive rain cloud in front of the sun. Murmurs amongst the crowd show signs of stoic acceptance. Clouds continue to thicken and spread through the sky, yet there’s not the slightest sense of frustration or anger, or even any real disappointment: just a feeling of “oh well, it’s quite nice out here anyway”. I’m surprised to find that I share this feeling.

Minutes pass. Entertainment is provided by a slightly drunk couple who have independently waded in into the ocean, and are busy getting to know each other whilst being knocked over by waves. They are gently asked to leave the deadly jelly-fish and crocodile infested water by a friendly lifeguard.


As the celestial bodies align, a deeply moving and monumentally rare reminder of the scale of our solar system, the power of coincidence, and the mind boggling beauty of the cosmos etches its place in our short history. Behind some bloody clouds.

I hear a cry of joy from a lady to my left as I’m struggling to upload photos of clouds from my phone. I look up and squint as I’m blinded by a bright white hole in the grey sky. The entire beach cheers and I fumble with my eclipse viewing glasses, which I hadn’t even unwrapped from their plastic film. Once they’re on, I confirm that the sun, sure enough, is now a crescent; I belatedly join the cheer as it morphs into excited chatter.

The partially eclipsed sun shifts in and out of cloud cover. I snap picture after picture when it is unobscured, but the crescent is visible in none of my photos, no matter how much I play with the settings on my phone. I regret not bringing a proper camera. I attempt to take pictures through the glasses, producing nothing but amusingly pathetic, blurry orange squiggles.


Interestingly, a tiny inverted version of the crescent sun is just about visible in the lens-flare.


Amusingly pathetic, blurry orange squiggle.

With the protective glasses on, only the shrinking sun is visible; when it is obscured, everything is rendered pitch black by the dark lenses. I repeatedly remove and replace the glasses as the sun disappears behind clouds and re-emerges. With the glasses off, surprisingly, the light on the beach seems normal — no dimmer than on any other cloudy morning. I wonder why this is, given how much of the sun is now obscured.

Soon enough the sun, when visible, is an impossibly thin sliver. It disappears from my bespectacled sight, and I assume it is once again cloud covered… until I hear the crowd erupt in a short, sharp cheer. I remove the glasses and burst out in an uncontrollable giggle. I am awash in a perfect circle of other-worldly light. I listen to the awestruck murmurs around me. The terms “strange”, “spooky”, “eerie” dominate. Internally, I mock my peers’ poor vocabulary: those words are weak and utterly inappropriate for such a… …I laugh at my own pretension, as I too fail to find a suitably expressive phrase. The circle of light is thin, cold, powerful, crystal clear and razor sharp. Ambient light is dusk-like, but somehow blueish. People around me coo and laugh gently, talking in hushed, excited, incomplete sentences punctuated by sighs of mesmerised pleasure. Eclipse veterans say silence falls during totality; here, the sound of the ocean crashing on the beach persists, undisturbed by the all-encompassing transformation around it. Seconds pass.

I once again curse my poor choice of camera: no shot I take captures even a fraction of the corona’s atmospheric glory. I then realise I’d surely fail to take a good picture even with a decent camera, and resolve to put my phone down, enjoy the show, and steal someone else’s photos later. Seconds pass.


Cairns Eclipse 2012

Someone else’s photo
© Matt D. Marshall.

I curse my poor memory too. I want to remember this ephemeral treat in its entirety, so I focus on each of my senses, one at a time, then on the whole set together. With some sadness, I realise that the experience is unanchorable: too unique to latch onto any other memory, too complex to be reconstructed from scratch by my limited brain. Once again I laugh, sit back, and enjoy. Seconds pass.

I hear someone near me say “video”, and I can’t resist filming. I capture the end of totality, the point at which the full brightness of the sun emerges from the corona as a single point, and spreads. The point of brightness begins from nothing and grows, with great speed and uncanny smoothness, into an impossibly bright star. The explosion of light is shockingly, densely pure, a fluid crystal of whiteness that cannot be witnessed under any other circumstance. Then, within less than half a second, it is blinding.

The resulting blurry, saturated and clumsy video is a pale approximation of reality.

It’s over. I can put the glasses back on and watch the crescent grow to normality; I do so briefly, then choose not to. I feel relief, ecstasy, and a cathartic melancholy, brought on by the fact that such an intense experience must be so fleeting and incommunicable.

Then, I went scuba diving at the Great Barrier Reef, which was alright.

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