Tatakoto Atoll
French Polynesia - Tuamotu islands

Sunday, 11 Jul 2010

17° 20' 8.7"S - 138° 19' 54.6"W

Totality: 4m 29s

At the last minute (with 24 days left till eclipse day!), I made the decision to go to this eclipse -
on the extraordinarily remote atoll of Tatakoto, 700mi east of Tahiti in the middle of the South Pacific!



This eclipse was really cool for a very good reason.  The umbra touched the earth exactly 14 minutes before the FIFA World Cup 2010 (South Africa) final was to start - and the umbra lifted off the earth's surface 37 minutes after the match ended.  It is impossible to overestimate how tight that kind of time frame is between two so very significant events.  We die-hard eclipse chasers indeed had to make a very difficult decision.  Where I was, we had to take the opportunity to watch the match after it was over, because I was in the shadow about 15 minutes into the first half!

First of all, I have to thank Mytzee (I believe that's how she spelled it) at the airport Radisson LAX.  I had managed somehow to leave home without any extra batteries or a charger for my phone!  I'd made the decision not to rent a satellite phone for this trip, since I thought maybe there might be an off chance we'd have cell coverage.  It turned out we did, but because of leaving all my extra charged batteries at home, I would've run out of juice almost immediately if this very helpful concierge hadn't come through.  It seems that just recently, the entire hotel staff had switched phone providers, and so they had all kinds of old chargers lying around that they couldn't use.  We discovered that my phone was of the type they'd left, and so all their chargers fit my phone!  She let me have one, and it pretty much saved my ability to have any contact at all with my family while on the trip.  Thanks!!!

I took my own flights to Papeete, Tahiti (pronounced "pa-pay-yay-tay", in case you care!), and grabbed a quick night's sleep.  Early the next morning, the group picked me up and off we went to the airport, and the comfort of our chartered Beech 1900D.

Our group, just before leaving the island for the trip home.  Yours truly is sixth from the left (sans hat!).


The flight was very nice, over open ocean interspersed with innumerable atolls:

It is easy to make out the various islands (called "motus") which make up this atoll, as well as the coral shelf surrounding the permanent land, and the shallow, crystal clear water of its lagoon.  This atoll is named "Anaa".


We made a fuel stop on Hao, landing on the 11,000-ft runway which serves (served?) as one of the emergency landing strips for the Space Shuttle.  As it turned out, this is where the Google founders took their private jet to watch the eclipse!

The runway on Hao atoll - yes, it is 11,000 feet long!

Then off for our new home.  We landed on Tatakoto in a driving rainstorm, but as is the norm in French Polynesia, the rain gave way to a nice sky within a few short minutes.

Tatakoto is a remote place.  It is a very small (about 8 miles long) atoll in the middle of the South Pacific, and these grabs from Google Earth should give you some idea of the scale:

Tatakoto (circled) is about 700mi east of Tahiti

Nothing much around, and the whole island is only about 8 miles long!

Closeup, showing the airstrip in the SW, the town in the NW, the motus which make up the southern half of the atoll, and if you look carefully, you can see the long road (actually, a dirt track) which heads east of town toward the remote eastern section of the main northern motu.

Several groups managed to make it to Tatakoto for this eclipse.  There was the group I was with, which included the overall organizer Xavier Jubier (who I knew through lots of eclipse-related contact on the Internet), a Portuguese family, some Spanish gentlemen, a man and his son from Seattle, and other French and English citizens.  There was the group of people who decided to fly in for eclipse day, who didn't stay overnight, and whom I didn't meet by virtue of being about as far away from them as I could be and still be on the island!  There was a group organized by John Beattie, which included the famous eclipser Joe Cali, an Australian couple, an old friend from Philadelphia, and a couple from Iowa.  Imelda and Edwin from my China trip were there as well (always nice to see old friends!!)  There were the groups I didn't meet, such as the Italians and Hawaiians who brought their own large air-conditioned tents, and then the people you met while just walking down the road.  I live in Indianapolis, and it was pretty weird to meet someone from Louisville, that far away from home!  I also found out later that the highly-esteemed eclipse photographer Miloslav Druckmuller was on the island as well!  I wish I'd known - I would've tried to have met him.  His pictures are an inspiration to all of us, and his ultimate success is one of the main reasons I quit trying to photograph eclipses!

Anyway, we were all there for one purpose - to see the eclipse.  We were put up in houses that were very nice indeed.  The few locals who live on the island have an extremely nice lifestyle.  They don't entertain many guests, as evidenced by the fact that one of our group - the vice-minister of tourism for French Polynesia - had never even been to the island!  But their hospitality was impeccable.  You could not have asked for nicer hosts!  The food was plentiful and yummy, the fans kept us cool, and though air conditioning and hot water were not to be had, the laid-back pace and inviting atmosphere of this tropical paradise made those luxuries seem irrelevant.

Hope you like seafood, cause the ocean is providing a 24-hour, all-you-can-eat buffet!!

Or maybe you'd like to catch your own?  There's still plenty!  This guy's doing a little landscaping with the dirt he's carrying.

Far from the Gilligan's Island I'd expected, there were people who had phones, TVs, Internet, cars...if you needed them.  But who did?  There was a police officer, but his main job seemed to be to make sure everyone was happy, and ensure that we all knew who he was just in case we needed anything.  There was a nice little school, a church which was well-attended (twice per day, every day!), a doctor who'd been flown in in case there were problems (there weren't).  There was a soccer pitch, with kids always playing, and a volleyball court, where the locals were actually quite skilled at defeating us foreigners.  Up at 5:00, to bed at 8:30, more stars than you could count, more coral on the beach than you could ever pick through to find a treasure, the endless ocean and coconut trees and hermit crabs of all sizes - what a place to watch an eclipse!  I pinched myself numerous times to make sure I was really there, in that place as remote in atmosphere as it was geographically.

Sagittarius, Scorpius and the Milky Way

Clam shells on the beach (lagoon side) - these are about 4" - 6" wide in size

Coral shelf at low tide - this is all living coral, which is covered by water at high tide

More coral, tide coming in.  The ocean is at left and the beach is at right.

There was more coral than you could imagine on this atoll.  Hardly surprising, as the definition of an atoll is an island made of coral!  All the sand was coral skeletons that had weathered down to a powder.  Living coral was all around the island, and contained more sea life than you could imagine (sea cucumbers, urchins, anemones, small fish, hermit crabs).  And in between was the tons and tons of coral lying on the beach, weathering in the rain and the tides, and collected by practically nobody until we invaded the place!

Living coral and sea cucumber

Huge pieces of beautiful coral, in all states of weathering.  The main piece in this picture is about 7 inches long.

And finally, the sunrises and sunsets.  Not much to say here - just look:

The only truly great sunset we had

He can do this every day if he wants to...

Our last sunrise, with the tide coming in

But I suppose I should talk about the eclipse a bit!  I had planned to try and watch this eclipse by myself, because all my other eclipses have been observed in groups ranging from a couple dozen to thousands.  Everyone is always screaming and yelling and going nuts, and I've known of a couple of eclipsers who like to go off on their own and observe in peace.  I will never likely be in a situation where I can put so much space between myself and any other human, so I thought I'd give it a try.  No pictures, either.  I've done everything I can do with eclipse pictures, and I've found that they are just so much more fun to sit back and watch, that that's what I wanted to do with this one.

So, I set out to the island with one request from the main organizer (who of course had nothing at all better to do than to try and accommodate my crazy plans!) - please try and find me a way to get to the remote eastern part of the island.  I'll walk if I have to, but I'd really rather see if someone will rent me a bike.  Can you please help me arrange that?  It may not have been the weirdest thing he'd ever heard of - to have someone want to crawl out of their bed at 3am on eclipse morning, and bike through the pitch-black wilderness of the cocunut tree groves, to the uninhabited and not-often-visited east, to try and be the only person experiencing the eclipse for miles around.  Especially at my weight, that picture brings all sorts of uncomplimentary thoughts to mind.  But hey, if you're gonna go this far to see an eclipse, then surely the way you navigate those last few miles can only really add to the adventure - can't it?

Here is a link to a video put together by one of the teams who was there on Tatakoto.  Geoff and Bengt and Emily and Joe were on Tikahana motu, one of the small motus in the SE of the atoll.  It is a very cool video!!

The name of the group that I went with is called Eclipse City - it is a wonderful organization run by a wonderful friend (and expert eclipse chaser!), Xavier Jubier.  He always does things up right, and this time was no exception.  You can visit the page Eclipse City has created about our excursion to Tatakoto here.


Once we'd arrived, we all found this island to be every bit of the paradise we'd imagined, without the ultra-rustic features we'd expected.  It was very nice, with all the comforts you could expect - good food, nice houses (no A/C, but the temp never got above 80!), roads, a little store, bathrooms (no hot water, but again, it wasn't that bad at all), nice people, and the most relaxing, beautiful surroundings I think I've ever been immersed in.

We spent lots of time wandering around, exploring the island and meeting old and new friends.  Everyone scoped out their spots for the eclipse, and we watched the weather.

A little about the weather here.  In the US, many communities have a joke they tell:  "If you don't like the weather in <wherever you are>, just wait five minutes and it'll change!"  Well, after being in Tatakoto for a few days, I don't think I'll ever say that again.  It is literally true here!  Within any given two hour period, you can have bright sunshine, overcast, sprinkles, a beautiful cloudless sky, and a downpour.  You can be standing on the beach with nice puffy cumulus in one direction, a rainbow to your left, a downpour off the coast to your right, a completely clear southern horizon, and you're getting sprinkled on.  It is truly astounding, and with the constant stiff breeze quickly bringing in the next wave of whatever, you never have to wait long before the weather really does change.

And life on an island where you really don't watch TV or do the Internet much?  Where there's no industry to speak of? Well, the kids go to school (they had a very nice one there), the adults clean house or fish, work on their cars or motorbikes, pretty much just do whatever... but there's always church, right?  There was one main church in town, and like clockwork, every day without fail, the church bells rang to call the faithful at 5:30am and 5:30pm.  Come in and get ready, or get up and get ready, as the case might be, and at 6:30 Mass starts.  Afterward, you eat (dinner or breakfast), and go about your day or prepare for bed.  There's not much to do at night (and it's DARK!), so being asleep by 9:00 wasn't really weird at all.  Do that every day, because the sun always rises and sets between 5:00 and 6:00 (am/pm), every day of the year, and the weather is always the same, day after day, all year.  It's really the way people were meant to live - no snow, no sweltering heat, all the seafood you can eat, no Daylight Saving Time, and really not much need for a clock either.  All in all, a pretty nice way of life.

The southern motus of Tatakoto, where several of my friends observed from.  My spot is way off in the distance, toward the farthest point of land you can see.

(You are looking toward the east)



During the bang-bang planning of this trip, I had thrown a crazy idea past Xavier: to try and appropriate a bicycle somehow, with the intent of riding it out to the eastern end of the island for the eclipse.  There, there would be nobody but me, and I would watch the eclipse in complete isolation.  This is in direct contrast to most eclipses; in fact, in every eclipse that I've ever seen (and this was my ninth) there were many, many people with me – probably the smallest group I'd ever been in was about 25, in Africa in 2001.  There’s no question, it’s a great thing to see an eclipse with a bunch of people. You have to experience it to know what I mean.  But you can be sure that seeing an eclipse is one of the great experiences of your life, and that every one you share it with will become your instant new-found friend without any question.  I still get e-mails from people I'd seen eclipses with ten years previously, and haven’t communicated with since.  I’ve seen people that I saw an eclipse with four years previously, and walked up to them in the airport, said hi and gave them a big hug just like we'd only said good-bye yesterday.  Eclipse chasers are a tight-knit group of folk, and we love acknowledging any members of our club about as much as welcoming new ones!


But this eclipse was going to be different – I was going to watch it all by myself, just because I thought it'd be a really cool thing to do, and because it would probably be the only opportunity I'd ever have in my life to do this.  With fewer than 500 people on this atoll, (actual count unknown; it might actually have been less than this but I really can't say), and having most of those people very concentrated within the town in the northwestern part of the atoll, there was no way that it would be that tough to go off and get as isolated as I wanted.  Therefore the request that someone loan me or rent me a bike – I'd be glad to pay for it.  Xavier must have pulled some strings, because on this day before the eclipse, a bike had indeed made its way to me.  Now I'm not a small guy; I had lost a little weight on this trip already, but not being small to start out with, I kind of expected to have to use a (shall we say) “heavy duty” bike.  My French isn’t good enough to have asked for this, but our hosts did get the message somehow nevertheless, and provided me with what I thought was a pretty robust little blue bike.


I went out and tried it out on the day before the eclipse – I rode it all over, a mile or so around, on some gravel roads and out to the beach and around town and out on the road towards where I'd be headed the next morning.  It didn’t go so great though – I couldn't carry as many things as I wanted to, and I was trying to figure out how I was going to cart everything and still ride this bike in the dark.  I'd brought a headband headlight, and flashlights and GPSs and maps – that wasn’t going to be a problem, but let's face it:  it had been a long time since I'd ridden a bike!  The contraption was more than slightly top-heavy, let's just say, laden with my eclipse-trekking girth – and accoutrements.

The bike lost its chain a couple of times, but I managed to get it back on – it seemed loose, but I was pretty sure that there wasn’t going to be a way to really fix it up in time.  So I just made a mental note to treat the pedals nicely, and hope that it would last for as long as I'd need it.


One of the funniest things that happened to me on this trip was when I got the bright idea to videotape with my little handheld point and shoot camera, WHILE riding this bike.  One of these little things like “Look what I’m doing!  Can you believe where I am, what I’m doing, what I’m preparing for, and what I’m going to actually try and accomplish while I’m here.”  Yeah, that’s the video I wanted to have.  Well, I was videoing (at least I thought I was videoing), and somehow hit a rock the wrong way with my front tire.  Something lodged in the chain, or in the wheel, or something, but the wheel just locked up on me.  I don’t know what exactly happened, but I know that I went flying unexpectedly over the handlebars: camera, water bottles, shells I’d collected at the lagoon, just everything, all over the place.  Funny as hell if you were watching!  Anyway, I landed right on the base of the palm of my right hand.  Apparently, that's where I landed, because that part of me was very scuffed up.  But my left wrist must have taken the brunt of the impact, because even as I write this, a couple of months after the fact, my wrist still hurts like there’s a bone out of place.  Chiropractors and MDs can’t find anything wrong with it, but I must have done something more than a little serious.  Nothing I can't live with, but I bet when I'm older I’ll feel all the subtle changes in the weather in my left wrist for sure.


Needless to say, that would have been a very funny video to have, as the viewer flies over the handlebars and lands very hard – ouch – on the ground.  Unfortunately, once I got my camera off the ground and fixed it – because the lens had been jammed out of place by the impact – I got it fixed, and looked at it.  I either hadn’t been recording, or the recording hadn’t saved, so I have absolutely no visual evidence of my misadventure.  My kids would’ve absolutely delighted in that, but it's one memory I'll just have to keep to myself!



My bike, near the place where I watched the eclipse.  My water bottles and plethora of gear have been mercifully offloaded...


Anyway, my plans were now pretty well established.  Xavier had gotten with the locals without our knowledge, and they had decided that they were going to actually drive us all to the various points on the island that we had pre-selected.  There were two other people who had decided that they wanted to take up residence on an isolated spot on the northeastern part of the island.  There was me, who wanted to be as far to the east as I could possibly get, and all of the other people, who were going to watch the eclipse from the southern and southeastern motus of the atoll.  Some of these little islets were privately held, and so the eclipse chasers had gotten permission from their owners to go there and actually camp the night before.  So, the day before the eclipse, while I’m on my bike trying to keep from killing myself, my roommates along with many others from our group, had gone to these motus with the express purpose of camping on them under the stars – sleeping out in the open as a wonderful pre-eclipse experience.  The rest of us stayed in town (and our comfy beds!) for the night, but slept somewhat fitfully nevertheless (you don’t want to oversleep!).  For a morning eclipse, it’s always important to get up very early, and every veteran eclipse chaser has had The Dream of oversleeping for an eclipse!


I myself got up at about 3:15, and was ready to go after my quick cold shower by about 4:00 or so.  We all convened at the breakfast shelter (though nobody ate the great food they’d prepared for us, I did sneak a couple of rolls for later!), and they loaded us all into the beds of a couple of pickup trucks, and headed out.  The people who had been on the motus the night before were fine - they were already in position, and could get on about the business of completing their setups and ruminating on the poor weather prospects unabated.  The few people who had decided to wait until this morning to head to other scattered motus were in the trucks along with us.  They were dropped off in a harbor area on the northern motu, about halfway along to the spot where I was going, and they boarded small fishing boats to cross the lagoon to the spots where their eclipsing homes awaited them.


The other couple continued on with me, got dropped off near an old church in the middle of the coconut trees (where else, right?).  Then I was alone in the truck with our main guide.  She kept going through the jungle-like growth, and even in the dark it was apparent she knew every one of these roads by heart.  I guess if you live on an island your whole life, you have plenty of time to explore every square inch!  We finally arrived at the spot I wanted to be at; the bike and the provisions were offloaded, and we set a time for her to meet me at the church.  I said goodbye, and that was it – I was alone on the eastern coast of Tatakoto, seemingly at the end of the earth.



The red dots mark the spots where I know people observed the eclipse from.  The white cross is where I was, a mile and a half removed from every other person!

This has to be regarded as one of the most remote eclipse viewing areas of all time - and I was determined to do it solo!  Not that I'm anti-social or anything - I've observed quite a few eclipses surrounded by more than a thousand of my newest, closest friends - but this was the one chance in my life I would ever have to really be ALONE, experiencing an eclipse in total isolation.  And because that was not likely to happen ever again in my lifetime, for any eclipse I could ever imagine being at, I thought it would be worth the trouble.  I was right.  Even though I had positioned myself at the easternmost point of the island, the specter of clouds raised their ugly heads, and at the last moment I became somewhat obsessed by getting to some point that would get me as far clear of them as possible.  It turned out I'd over-thought the issue, as even at that easternmost point, I would have been OK.  But darned if I didn't instinctively trek those few hundred yards to the south, to end up on some VERY remote beach:

These are my footprints, at the edge of nowhere.  How many people have EVER been in this exact spot, in the history of the planet?  Not more than a couple thousand, I'd say...

So, this was it.  I'd staked my claim, and made my deal with the eclipse.  Here was where I would be, and here was where I would watch it.  I have to say that I have no pictures, nor any substantive video, from my experience.  Even if I did, I wouldn't share it.  This was my personal, isolated experience, and it was mine alone.  What I saw, what I did, what I said, what I yelled to no one in particular, and the manner in which I watched this beautiful eclipse, are mine and mine alone, the details of which will be taken to my grave.  Suffice it to say (and I have checked this against logs of all known cruise ships in the area) that for about 2.5 seconds at the end of totality, I was the ONLY living person on earth who was standing in the moon's shadow.  And I have to say that it will be hard to ever top an accomplishment like that!  What does an eclipse say to us, when we have experienced it in this way?  What memories do I have, that I can never share with anyone?  These treasures belong to me, and can never be sold, nor taken, nor given away.  They are what life is all about, and they are a part of what makes the eclipse chaser who he is.  I wish I could share the feeling with every one of you, so that you could know the magic that I felt.  But I'm not certain I understand it myself.  It was wonderful, it was humbling, it was magic - it was life.  And I am forever thankful that I stood on the lonely shores of Tatakoto and experienced what I experienced.  What more is there to say than that?

I watched the eclipse from this exact spot - this is just prior to totality

An ultra-wide-angle view of a full rainbow, just prior to totality (before I took off toward the south)


Shadow bands likely recorded!

Shadow bands are very elusive streaks of alternating dark and light strips that flash across the ground just before totality.  Many people have never seen them (yours truly has only possibly seen them once, and even then I'm not sure!), and they are extremely elusive.  Some have even disclaimed their existence.  However, for many viewers and photographers of this 2010 eclipse, a thin, low-level layer of clouds seems to have become the canvas onto which nature has painted the proof of shadow bands to be captured in photographs for the first time!  See the links below:

from Steve Mattan
from Steve Schneider
from Joe Cali

along with similar reports from Larry Stevens on Tatakoto and Matt Ventimiglia on Easter Island.  Congratulations, guys!


back to mcglaun.com's Eclipse site