Eclipse on a Yacht

We have spent the last six days aboard the Dalila, a 46-foot catamaran which normally goes on chartered three-hour-tours from Papeete.  It sleeps four couples in nice cabins; the crew sleeps on the deck and an inside table which converts cleverly to a large bed.  The tour organizer was never very specific about where and when to catch the boat; we got the impression from an e-mail or something that boarding began at 9 AM on the 9th of July.  We got there about 8:55.  Introductions all around: Christian was the owner of the boat, and pretty much spoke only French.  Clarita was the chef de cuisine par excellence, and probably would have preferred to speak Tahitian but otherwise only French.  Pierre, who introduced himself as Peter, is a French native who left Bordeaux at the age of 5 and has lived in Tahiti since he was 10.  I first took him to be the captain because he was always at the wheel, but Dave supposes that Christian was the captain; and that Pierre was everything else, like Mark Kuo was at Opcode in 1986.  As the primary English speaker, Pierre was the one to deal with all of us.  The other two guests present included Bob, a retired architect who went to Stanford just before Dave, who lives on the beach near Watsonville, and his girlfriend Linda, who lives in Phoenix.  The boat people were enthusiastic to leave at 9 AM, but we made up only four of the eight people who should actually have been on board.  The captain stopped waiting about 10:45 and the Dalila headed out; the others would have a chance to catch up with us via bus ($2) or taxi ($100) at our first mooring on the south side of Tahiti.

After about five hours of sailing, which included a lunch of raw fish in coconut sauce and a tuna gratin, we moored in Papeari, and Pierre took us on the Zodiac dinghy to shore so we could check out the Gauguin Museum before it closed.  Its admission price was halved due to “renovations”, but it was still a nice exhibit showing the history of his life, with good explanations in English, and reproductions of many of his works.  There was a model of the house in the Marquesas he lived in in his final years, and the sun was shining cutely on one of the sculptures shown in one room.  In 2018 we’ll get around to posting a picture of it.  One exhibit spotlighted influences from many Japanese artists, showing several examples of the same scene drawn by both artists side by side.  Paul Gauguin left France because he foresaw the stifling effects of Intellectual Property Law.

We returned to the yacht and as the evening progressed the other four guests arrived by taxi, having got different impressions of when the boat was due to sail.  The next morning we moved down the coast and moored off Tahiti Iti, next to a little surfing competition happening on a break at the edge of the lagoon about a mile from shore.  The waves weren’t very convincing.  When you’re sailing out on a small boat to the open ocean, you don’t miss the absence of pounding Maverick swells as much as the competitive surfers do.

We spent the day before the eclipse lounging, snorkeling, and as always, eating.  At 8 PM we headed out of the lagoon and into the ocean, and proceeded to the point where we would see the eclipse, about sixty nautical miles south.  The captain was not totally dedicated to getting to the center line because he wanted to get to Moorea the next day, starting right away after the eclipse.  The wind had been predicted at 30 knots and 4 meter seas, and his original plan would have had about a minute less totality, but the weather was calm enough we were able to go further and get close to the maximum amount.  It was steady from the east at about 15 knots, and as we were going directly south we were able to proceed to the eclipse site and back under sail.  Dave was lulled to sleep by the steady rocking of the boat and the soporific effects of the Dramamine; I don’t sleep that well the night before morning eclipses because in addition to the nightmares that regular people have their whole lives about not having enough credits to graduate, eclipse observers also have ongoing nightmares about sleeping through eclipses.  In a sense we did sleep through this eclipse: we didn’t book on the Paul Gauguin in time.  I got complacent about the failed world economy and thought it wouldn’t sell out by last year.  It did.  We ended up on a little boat with 6 other procrastinating astronomers.

I shouldn’t say that.  They were also people who really enjoy sailing, and the absence of Regent Cruise Lines glad handers, and the magic of seeing the sun flash out over the South Pacific, the silhouette of Tahiti barely discernable where the sky meets the sea.

It’s nice to experience these phenomena in a variety of ways, but one way I am less than curious about is the view-from-the-air option.  The plus is that you’re above the clouds.  The circulars we get about chartered jets that track eclipses feature this heavily, and then go on breathlessly about 9 minute totality and so forth, but for all you people who have flown on airplanes before, please consult your personal experience of window seats.  An airplane window gives you about what, 90 degrees of side view?  If you are flying along the path of an eclipse, the sun is either in front of, on top of, or behind the plane.  In order for the $9000 passengers to see it at all, the plane has to turn and fly perpendicular to the path.  On the morning of the eclipse, there were jets way up there making lazy circles to show the paying passengers the partial phases before proceeding to what must have been a neck straining main act, tacking along the path.  The parabolic contrails looked cool.

The sky was fairly clear the morning of the eclipse.  There were some little puffy clouds which occasionally obscured the sun.  First contact was at 7:16 or so, and as the partial phase wore on the clouds pretty much dissipated, just as Harry Otten says.  It didn’t seem to get particularly cold, but the special light you get when there’s only a little sun showing was unmistakable.  The clouds on the opposite horizon never acquired any sunset colors, just becoming dark gray.  Totality lasted about three and a half minutes, beginning with a prominence at about the 6:00 position, and ending with one about 9:30.  The corona looked appropriately enough like a sail, pointed at the top and spread out at the bottom.  Those sitting at the front of the boat saw shadow bands on the white hull just after totality ended.  We cheered and immediately headed north towards Moorea, where we spent Monday and Tuesday.

Snorkeling opportunities have been reasonably plentiful but haven’t varied much from place to place.  Monday we went to a very easy snorkeling spot where you could stand on the sand, see cute fish and corals, and swim with black-tipped reef sharks and touchy-feely manta rays with their slimy velvet upper skin.  Later, we and the Watsonville people got dropped off on the shore to experience walking on Moorea while others snorkeled from the beach and reported an amazing variety of fish.  The fish are way better than the coral, every place we’ve been.  I guess the coral are dying, on earth.

Our immediate destination on land was any place we could mail post cards and get Internet access.  We were able to mail the cards at the Hilton, but they wouldn’t sell Internet cards to anybody who wasn’t a guest.  The cards are commodities; I don’t know what they have in mind by shoring up the eroded exclusivity of the Hilton experience with such comical snobbery.  I wonder what their occupancy rate is.

On the road we met Anthony.  Anthony liked our beard, and so did his out-for-the-afternoon picnicking friends, the Moorea Mahu Community.  It was nice to be able to extend sororal salutations across the ocean from San Francisco to Tahiti, especially since Gay Pride in the US has devolved into one long Budweiser Lite commercial.

The usual number of small children announced that we were Papa Noel.  A young man had on an I Love Mongolia t-shirt.  Dave bought an Internet card at the store and I chased a Bulbul around trying to get a useful photo of it.  The Red Vented Bulbul, like us, is an invasive species to French Polynesia.  Almost all the birds you see here are.  Almost all the birds you see here are either Mynahs or pigeons.

We’ve seen a couple of tropic birds.  Their very long tails are dramatic.  The best creatures in the air are the flying fish.  At various times on our sail, we would see flocks of them soaring over the waves.  The boat is not a bad place to watch fish from, anyway.  Spotted Rays ooze along the bottom in the morning (the Dalila usually parks in water about 3 meters deep) while puffer fish and flute fish graze and commute.

Tuesday morning was spent at the mouth of Cook’s Bay near a not-great reef just off the beach. It was too shallow.  Swimming there is like being in a maze.  Others went to one that they said was nicer, 300 meters from the boat out toward the reef.  They found giant iridescent lipped clams.  However, I saw the Creature of the Trip So Far where the reef by the shore drops off to the designated boat channel.  Imagine a couple of purple blobs about the size of small dinner plates, surrounded by fat brown fingers, and the whole affair covered with bright orange spikes.

The channels that boats go in, like the passes, are not man made, said Bob, one of the guests.  The fresh water coming off the mountains dissolves them, over time.

Tuesday afternoon featured rum punch and the usual beer and wine.  Dave had a little too much rum and a little too much sun, and now he has a little fever.  (Update:  the next morning, it seems to have passed.)

Wednesday morning, we motored to Papeete.  The wind was zero.  Papeete was also zero, because today is Bastille Day.  There isn’t money for miles of parades or fireworks, and every shop is closed.  We took a taxi to the hotel.  Dave is resting.

All in all, I am pleased with Pierre and Christian and the Dalila and their little company “Tahiti Voile & Lagon”.  Clarita did a really great job with the food.  Poisson cru, Coq au vin, duck confit, a super-tender leg of lamb, French salami and cheese and mustard, the list goes on.  (On the last morning the gourmet food ran out and there were individually wrapped American cheese slices, which had caused a scene in Mongolia, but we forgave them.)