Travel Journals by Hilary Hopkins

July 15-29 2009 / South Pacific: French Polynesia, Cook Islands, and an Eclipse

In Which We see the Ravishing Water-and-Landscapes of Some South Pacific Islands, and Experience Our 8th Total Solar Eclipse
Part 2 - Some Cook Islands (my 93rd country!) and the Eclipse

Part 2 - Some Cook Islands (my 93rd country!) and the Eclipse

Aitutaki, the Cook Islands (country #93 for me)
Today we had our first ship-organized shore excursion.  We went ashore in tenders, very carefully amidst the coral just below or at the surface, to the ratty dock area, dotted here and there with small abandoned objects of one kind or another, some identifiable and some not.  Your palm trees round about, your few people.  

Eventually nine of us board a somewhat decrepit motor boat, with a laconic boat driver, and we go, slowly at first  then fast, spray rising behind us, across the absurdly turquoise water of the lagoon here.  The coral heads are all around.  At the horizon the breakers smash and disintegrate in spray against the coral reef that surrounds this island.  Neon blues all around.

Here's a strange place where we stop, along with lots of other little boats, for snorkeling.  The boat anchors in about 18 inches of water, beyond which is a drop-off and islands of coral just below the surface.   We struggle into our gear—the boat is not quite what I had imagined, but they don't get a whole lot of tourism here, so they aren't very well equipped, and I need to remember that. 

Then AT LAST INTO THE WATER!  face down, breathing so easily and then over the dropoff and into that beautiful world which I have come to love so much and to know a little.   Separated from our air world by just a one molecule layer.

The coral is huge and luxuriant, all kinds of it.  Most of the fish I have never seen before.  There is one of those curly-shelled clams that can grow to such a size.  His shell is open pretty wide and I can see in to him.   I forget to bring my new fish card thing so I don't know who anybody is, but there's a very pointy-muzzled guy chomping away at the coral, and I recognize him.

Yesterday, I guess it was, there was a talk by an earnest young guy about reef life.  Near the end of his talk he said how, well, yeah, the reefs are under attack by human means and yeah, that's a shame, but guess what, they are resilient, and long after humans are gone they will be here, at least some of the-–what word did he use?  but the idea was sort of your rat or roach or weed—that was the word, weed corals, that can live anywhere, they will still be around, colonizing different niches as they specialize. 

I was so thrilled to hear someone say this very hopeful and loving thing.   I decided that at some point on this trip I want to talk to him and first thank him for expressing this thought and also to describe to him my sex and warfare scheme for the plant world and see what he thinks of it, and how it might fit animals, which is something I have never thought of before.   (I did, and he loved my scheme and said sure, same basic stuff for animals.  It was a fine conversation and very encouraging for me.)

So I snorked for about half an hour and then out.  We poked around for a short time on a tiny island, and I saw a fine spider web, and a bunch of hermit crabs, and elegant plants, and the boat driver picked a gecko off our boat—had some trouble catching him and in the process he—the gecko!--jumped onto me, went up my arm, around the back of my neck, across my cheek and onto my forehead and into my hair.  I loved this!  I could feel his little pads that cling so nicely, a gentle clinging to me.

Then we drove to another island where everybody from the ship that was on this trip had lunch, not terribly good, some fish and veggies and fruit, and I bought a beer.  It's New Zealand money here, and how mind-bending it is for an insular American to hear these brown people speaking with that nasal accent. 

A long time on this island, the tide going out and then coming in over the white shell sand, the turquoise water of such a startling color.  But we got under way and then back to the ship, where we washed and tidied.  This water does not seem as salty and sticky as that in the Atlantic.  I wonder if that is true or I am just so delighted by it that I don't notice the sticky.  [Turns out it is indeed true.]

Aitutaki is an atoll.  An atoll is more or less what is left after you have a volcano that grows from the ocean floor, goes extinct, and then gradually subsides, while meantime the coral fringing round it continues to grow.  So you end up with a ring of coral around a lagoon (where the volcano used to be), or else maybe the tip of the volcano in the middle of the lagoon.  The little bitty islets we were on, called motus, are just bits of broken coral and sand surrounding an atoll.

We have been invited by Alex Filippenko the trip astronomer to eat dinner with him tonight, a very pleasing thing, and dinner is fun and congenial.  I miss affairs like this, good company and conversation. 

Yesterday there was a talk by a woman who is on board with her husband, a climate-change specialist who is part of a committee which won the Nobel Peace Prize a few years ago.   The two of them live in the Cook Islands and have for many years.  She talks about how she came here and how she made a life (of sorts) for herself.  It all sounds at least somewhat reasonable—until I learn that the entire COUNTRY has only 15,000 people in it.  How could you stand this?  I wonder about the effects of the internet.  I have to say that the whole thing sounds very bizarre to me.

I didn't do much today.  Slept a lot in my cozy bed.  Examined the gorgeous pearls for sale in the shop—none of the pieces shown under $1100 and many of them well over $5000.  But I enjoy looking.

Last night I saw the green flash! and actually last night too though I hardly realized it until later.  The captain came on the horn and laconically said we might be able to see it.  I was in the cabin and too lazy to trudge up and out to look—so I looked out our grubby porthole.  And as the sun JUST went below the horizon I thought, hmm, that looks kind of green there on top.  OH! I thought.  THAT WAS IT.  And then last night we were all out on deck looking with binoculars, and oh wow indeed, it was gorgeous, a pool of brilliant green on the horizon.  Very wonderful, my first two times.  I'll look again tonight.  Now I understand at last, after so many times looking for it: it is not so much a flash as a puddle, or a brief sort of ooze, of green.

Also we all hung out on the top deck looking to see the Hubble Telescope pass over, and we did see it, slipping across the sky.  And there were globular clusters and double stars, and a good time was had by all.

Today elaborate plans had been made for landing on one of the tiny islands that are a part of this island national park, but to my relief the captain cancelled these because we have had strong winds and swells and I for one did not look forward to transferring from tender to zodiac and back, and a wet landing too.  I know they had made big plans around this—only a very few people get to do this every year—but especially with some of the folks on board it would have been a very hard maneuver and not safe at all.   But as our ship hangs in the waters off the giant reef, a large zodiac does go over,  with important things like a new radio and some fresh vegetables and some ice cream! to deliver to the caretaker family which lives here I believe seven months a year, a couple and their three children.

I cannot imagine it.  Which is interesting since I crave solitude. 

We have laid our plans for the eclipse tomorrow.  Instead of being away from people I will be cheek by jowl with them.  Interesting that the eclipse I do not remember much of is the other ship-based one.  We'll see.

And the sun and the moon and our little earth planet are .approaching each other.  But only a few thousand (or million, ‘cause it's going to be total in parts of China too) people really care!    

July 21 2009  Eclipse Day
A long day of waiting.  I prepared my modest stuff.  Welders glass safely taped over my binoculars.  I test them and look for sunspots, of which there are none.  

We have already scoped out the top deck, and now we execute our plan.  We gather everything up: John’s phenomenally heavy pack with all his various gear in it, and my belly bag with water, a book, my camera, my rhat hat, a notepad and pen, and my binoculars with the welder’s glass.  We go up to the top deck and snag a couple of chairs at the railing in a corner.  A corner so no one is going to crowd us from at least one side.  It's 10:30 and already this morning the sun is blazing, blazing hot.  I'm politely guarding one chair and sitting on the other.  Starboard railing, facing west. 

Below and to the horizon stretches the deep, clear cornflower-blue water.  The sun is already almost straight above me.  The water curls with hissing flows of blue-white dancing foam and exciting rays of light radiating away from the foam, as the boat courses along to centerline.  Now and then small groups of flying fish pop out of the water and glide away.  I counted one aloft for 13 seconds before he re-entered the crest of a wave and disappeared below. 

Even though it is very windy up here I can feel the vicious sun.  But it's okay; I'm equipped and I am good at waiting, doing nothing. 

John comes to spell me and I go down and have a cheeseburger, get a t-shirt to layer under my long-sleeved shirt to break the sun's assault.  My face is gooey with sunscreen, but I am patient with all this.  I am a good waiter.

Earlier, in the morning, we passed a tiny obscure island called, improbably, Pukapuka.   Perhaps five to eight hundred people live there, and a cruise ship has never come into their vicinity.  Radio contact was made with them, and our approach announced.  We are told that they look unlike other Cook Islanders and even have a  different language.  Seventy-five percent of them are under 15, and a large number of those were out on the beach to watch as we passed by and sounded our horn in salute to them.  The children were all neatly dressed in their blue and white school unies.  I could see them with my binoculars from the deck at breakfast.  A few people paddled in single boats out to the path of the shop's wake.  Lone people, in small boats.

And as we passed by the end of this impossibly tiny place to live, a few people stood there at the tip of land, watching us go.  There is no way I can imagine this life-way.

Something less than three hours now to first contact which will be at 5:17 pm.  In  the broil of sun, people are gathered at the railings, fussing with their stuff.  I went into the shade for a few minutes and called our daughter at home:  “It's Eclipse Day!”  She sounded good and how happy and content it makes me to hear her cheerful voice.

Ice cream is served on deck and melts almost as soon as it is placed in the bowl.
We are barely puttering along now, on centerline.  For the first time on this trip the sea is virtually calm.  I am happy because I have become very  weary of staggering and lurching all the time. 

There are, of course, “a few puffy clouds.”  Nothing worrisome at the moment.

It is so hot that twice the tape has oozed so as to separate my welder’s glass from my binoculars.  But I'll be watchful and careful.  I know how to do this.

Just now, at about 2:54, there's an announcement that the sun has just risen in India, and it is a FULLY ECLIPSED SUN.  Cheers rise.

And now Bhutan, completely in the shadow, the whole country.

Now, at 3:40 or so, over Shanghai, it rains—but later I hear that no, at First Contact in Shanghai it was raining, but that they did get to see totality. 

About 45 minutes to First Contract--a lot of people out here but not as many as I'd expected.  Where are they, all 320 of them?    I think I know—a lot of people this time are first-timers, and for some reason they do not know to watch for First Contact.

Forty minutes or so.  It is hot and humid.  I am not keen on being cheek by jowl, but.

Twenty-seven minutes to First Contact, some white clouds.  The sun is above and directly opposite where I am sitting.  People are gathered around the bar on deck, drinking, talking, fussing with their gear.

Twenty minutes to First Contact (that moment of high thrill).  I understand it will come at the 5:00 or 7:00 position. 

Deep blue water glitters with specks of sun below my railing.  Some distressing clouds around the sun.  Seventeen minutes.

The shadow must already be rushing across the water in which we float. 

Twelve minutes.  Some thin clouds drift across the face of the sun.  I can see them greenly through my filtered binoculars.  People still drink and chatter at the bar.  They will miss First.

Eight minutes.  People still drinking and chatting.  I am getting ready to look, to look so hard.  There are a lot of first-timers on this trip; I guess they are all at the bar and do not understand what is about to happen...

Well damn, oh damn damn—First Contact all within clouds and I do not see it—the first time this has happened for me...

Fifteen minutes in, a lot a lot of clouds, the ship is being turned, and speeded up, to try to get the sun in a hole.

Most of the people on this deck are dimwits.  Next to me, after about First Contact  + two minutes, she brays, Joe, we're not doing this again.  And, about 10 minutes in, unbelievably, she inquires, Is it totality yet?

The sun in and out, in and out, in and out, the ship trying to maneuver to catch it in the open.  But it is getting cooler and the light is changing, yes. 

Twenty-seven minutes in, through my glass I see a lovely green nimbus of cloud around the partially destroyed sun.

Looking directly below the bow of the ship, I see people who must have the most expensive cabin on the ship, with their own large verandah.  They are casually looking around, earbuds stuck in their ears.  Hello?  Hello?  Anybody home in there??

The light fades on the horizon of the sea and it is dark there.  The light attenuates here on the deck, and sharpens as it drains.  It is twenty-five minutes to totality.

Everybody is doing the dumb

pinhole thing and nobody is paying attention to

the dying

of the light. 

Sharpened shadows.

The chatter has dropped.

Come back









I scream at Ethan the seaman next to me LOOK LOOK FOR GODSAKE LOOK






Use your binoculars with no filter! I scream at Ethan.  He shoots image upon image.  Holy shit!  he screams.  I am dimly aware of trying to concentrate to tell him what to do but it is a great effort.

The great corona streams out, for long minutes, three of them.  Slowly the neon pink chromosphere oozes along the bottom limb, a huge one.  Along with everyone else who sees this, I scream approval, ecstasy.

Then a pop of that impossibly brilliant light, the diamond ring, the beads, and the light returns to us.  Roars of delight and relief.  Huge smiles and excitement, pictures being taken.  Ethan there is stunned.  Ray has tears in his lovely blue eyes.  I can't stop smiling, and John takes my picture.

We all wait on deck to see the sunset—the sun is to be about 27% in eclipse at setting—but although it is a gorgeous sunset, there are clouds and the sun is not to be seen.

Yes, yes, yes.