Back to galleries

Total Solar Eclipse, Exmouth, Western Australia, April, 2023

Although I've been doing astronomy for almost 25 years, I've never seen a solar eclipse. OK: I've seen a handful of partial eclipses, which is where the moon might cover 70% of the sun, and it gets a little bit darker. But I'd never seen a total solar eclipse. I'd missed my chance to see the big 2017 one that went across nearly the whole US, including my mom's house in Oregon. And I'd never made it to any of the others, which often require quite a trip.

But my friend Vicky Sahami has seen a few! After we were in grad school together in Boulder, she founded Sirius Travel. It's an astronomy tourism company, and she has so far put together trips to about 20 eclipses. With the 2023 eclipse coming up, Vicky asked me if I'd come along as a guide. "We have 50 people who are paying to come along, and I need a third astronomer!" So I didn't take long to sign up, and I joined her and our grad-school friend Travis Rector.

This eclipse was unique for a couple of reasons. First, the path of totality was almost completely over water. The path would pass only briefly over land: first in Exmouth, Western Australia, and a few minutes later over Indonesia and East Timor. Given the much better weather odds in Australia, Vicky set up an eclipse trip to Western Australia. But Exmouth is on a tiny, remote peninsula on the far corner of Australia. There is only one legit town there (population 2806), and the closest major city is Perth, 1200 km away. So, this eclipse would be seen only by a very small group of people. It was kind of the opposite of the 2017 USA eclipse, which passed directly over millions of houses across the US. Second, this was a 'hybrid eclipse,' which really just means that it's very short. During some eclipses the moon is slightly closer to us (giving a large moon, and thus a really long eclipse, up to 7 minutes). During other eclipses the moon will be far enough away from us that it doesn't even cover the entire sun -- and thus an 'annular eclipse.' This hybrid eclipse is just at the sweet spot inbetween these: the sun is covered exactly by the moon. That means it's a pretty short eclipse (in this case, barely a minute) -- but it also means that you see more corona, and more solar prominences and/or flares, since the moon isn't blocking them so much.

The eclipse would be just a minute, but you can't go to Australia for only one minute! So, Vicky had planned out a 10-day tour: take a charter flight to Exmouth to see the eclipse on day 3, followed by a week-long tour of some of the sites of Western Australia. These sites include the Shark Bay stromatolites -- bacterial mounds found in just a few places on Earth, and virtually unchanged since 3 billion years ago when they were one of the first forms of life.