2019’s Solar Eclipse in Chile

August 21, 2017 - two years ago today, the USA experienced a coast to coast eclipse that came to be known as “The Great American Eclipse.” I spent over a year planning, acquiring equipment and planning where to be to see it. We were at a rest stop in between Casper and Shoshoni, Wyoming - right in the middle of the path of totality. On that day, the weather was perfect, I had people I cared about around me, and my telescope was tracking the sun. It couldn’t have been more perfect. My camera and 500mm lens were clicking away as the Moon slowly overtook the Sun. Peeping at my screen, the photos were perfect - finally, totality. Everyone shared a collective gasp…it was beautiful. Kelly, my girlfriend, was crying and we embraced.

My mother and I in 2017 at the rest stop in Wyoming, waiting for totality.

It was at about this time, approximately 20 seconds until the end, that I realized I forgot to take the solar filter off the lens and all of my shots were going to be dark. All the planning and prep work, and a simple mistake meant zero usable photos. I pride myself on my ability to capture anything photographically and I was hurt and embarrassed that I forgot to remove the filter. The sunlight returned, people had seen the show and were ready to leave. I cracked a morning beer and decided that I had to be at the next total eclipse.

The next total eclipse would be two years later, in central Chile. I couldn’t bring the large telescope and mount that I brought with me to Wyoming, it just wasn’t feasible. The large Nikon 500mm f/4 super telephoto I had purchased for the 2017 eclipse would also be difficult for travel. I needed a relatively small set-up to take to the Southern Hemisphere - and I had almost two years to get it done. To be honest, I didn’t plan much at all. It wasn’t until the summer of 2018 that my Mom wanted to know if we were really going to do this, and if so, we needed to start planning. My mother, Kelly and my friend Addiel were going to be going, so she brought dinner over, Addiel came, laptops were all over the table and we figured out where we needed to be.

We decided on Coquimbo, a coastal town in central Chile. The larger town of La Serena (slightly further in the path of totality) was already booking up and prices for hotels were already high a year out. That night, we booked an Airbnb in Coquimbo for three nights and plane tickets from DFW to Santiago with a layover in Mexico City. Now that we were committed to going, it was time to figure out how I was going to photograph this eclipse and not mess it up like the last one. So, I started researching lens options. I shoot with Sony’s a7 series of cameras that let you mount essentially any lens to your camera via adapters. The world was my oyster when it came to lens choices.

Since coming to Sony in 2014 with their first a7 camera, I have enjoyed using older manual focus lenses. They have a certain look to them, I enjoy manually focusing over autofocus, and they are so much cheaper than modern lenses. I was open to any brand and I already knew what I needed before I started researching - I needed a reflex lens. Reflex lenses are basically miniature Schmidt-Cassegrain telescopes. In the days before digital they were much more popular, and most models are older or made by companies that I don’t trust. I won’t get into too much detail on how they work but they are relatively small, lightweight and allow super telephoto reach with only a few drawbacks. Downsides include bokeh that can be strange and look like a doughnut due to the design of the lenses, and having a fixed aperture. After seeing what was out there I decided on a 500mm model and waited for good deals to pop-up on Ebay or Craigslist. After a few weeks, a guy near me in North Texas was selling some photo gear for his boss which included a Canon FD 500mm f/8 reflex lens. He wanted $350 for it…I felt that was too much, so I offered him $200 and he accepted. We met up, I looked it over and became the proud owner of a really strange 500mm in a Kroger parking lot.

Canon FD 500mm f/8 (1.5lbs) vs Nikon 500mm f/4 Ai-s (6.5 lbs).

Fast forwarding (see how old I am) a bit, over the course of the next (less than) a year I moved with my girlfriend to Taos, New Mexico. I started a new job, got a dog, skied a whole lot, had to move 2 more times and purchased a house…NO MORE MOVES. Finally, it was time to go see this eclipse. With boxes still unpacked in our new house, we were ready to start the trek. I brought several lenses but I made sure there was room my backpack for the 500mm, a solar filter and my trusty travel tripod. The plane tickets were purchased before we planned to move away from Texas, so it just made more sense to drive. The dog got boarded and I set off on the 10 hour drive to DFW.

I had one night in Fort Worth and I spent it with Kelly, some friends and some beers. The next day I went over all of my gear, made sure I had everything and hadn’t forgotten some small item I would need to acquire before we left a place that had a camera shop and spoke English. Everything was there, and it was time to go. On June 29th, we left our car at my Grandfather’s house, met up with my mother and her friend took us all to the airport.

The flight to Mexico City and then to Santiago were uneventful. We arrived in Santiago around 9pm, got through customs and got our rental car. We headed to a hotel near the airport and went to sleep. My friend Addiel arrived on a morning flight on July 1st and met us at our hotel. Coquimbo is about 500km north of Santiago, around a 5 hour drive. We took off at 10am heading north along Ruta 5. It seemed like there weren’t too many people headed north until we got about 2 hours from Coquimbo and saw the long lines of cars waiting for fuel at the few gas stations on the way.

Headed to DFW Airport.

Waiting to taxi and get this trip started.

The decent to MEX.

As we arrived and drove through Coquimbo, it was obvious that there were a lot more people than was typical. Traffic was backed up far and we had to sit through several cycles at every stoplight. Once we arrived at the Airbnb, I decided I would not be driving anymore. We rented a two bedroom beach side condo on the 14th floor with a west facing balcony. Because it was winter in the Southern Hemisphere, the Sun was already low on the horizon and I noticed it was almost exactly 24 hours until the eclipse entered totality. The Sun was over a building that was in front of our view to the ocean. If we wanted to, we could watch the eclipse from our private balcony.

The small living room, and great balcony of our Airbnb.

The view from the balcony .

Checking out the sun to see where it would be in 24 hours.

We ate dinner at a steakhouse with a wonderful view of the ocean and watched the full streets and large groups of people. Our waiter told us that this little beach town wasn’t even this full at the peak of their summer season. On the way back we walked to a convenience store, got some snacks, drinks, beer and went back to the condo. We watched Spanish TV, and the newscasters said there were around 250,000 people making their way to the La Serena / Coquimbo region. They also said that the weather was looking perfect, which was a relief. When we purchased our flights, we knew there was a 60% chance of cloudy weather in Coquimbo in June and July. A big thank you to Addiel for translating all of the newscasts on the TV and keeping us updated.

The view during dinner.

A local and tasty beer.

The never ending flow of people coming in to Coquimbo.

Waking up on July 2nd, I felt like a kid waking up on Christmas morning. I looked out the window and there were perfect blue skies. They just had to stay that way until late afternoon, when the eclipse was going to happen. We spent the day eating breakfast and relaxing while I worried about my gear and if any clouds were going to come ruin the view. Totality was at 4:38pm but the eclipse was going to begin just before 3:30pm.

Perfect weather for an eclipse.

Coquimbo, Chile on July 2, 2019 . The morning of the eclipse.

Coquimbo’s famous cross.

Addiel at breakfast.

I wanted to view the eclipse from the beach for a couple of reasons - first, I wanted to share the experience with other people, like at the rest stop in Wyoming. Second, the Sun would be low on the horizon, making it possible to get a photo of the beach and the eclipse. My Mom decided to watch from the comfort of the condo, so we parted ways until the eclipse was over.

Kelly, Addiel and I walked the short walk to the beach. We continued to walk about a mile down away from some big, loud crowds to find an area with less people who were a bit more spread out. I got out my a7RIII, the Canon FD 500mm f/8 reflex lens and the solar filter, and I gaff taped the filter on just to be sure. I got the camera attached to the tripod, focused it on the sun and we waited. Addiel joked about clouds coming in from behind us…my heart sinking, I turned around to see one little piddly cloud. Thankfully it looked like the clear skies would hold. With no fanfare, and seemingly no one around us knowing, I watched through my eclipse glasses as the Moon touched the Sun and slowly began over taking our star. I announced to my small group, “It’s starting.”

The beach, full of people waiting for the eclipse to start.

Kelly, Addiel and my camera/tripod on the beach.

The 2019 eclipse beginning.

I took shots here and there as the event occured. I did not watch it the whole time. I took in where I was, the people around us and enjoyed watching the eclipse from this lovely beach.

In Wyoming, I had fun taking photos of people and groups around the rest stop, and amused myself with capturing the “social landscape” around us in Chile, too.

A grandmother and her grandson on Coquimbo’s beach.

Two boys made their spot as comfortable as possible.

Throngs of people on the beach, many photographing The Sun.

A family looks toward The Sun. PLease note the strange out of focus areas due to the odd design of the 500mm reflex.

A woman uses her cell phone to take a photo and a man uses a telescope with eclipse glasses to view the event.

It was over an hour from when the partial eclipse began until totality. It feels like much longer, with the anticipation of what is going to happen. I took a photo about every 10 minutes, showing the Moon devouring the Sun. At about this time my friend Jessica Hume ,who was there in Wyoming with her boyfriend and got to witness the most embarrassing photo moment of my life, texted me “Hey! Remember to take the filter off this time. I can’t wait to see your photos :)” I assured her that I would.

The last few moments before totality were chilling…and I mean that literally. We were on the beach but it was winter in Chile, and as the sunlight diminished it got much cooler. I put on my jacket and took in the strange, almost grey, light. I can post photos but they just don’t show how strange the light is during an eclipse. It has a very flat grey feeling to it, like direct sunlight but it is filtered - you know, like a moon is blocking a huge percentage of it. It’s hard to explain, go see an eclipse and see what I am talking about. Then, it happened.

Me and Addiel, jackets on a bit before totality.

Me and Kelly, looking in two different directions just before totality.

With the Moon almost covering the Sun, I ripped the solar filter off and fired off several frames, trying to get “the diamond ring effect”. I previewed it quickly in the viewfinder and saw that I got the shot. Elated, I pulled back and watched the black spot in the sky with the beautiful corona shining around it for a few moments. It truly is magical, and should be seen by everyone at least once in their lives. It is captivating and sucks you in, demanding your attention. It is so strange and alien to see a black spot in the sky where the Sun should be, and after a lifetime of knowing not to look directly at the Sun - you can. I bursted several brackets of the eclipse. I quickly took the camera off the tripod, removed the 500mm and put on a 24mm. I took several shots and sat the camera down in my bag, I grabbed my RX1 and snapped a few frames with it’s fixed 35mm lens too. I watched the eclipse for about 15 more seconds before it came to its abrupt end. I pulled the RX1’s viewfinder to my eye quickly, lowered the exposure and shot some frames of a wide angle view of the light rushing back. It was over - well, totality was over. The partial eclipse would last another hour.

Only a fraction of The Sun still visible. Even though it is only a  bit it’s still very dangerous to look with your naked eye.

The diamond ring effect. Caused by  topography on The Moon that allows a bit of sunshine to come through.

Totality.

Totality, seen as a landscape.

A few moments after totality ended.

People on the beach were elated, with one person leading a group chant celebrating Chile and how great it is. The moments after an eclipse are strange, too. The event itself feels like it took forever, but it also feels like it wasn’t long enough and went by in the blink of an eye. We stayed on the beach for a bit, watching the Moon move slowly away from the Sun. Then, we returned to the condo where my mom viewed the event. I was proud to show her that I got the photos this time. Part of me wished I had sat back and watched the  entire eclipse…there was a bit of regret at “wasting” moments of the two minute totality looking through my camera’s viewfinder. Ultimately you can’t have it all, and I had to redeem myself from the previous event’s embarrassment.

The Sun back, a few minutes after totality ended.

Kelly, Me and Addiel just after the eclipse.

I am happy with the results I got and I’m already ready for the next eclipse I’m able to see. There will be one in southern Chile in December 2020. I’d love to go to that one, but I’d also like to keep seeing the rest of the world, and I don’t think I want to go back to Chile using an eclipse as my sole reason to go there. I am really looking forward to the next eclipse in the USA, in April 2024.


Trip Report: Airbus A380 Sydney to Dallas/Fort Worth ECONOMY CLASS

Let me set the scene: I’m in Wairoa, New Zealand, waking up from a nap. I’m at the end of a 3 and a half week South Pacific trip to Vanuatu (where I served for two years in the Peace Corps) and New Zealand. I’ve flown back to see friends and “family” who I’ve been absent from for 4 years, and thoroughly enjoyed relaxing and being away from work and deadlines. I’m usually a little bit excited to return after being gone for so long, and as I awoke and got ready for a final goodbye to our friends, I started to get those warm fuzzy feelings about going home. Then, I remembered that we had booked the cheapest option for our return flight - Auckland to Sydney and then Sydney to DFW - one of the longest flights in the world (clocking in at 15 hours, 35 minutes on average)…in Economy Class.

I decided to write this blog because there are a plethora of reviews about the Qantas SYD-DFW flight. I found plenty of blog and YouTube posts with First and Business Class reviews. I couldn’t find any information for the masses, the paupers of air travel, the Economy class passengers. The airplane is the world’s largest passenger jet, the HUGE Airbus A380. I had no points, no miles and I’m not a member of any flight clubs. When my already stretched-thin wallet couldn’t secure me an upgraded seat in Premium Economy, Kelly and I both accepted that we were going to be spending the flight crammed in tight. Here’s my review of flying Economy Class on the Quantas A380.

After learning I could not upgrade our seats, I made the call to pay Quantas $40 per seat to reserve seats online, rather than wait to be assigned at the gate. I chose the window and Kelly chose the middle seat, just hoping no one would reserve or be assigned to sit next to us. This was my first plan of attack to preserve what little comforts I might secure on the plane; towards the back of the plane there were still rows that no one had chosen. In hindsight, we should have chosen window and aisle seats to maximize our chances of getting an open seat in the middle. Our hopes for a flight that wasn’t packed were low after finding out all Premium seating was sold out, though. We chose our seats and continued enjoying the last of our trip.

Auckland International Airport, looking out at day break.

Leaving Auckland, en route to Sydney

Arriving in Sydney, the first look at the Australian coast.

Pre-Boarding

Our long day of travel began at 5:30 am in Auckland. We checked in for our flight, made it through customs and flew to Sydney with nothing interesting to report. During our 2 hour layover in Sydney we perused the duty free shops, bought some candy, and ate in the food court. About 30 minutes before boarding was supposed to commence, we made our way to the gate. There was already a line, a big one - it had to have consisted of half the plane’s passengers, ~250ish snaking backwards from the gate. Everyone in line was just staring at their phones and blocking the passage to the toilets in a very busy airport. Since we knew we had seats on the plane like everyone else (this isn’t a first come, first served situation), it seemed silly to wait in line so the two of us sat down and waited. When it was finally time to board, the fancier classes waltzed right up to the front of the monster line and boarded the plane first.

Once things started moving, we got in the back of the queue. It should be noted that there were many other people just as smart as us, because the line continued to grow. It was at this point I realized just how many people were on this flight. My expectations for an empty seat on our row were falling. Once the boarding passes were scanned, I found myself in another line, on the jetway. I looked out the small window and for the first time, really took in the size of the Airbus A380 from up-close.

Boarding

The first thing I noticed when I got to my seat was that no one was in the row, so dumping my bag in the overhead compartment and sliding in the tight seats was fast and painless. Kelly took the middle seat next to me … and then we waited. People kept streaming in, slowly of course, but kept passing by our row. Neither one of us wanted to ruin our luck by saying out loud what we were thinking: “Our plan might have worked.”

There was a mechanical issue which delayed the flight a bit, and as we sat on the tarmac we noticed that near us, a man had a whole 4 seat row to himself. That is when I finally got the courage to aloud … “We might have this whole row to ourselves!”. It was then that a flight attendant moved a pregnant woman (who seemingly spent more time coughing than living her life) and her husband from further back to that aisle. I told Kelly to take the aisle seat - we weren’t going to let some random person take our extra seat!

The Flight: Meal Service & Entertainment

Soon, the plane began roaring down the runway. I thought I grasped how enormous this plane was when I boarded, until it just kept going down the runway. It felt like it would never leave the ground. Once we were finally airborne, it was time to figure out how I was going to make this space my home for the next 15+ hours. I started browsing the media offerings. It was a much larger selection than the short flight from Auckland to Sydney. There was a good mix of brand new movies and older movies, and full sets of TV shows like Game of Thrones, Westworld, and other contemporary offerings. Basically, the entertainment selection was very good! I had no complaints and did not find myself bored in the seat. As the plane got to cruising altitude, flight attendants passed out a menu that listed the meal and snack options so that passengers would be prepared when mealtimes arrived.

Getting adjusted in the aisle seat, taking advantage of our extra storage in the middle seat.

The economy screem, with live stream of the plane.

Taking off from SYD en route to DFW.

The first meal served a few hours after take off was billed as dinner. I chose the beef plate - braised beef, broccoli and potato mash. The taste was better than what I was expecting. It was heated thoroughly and there were no cold spots. The entree portions were a little small for my American tastes, but the bread and the delicious panna cotta filled me up. Kelly had ordered the same meal, but was informed that it was unavailable, and she selected the vegetarian option without complaint. One of the flight attendants actually left to make sure her initial choice wasn’t available somewhere (without us asking), and the offered for Kelly to have first pick when it came to breakfast. This is a good point to mention that the crew we interacted with were all really nice, and very genuine. They truly seemed to enjoy their jobs, and never seemed put out by anyone’s requests.

Dinner, the first meal.

As the minutes oozed by, aided by X-Men: Days of Future Past, the day turned to night. Before turning off the cabin lights, flight attendants brought Weis bars and Cadbury’s hot chocolate around to passengers who had not yet succumbed to sleep. I have no photos of the ice cream, because it was delicious and I ate it real fast. After the snack service, the cabin lights were dimmed and people all around were getting as cozy as their seats allowed.

It was this point I pulled out my secret weapon for long flights - Xanax. I am not typically one for pills, and if you are prone to addictive tendencies maybe don’t take this advice. For me, if a flight is longer than 8 hours, I like something to make the time pass and to help me sleep. I prefer Valium, but this time I was able to get some generic Xanax. I only took one, watched a little bit of the first season of Westworld, and before long I felt super-relaxed and I could not keep my eyes open.

Xanax, the only way I can sleep on a plane.

The worst part of the flight happened once the lights were dimmed … the people in front of me reclined their seats. It felt like the screen was inches from my face, because it was. There was very little room to move my body without hitting the back of their seat. Had I been a taller man, the loss of leg room would have been a big issue. Standing at 5’8” (173 cm) it truly was not that big of a deal, and I really can’t complain because we had the whole row. Kelly, who can sleep anywhere, had a mask and a neck pillow. She told me to spread out and we slept like the photo suggests. I curled up with my legs on her and I was able to trick my body into thinking it was laying down. My reclined position, combined with the Xanax, put me to sleep for a little over 7 hours. It was some of the best sleep I have gotten on a plane.

The sun setting somewhere over the Pacific Ocean and on the plane too!

Kelly watching her screen. Pay attention to how close the back of the seat is in economy.

I went to the back and shot forwards. They have multiple cabins that make the plane not feel as huge as it is.

Just before falling asleep, my sleeping situation.

Even after the good sleep, I was pretty disoriented and had no idea what time it was when I awoke. The sun had risen and, squinting, I quickly closed the window screen. The monitor had flight info which helped me figure out how long I had been asleep and where we were in the world. Soon after we woke, breakfast was served to the cabin. As promised, a flight attendant came by to take Kelly’s order before everyone else’s - true to their word. I chose orange juice to compliment my feta and spinach omelette with pork sausage. Again, the food was pretty good for airplane food. I don’t like coconut so I did not eat the pastry that accompanied the meal, but Kelly said it was very tasty. After I was done eating, I made use of the extra seat’s tray table to hold my refuse, allowing mine to go back up and giving me a bit more leg room.

Economy breakfast in the Airbus A380

Making use of the extra tray.

Landing at D/FW International Airport.

Before too long, the captain came on to let everyone know we had started our descent to DFW, and the huge plane landed smoothly and safely. It was hard to believe I got on the plane in Sydney, Australia and was going to be getting off of it in Dallas, Texas - it is just such a long distance to travel straight through. The Xanax-induced sleep really aided in making this flight more bearable, and I’m happy to have not spent the extra $1,000 each on a Premium Economy seat. However, if we did not have the extra seat I might be singing a different tune. If you have the means, go for the Premium Economy. If you’re on a budget, or just didn’t plan far enough in advance to upgrade your seats, Economy is more than tolerable.


“No one who claims this to be a small world has ever flown across the Pacific.” - J. Maarten Troost






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