An eclipse is far and away the most powerful and stunning of all the celestial phenomena. Seeing the sun’s corona is a life-changing experience. But in the seconds leading up to totality, there will be plenty more to see… if you know where to look. In anticipation on the August 21st solar eclipse, I sat down with Mark Bender – filmmaker, eclipse chaser, and director of our original series, Eclipse Across America – and asked what advice he would give to our readers before the event.
Train your eyes for darkness
It may sound crazy, but if you are looking to heighten the experience even more, blindfold yourself for an hour before totality. Remember, the totality only lasts for just over 2 minutes. It would take your eyes more than that to really adjust to the darkness. Think of walking into a dark movie theater: at first, you can’t see a thing, but as your eyes adjust, the steps and seats become more clear. Imagine having your eyes fully adjusted to darkness for the entire time of totality. What you see will be even more stunning!
Look out for shadow bands
Right before totality, some very lucky eclipse watchers may see the shadow bands. I thought they were just a myth, until I got lucky one time. Right before a total eclipse, little snake-like shadows from the moon crossing the sun appear to be slithering and shimmering across the ground. But they are so faint, the contrast has to be just right to see them. Some people will lay down a large white sheet to try to catch sight of them. In 2015, I saw the eclipse in Svalbard, Norway, just 800 miles from the North Pole. I was standing on a landscape covered with ice – just like an enormous white sheet. And there they were! It’s all about being at the right place at the right time.
Keep an eye on the forecast
Some of the biggest surprises are often weather-related. During the eclipse of 1999, I was watching in Cornwall, England. It was a completely overcast and rainy day. Leading up to the eclipse, you couldn’t see the sun at all. Three minutes before totality, the sun started to peak though, and with one minute to go, clouds dissipated and the entire sky opened up. We lucked out, but the best was yet to come. Even though the rain had stopped, there was still so much water vapor in the air. When the sun eclipsed, the corona was full of tiny rainbows! Imaging seeing the stunning corona in full color! I have never seen that since, but anything is possible. You just don’t know how it will play out.
Stay aware of wild animals
Animals in the wild take their behavioral cues from the Sun and the Moon, and the eclipse will affect that for sure. Watching the 2012 annular eclipse in West Texas, wolves started howling as darkness fell…and I won’t admit to joining in! Just remember, if they think it is nightfall, then you’re a visitor in their space until the Sun re-emerges.
It may get emotional
Above all, I am most fascinated by human behavior during a total eclipse. Tears, shouts of joy, stunned silence, experienced astronomers and scientists stuttering with a total loss of words. There is truly no way to describe it.