First-Timers Guide to a Total Solar Eclipse
1. Know what to expect.
At the start of the eclipse, the moon will creep along, incrementally covering more of the sun. It will still be just as bright outside, though. But five minutes before totality, the ambient light will take on a striking gray tone. Looking through your eclipse glasses, you’ll see only a tiny sliver of sun left -- but don’t take the glasses off yet, it’s still not fully eclipsed. If it still looks like daytime, even with the odd gray light, totality hasn’t happened yet. When it becomes as dark as night, the full eclipse has arrived. You can remove your glasses and look directly up. The corona of the sun will have blossomed out from the black face of the moon. And remember, the sun will be fully covered, so the temperature will drop. You don’t want to be distracted by feeling chilly, so make sure you pack jackets or blankets to stay warm.
2. Record the details.
Instead of taking pictures, try describing every detail of the eclipse out loud, and record the audio on your phone. Start with Baily’s beads. Those are the little twinkles of light, the last bits of sunlight peeking out from behind the moon’s rugged edge. Imagine the sun is the face of a clock. Baily’s beads can be anywhere -- perhaps you’ll see them at high noon or 3 o’clock. Then comes totality. You’ll see the sun’s chromosphere first. It’s the fiery red edges along the black disk. Note where on the face of the clock you are seeing it, and then look for the prominences. They’ll look like little frozen lightning bolts, and they can happen anywhere around the disk. Where are you seeing them? How big are they? Are they dim or bright? And finally, the big ticket -- the corona. How far does it blossom out from the black disk? Do you see it moving, or is it static? Describe the streamers -- the feathery wisps that extend out. Are they bright or pale? And of course, don’t forget to describe how you are feeling. This truly is such a unique event, you might surprise yourself. It will be fun to go back later and relive it all again.
3. Watch safely.
Solar eclipse glasses are a must. Many educational organizations, as well as community centers and libraries, are giving them away for free. And they are available at a low cost online. Looking at the sun, without the proper protection, before it’s fully covered can seriously damage your eyes. Learn about the timing of the eclipse and how it develops before you head out so you know when you’ll need to wear your glasses and when you can safely remove them. Also, remember that in totality, it will become as dark as night, and the stars and planets will be visible in the sky. Your eyes will take some time to adjust. Think of walking into a darkened movie theater. At first, you don’t see much except for the lights on the floor. But after a while, the irises in your eyes widen, and you can see much more, even though the lighting hasn’t changed. It’s like that with the eclipse, too, but time isn’t on your side. The total eclipse only lasts just over two minutes. Your eyes will still be adjusting to the darkness, so the stars might not seem as bright. But it will still be extraordinary. And put the glasses back on immediately after the total eclipse.
4. Travel to a great location.
Everyone in the path of totality, sweeping from Oregon to South Carolina, will view the same incredible sight (weather permitting). But how do you want to experience the eclipse? Do you want to be surrounded by people, or alone in a remote area? Do you want to witness the eclipse in the shadow of an iconic American landmark? Some of the best and most unique viewing spots are highlighted in the new CuriosityStream exclusive series “Eclipse Across America” -- including the Willamette Valley of Oregon, St. Louis and a little-known place called Carhenge in Alliance, Nebraska. Once you have arrived at a location in the path of totality, find your spot. You don’t need to be high up or away from buildings. But do look for a place away from a lot of bright lights. During totality, when darkness falls and the stars become visible, you don’t want any bright lights to take away from your view.
5. Be present in the moment.
The eclipse is shorter than you think. The totality of the eclipse only lasts a little more than two minutes, and you may not ever get a chance to see it again. Don’t try to add to the moment or heighten the experience with some sort of activity. Don’t propose to your girlfriend, don’t plan to surf a wave at the precise moment. There is nothing like a total eclipse, and trying to add to it will only be a distraction. Stay focused, be fully present and don’t take your eyes off the sun (once it’s safe to remove your eclipse glasses, of course). Be prepared to be blown away by the experience.
Mark Bender is a filmmaker, eclipse chaser and director of the Eclipse Across America series on CuriosityStream.
Preview the 4-part series here, along with over 1,500 additional documentary titles available on CuriosityStream, the world’s first streaming service dedicated to quality, factual television programming, created by the Founder and former Chairman of Discovery Communications, John Hendricks.