Chasing Totality

A rare glimpse of the world's top eclipse chasers

I was nine years old in May 1994 and‚ at the small elementary school in Edmonton I attended‚ a partial eclipse was scheduled to pass over us. Parents warned us we could go blind if we glanced upward‚ even momentarily. Elaborate stories circulated of kids frozen in stares, their pupils expanded and changed shape to permanently mimic the eclipse itself. The worst sign of all—and proof that this was serious—came when the adults cancelled recess.

Of course‚ in science class we did what many grade school classes have done for decades—we fashioned pinhole viewing helmets out of extra large cereal boxes‚ and ventured outside under the supervision of our teachers. One by one‚ my classmates took turns sticking their heads inside retrofitted Fruit Loops and Frosted Flakes boxes‚ oohing and ahhing at the tiny eclipse projected within. When my turn came around‚ I couldn’t stop thinking about the warnings and horror stories. I slowly lowered the box over my head. Once inside‚ I didn’t dare open my eyes. I faked it. “You can really see it!” I must have shouted.

Since then I’ve mostly overcome this phobia of sorts. But eclipses still generate a strange sense of anxiety in me. Perhaps it’s because of this first childhood experience that I became so intrigued in learning that there are some out there who willingly spend a great deal of their time‚ money‚ and effort chasing eclipses all across the world. How could something that I first learned to avoid‚ and even fear‚ hold such reverence and fascination for others? It would appear that‚ like most complex natural phenomena‚ the more I learned‚ the more my fear began to transform into fascination.

The moon is four hundred times closer to earth than the sun. Coincidentally‚ the moon is also four hundred times smaller than the sun.

Total solar eclipses happen roughly every one-and-a-half to two years somewhere on earth. The next one will pass over Chile and Argentina in July 2019 and in nearly the same place in December 2020. For the one after that‚ you’ll have to be in certain parts of Antarctica to experience it.

The last total eclipse traversed the entire land mass of the continental US in August 2017. It attracted a huge amount of attention and became known as the Great American Eclipse.

When I got hold of Bill Kramer at his home in Jamaica‚ I asked him what made it so special. “To be clear‚ I wouldn’t describe this eclipse as being particularly special. The word I would use is ‘easy.’” Bill is a self-proclaimed eclipse chaser who became my guide into this strange world. I learned during our first chat what he meant by “easy.”

“As a comparison‚ I can tell you from experience that setting up a campground in Zambia for a tour of two hundred eclipse viewers—not a logistically easy thing to do. This one in August‚ this was the easy one you could bring the whole family to. Just pack up the car and go.”

If you’re like most of the American population‚ you likely don’t pause to regularly appreciate the complexity involved in the mechanics of our solar system‚ all of which dictate where eclipses—total‚ annular‚ or partial—will show up. But here are some highlights:

The moon is four hundred times closer to earth than the sun. Coincidentally‚ the moon is also four hundred times smaller than the sun. Without this precise mathematical relationship‚ a total eclipse is not possible. And this relationship is not static. A few hundred million years from now‚ as our moon’s orbit continues to move farther from earth‚ eclipses as we know them will no longer exist.

The moon is a giant rock orbiting earth‚ which orbits the sun. And though we can’t feel it‚ our solar system is hurtling through space at seventy-two thousand kilometers an hour. The idea of both the moon and the sun aligning perfectly for our viewing pleasure from earth‚ even briefly (most eclipses last for several minutes) seems so impossible it’s laughable.

The alignment of the earth‚ moon‚ and sun can cast a shadow virtually anywhere in the world. This includes but is not limited to: northern regions in the dead of winter‚ remote uninhabited islands‚ active war zones‚ and open ocean. Ever try steering a ship toward a moving shadow in the Atlantic?

Bill Kramer

“The Life of the Party”

On How Eclipses Affect People: “I have seen marines ... soldiers with tears in their eyes at such a marvel of beauty. So‚ to somebody who’s thinking about it‚ who’s on the edge‚ all I can say is it’s probably one of the most beautiful celestial events you will ever witness in your life. It beats everything else in the sky. Even a triple rainbow. It totally beats it.

“You almost wonder sometimes what people are thinking when they’re watching the eclipse. I’ve realized over the years that what you take away from the eclipse is really just a function of what you bring to the party. If you are a devoutly religious person‚ this is a religious experience. If you are a naturalist‚ this is an extreme natural experience. If you’re a humanist‚ this is an extreme human experience. It may not be a miracle‚ but I’ll tell you what—this is what I think a miracle should look like.”

Birthplace: Youngstown‚ Ohio, USA
Eclipses Logged: 26
Total Eclipses Logged: 17
Totality Time: 57m 40s
Total Years as a Chaser: 47

David Makepeace

“The Storyteller”

On the Bigger Impact: “I think it comes down to the realization that you are nature. You are this earth. Carl Sagan and David Suzuki and Neil deGrasse Tyson and everybody in between and before have been trying to draw our attention to the fact that we’re not separate. We live in complete integration. The realization of interconnectedness is waiting out there for you‚ but it’s also built into you. I believe experiences like eclipses can help you not only understand this connectivity better‚ but also begin to feel it more at a deeper level.

“It’s one of those few events in your life that actually make you ponder your existence because it’s just so profound; the fact that we’re a part of a solar system flying through space on a rock. It really removes the veil across our eyes that we don’t have this cosmic connection‚ because we do.”

Birthplace: Montreal
Eclipses Logged: 23
Total Eclipses Logged: 16
Totality Time: 43m 55s
Total Years as a Chaser: 26

Dr. Kate Russo

“The Philosopher”

On What She’s Learned from Chasing: “How often do we stop everything and just look up? Normally it’s an aversive event that makes us all stop and pause—a shooting‚ a natural disaster‚ a tragedy of some kind. But an eclipse is something profoundly positive that makes us all stop to experience our place in the universe.

“We can only be lucky enough to be there in that one particular spot‚ at one point in time to be able to see it. To me‚ that’s like the perfect metaphor for life—we have to experience it. Let it happen‚ and be there‚ witness it‚ be fully immersed in it. And that’s what life is all about. It’s fleeting‚ and then it’s gone. I think chasing probably gives you that understanding that there are things that we can’t control.

“I look at a map of future paths of totality‚ and what I see is a scaffold of the future moments that make up my life.”

Birthplace: Ingham‚ Australia
Eclipses Logged: 13
Total Eclipses Logged: 11
Totality Time: 24m 22.2s
Total Years as a Chaser: 18

Paul D. Maley

“The Guide”

On the Feeling of Observing an Eclipse: “The response I feel is something akin to when you see a rattlesnake on the ground and your hair stands on end. I live in Arizona now‚ so I do see rattlesnakes periodically. But it’s one of these awe-inspiring‚ knock-your-socks-off types of feelings when you realize there is something so big‚ so incredible‚ and you cannot change it or alter it in any way.

“And uniquely‚ nobody on earth can screw it up! I feel like whenever anyone in any sort of powerful capacity tries to get involved in changing things in the natural environment‚ it generally turns out for the worse. But nobody can change a solar eclipse. That makes me feel quite satisfied—nature will take its course no matter what. All we can do is sit back and observe. That’s such a uniquely satisfying experience.”

Birthplace: Queens‚ New York
Eclipses Logged: 69
Total Eclipses Logged: 25
Totality Time: 1h 4m 26.2s
Total Years as a Chaser: 60

Joe Cali

“The Wallflower”

On His Favourite Eclipse Memory: “The most important thing is to see it in person—experience the wind‚ temperature changes‚ watch the umbra devour the sky‚ sense the reactions of people and animals around you.

“In June 2001 we were in Zambia. Before the eclipse‚ an elderly man from the village we were staying in was more or less mocking me‚ asking if it was true that I had travelled all this way to see the sun disappear when it sets every day. He was laughing at me. Rather than get annoyed‚ I asked him if he would come and find me after totality because I would like to talk to him afterwards. He came back and found me soon after totality‚ tears streaming down his cheeks. He shook my hand and said‚ ‘Now I understand. Thank you.’ I’ll never forget the expression on his face.”

Birthplace: Chinchilla‚ Australia
Eclipses Logged: 23
Total Eclipses Logged: 13
Totality Time: 35m 49.9s
Total Years as a Chaser: 23

Jay Pasachoff

“The Scientist”

On “Preceding” and Why He Does It: “Well‚ first of all‚ I don’t like to call it ‘eclipse chasing’ because eclipses move far too fast to chase after them. So I ‘precede’ eclipses to the locations where we’re going and then they catch up to us. A better term that we like to use is ‘umbraphile‚’ which refers to people who devote a great deal of their lives to being in the moon’s shadow‚ or umbra.

“The example I often use is‚ if I were a heart surgeon and got to look at a human heart halfway around the world every couple of years for two minutes‚ I would certainly do it as part of research and innate curiosity. Same thing for astronomical phenomena. So‚ to me it’s just very natural. The sun is different every time and I want to be there to capture whatever I can.”

Birthplace: New York City
Eclipses Logged: 66
Total Eclipses Logged: 34
Totality Time: 1h 24m 8.7s
Total Years as a “Preceder”: 58

Feature Illustrations by Kellen Hatanaka, an artist and designer from Toronto. He has worked with a variety of clients including The Wall Street Journal, The Walrus, The Drake Hotel, Sid Lee, Bruce Mau Design, Frank and Oak, and Absolut Vodka. He was awarded the Governor General’s Award in 2016 along with Jon-Erik Lappano for their book Tokyo Digs a Garden.