On the morning of the 11th July, 2010, French Polynesia set the scene for an exceptionally long solar eclipse. An unusual phenomenon which attracted more than 5000 passionate “eclipse chasers” to our islands. For the occasion, they were adorned in shrouds of shadow and darkness…
That particular morning, the sun did not shine on the islands of French Polynesia, as it does almost always during this season. After rising, the 11th July, 2010, it gradually faded while being veiled by the moon. For the first time in more than 60 years, French Polynesia experienced a total solar eclipse. An astronomical event made even more special due to its duration – one of the longest eclipses of the 21st century – and the astonishing beauty of this display in an environment as unique as the Polynesian islands.
For the seventh eclipse of the 21st century, the shadow of the moon fashioned a band with a total length of 11,000 km and a width of about 200 km. That shadow made a path from the east of the Cook Islands archipelago to the islands of French Polynesia. The eclipse then went to “die” on the edge of Patagonia in South America, between Chile and Argentina.
Over this entire area it was Tahiti that offered the best viewing conditions due to the particularly good weather experienced at this time of year. Fortunately the clouds did not come out to spoil the day! Adding to the undeniable allure of this destination, this eclipse bought to our islands nearly 5000 visitors from around the world: scientists, astronomers, and “eclipse chasers.”
For several months, even years, tour operators and travel professionals had been proposing special packages and tours dedicated to the observation of this spectacular phenomenon. Charter boats travelling to the best viewing areas and charter flights were among the many services that were on offer to allow enthusiasts enjoy the eclipse. Among the latter, a special flight put in place by Air Tahiti Nui. One of its Airbuses completed a circular flight lasting four hours over the Tuamotu Archipelago allowing passengers to observe the progress of the shadow in the Pacific sky.
A luminous halo
During an eclipse, astronomers calculate, with precision, the surface of the sun which is obscured by the passage of the moon. When the solar disk is totally obscured, it is called a “total eclipse.” It is at this point that a halo, offering spectacular beams of molten material, appears. For scientists and those onlookers in the know, this is the most precious moment in which to capture images due to the unique facets it produces. While the eclipse was apparent throughout all of French Polynesia, one area in particular was considered better than anywhere else – the Tuamotu Archipelago and more specifically sixteen of these islands. Those islands which offered the most favorable conditions for observation were Hao, Amanu and Tatakoto. There, for more than 4 minutes and 45 seconds, the sun was completely obscured by the moon, a record according to experts.
On the island of Tahiti, where 99.1% of the solar disk was obscured, a strange darkness was noticed. Temperatures dropped around the islands generating shudders amongst those observing this natural phenomenon rarely seen by Polynesians. According to astronomers’ calculations, the next eclipse visible in Tahiti will be held on the 4th August, 2176, in 166 years … The scheduled date is therefore set for the generations of the future.
The Gods who swallowed the sun …
If today, solar eclipses are a natural spectacle arousing interest and curiosity, this was not the case in Polynesian society before the arrival of Europeans. The apprehension among residents in those days took on significant proportions. “Some imagined that during an eclipse, the sun and moon were swallowed by a god offended by their negligence,” reported Williams Ellis, a Protestant missionary, in his book In Search of Polynesia written in the early 19th century.
In Ancient Tahiti, written at the end of this century, Teuira Henry states: “The eclipse of the sun or the moon was attributed to the anger of the God Raa-mau-riri (God of anger), who swallowed a star. When this took place the priests and the terrified population rushed to the marae with prayers and offerings and implored the God “to spit the star out.”