The Experience of Totality
We always tell people that seeing an eclipse is like having children:
If you don't have them, we'll never be able to explain what it's like.
And if you do, then we won't have to!
(Note: We mention "filters" throughout this discussion. What we're talking about is the special filter material that is made specifically for viewing the sun through. This filter material is made by several companies, and can be found in many different forms - from eclipse glasses to sheets that can be cut and made into customized filters for cameras, telescopes, and binoculars, and solid glass filters for use with large telescopes. If you are going to try to do anything more than buy enough eclipse viewing glasses to share with your friends, then we would suggest you visit some of the wonderful sites on the internet that will show you some of the photographic and visual uses of this amazing material! But do NOT try to improvise your own material - ONLY use filter material that is ISO Certified, and has been specifically manufactured and sold as safe for direct solar viewing!)
Obviously, you have to be able to see the Sun if you want to see the eclipse. If your area's forecast looks cloudy in the days and hours before the eclipse, you should plan to go somewhere else to see it. People travel thousands of miles to see total eclipses, and so hopefully you'll be able to get in your car and travel maybe a few hundred. Check the weather, and plan accordingly. But get yourself to where you're in the path, and the weather looks good! Plan ahead for the cloud contingency, in case you have to make a hotel reservation, or other travel logistics. Your efforts will be rewarded, and all trouble and expense forgotten, once you see totality!
Leading up to totality
Hopefully, you will have situated yourself in an open area with lots of friendly people, having a good time and waiting to see one of the most amazing spectacles in nature. Your location must be inside the path of totality in order for you to get the whole show. Please visit the maps and ensure that you are in the dark band! The closer to the centerline you are, the more totality you will get. Make sure you have a clear view of not only where the Sun is now, but where it's going to be in a few hours. One thing you might also consider is to ensure that you have a clear, unobstructed view of the entire western horizon. You'll find out why later.
And, please, don't set up on private property without permission, lest you be forcibly requested to vacate at the last minute! Be respectful of local laws and regulations, as well; if the local government has set up an official viewing area, then that's one of the best places for you to be. Rest Areas on interstates might be possible viewing locations, as would State Parks and other public lands. If we at eclipse2024.org have done our jobs well, your local newspapers, radio and TV should have all the info you need to know where to go. And, as we hear about official viewing sites and other local plans, we'll be sure to post them for you as well on our Community Pages.
Wherever you're headed, get there well before first contact, and get the party started! A word of caution, though: There may be many professional-looking people there with you, who have all sorts of equipment set up. Feel free to talk to them, ask questions, ask whether you can look through their scopes, etc. They will be very friendly and open with you, and will be glad to indulge your curiosity...except during the minutes leading up to totality. But they will absolutely not be tolerant of your children running wild, your dogs knocking over (or doing worse things to) their equipment, you getting drunk and bumping into stuff, or anything like that. In other words, please respect everyone else's right to enjoy the eclipse in their own way, and treat the area around anything expensive-looking as very sterile. You and everyone else will have a much better day if you follow this simple bit of advice! Remember, most of the set-ups you see will have been planned meticulously for years, with many parts being hand-built and customized. Money and apologies will not replace these things (or the opportunity lost), and there are no second chances to run any experiments the equipment's owners might have been planning. Please be respectful of any equipment you see, and the operators will return that respect to you many times over!
You will want to have several things with you: A light-colored head covering and sunblock (you'll be out in the Sun for at least 2-3 hours), chairs and blankets, tables for any equipment you've brought (though all you really need are your eyes – and your eclipse glasses!), sunglasses, a proper set of ISO-Certified solar filters or viewing glasses (you must use these for ALL phases of the eclipse except for totality itself), lots of water to drink, and a good attitude - this day will be remembered fondly for the rest of your life, and you really do want to have fun! And please, save the booze for after 3rd contact - it's what all veteran eclipse chasers do!
Even if you plan to take no pictures, you can bring binoculars, but do not use them without proper filters except during totality itself! You probably won't have these filters, because you generally have to make them yourself out of the right kind of filter material. The view of totality through binoculars is outstanding, and during totality it is perfectly safe (only during totality, we said! If you don't know when that is, then DO NOT look at the Sun through binoculars - EVER). And regarding pictures, do NOT try to take any pictures unless you have the right equipment, filters, and knowledge to do so. Point and shoot cameras will NOT work to take pictures of the Sun (if you don't believe us, go out and try to take a picture of the full Moon with one, and see what you get! It's about the same size, after all, and - well, you'll see!), and you will likely have someone become very angry with you if you have a flash go off during totality! Please please please don't do that! NO flash! NONE!
You'll need to go to the maps and find out when First Contact (C1) and Second Contact (C2) are for your exact location. There are other times that are important for eclipses, like C3 and C4 and mid-eclipse, but C1 and C2 are the important ones. You might also want to know the duration of totality for your location, but again, that's not nearly as important to know beforehand if you're just wanting to enjoy the show. Just make sure you're in the path!
At the time known as C1 (first contact), the Moon's disk will first touch the edge of the Sun. Now, the Sun is a very bright thing, and you cannot look at it without the right eye protection in front of your eyes. So don't try. Assuming you have the right filters in front of your eyes, and always keeping them there when you're looking at the uneclipsed or partially-eclipsed Sun, you should try and find that very first little nibble the Moon makes as it's first touching the Sun's disk. Invariably, there will be someone who finds it before you, and shouts "First Contact", just to show off that they were the first ones to see it. This will always generate a flurry of activity, as everyone scurries to their equipment to get a glimpse of this very important, but very anticlimactic event. At this earliest stage of the eclipse, it's easy to see the "bite" in the Sun grow slowly larger, and you can be sure that someone will say "Looks like the astronomers were right, there is going to be an eclipse today." That's a pretty cheesy comment, but as observers, it always serves to remind us that we're about to experience one of life's ultimate thrills, and there is no other place on earth we'd rather be.
Over the next hour and a half, this bite will grow, and will turn the Sun into more and more of a crescent shape. You have to really use your imagination to visualize the moon moving in front of the Sun, because it looks for all the world like simply a big bite that's getting bigger as some unseen monster's hunger remains unsatisfied even after incessant munching. And there is absolutely nothing at all to see if you don't have the proper filters to look through. Even if you could look straight at the Sun, it's far too bright for you to be able to see any of the bite. So please don't try. If you have no eclipse glasses (you didn't prepare very well, did you?), you will have no choice but to steal a glimpse at the Sun through someone else's properly filtered equipment, or a projection device, or a TV monitor that might be set up nearby doing a webcast or video recording. Or you can try the old trick of making tiny little suns on the ground with your hands' shadows, or looking at the little crescent suns beneath trees. The best, though, is to put on your eclipse glasses, and look directly at the event. It really is pretty cool to see the Moon actually moving in real time across the face of the Sun!
If you're not in the path
Depending on where you are, the Moon will slowly encroach across the face of the Sun. If by some terrible twist of fate you are not in the path (what in the heck are you doing there?), then you will be able to tell that the Moon is travelling in a line taking it above or below the center of the Sun (as viewed along the Moon's line of travel). That means that there will come a time when the Moon has covered as much of the Sun as it's going to, and it will then move off toward the opposite edge of the Sun, leaving an ever-narrowing bite - until the bite is no more. That's called Fourth Contact, and it means that for you, the eclipse is over. That's it. Nothing cool, nothing more than that, sorry you missed totality, better luck next time. You'll be scratching your head for a long time, wondering what in the heck could have persuaded people to think that that was anything cool at all, and you'll be a little upset that we built it up so much like this.
Well, that's 'cause you were in the wrong place. If you saw the Moon go over the top side of the Sun, then you were too far south. If it skirted the bottom part of the Sun, then you should've been farther south. People there got the show, and you didn't. And there's no TIVO here - you missed it, and the Moon ain't gonna back up and give you any do-overs. That's all she wrote for 2024, and it's a long swim to get to the next one.
Now, if you're just outside the path, like maybe less than 30 miles or so, then you will experience "deep" partiality. The Moon will still track off-center, but at the time of maximum coverage, lots of the Sun will end up being covered by it. Now, it's still not safe to look at without filters (!), but the deeper the partiality you get, the more of the "edge" effects you'll get to see. By that, we mean that you'll see (through your eclipse glasses, of course) a very thin sliver of the sun - the closer you are to the path, the thinner the sliver you'll see. You'll also get to see the sky darken a bit, and if you're really close to the path, the overall eerieness of the quality of the light around you will deepen, and you'll get that weird feeling that the light isn't right, and that something very strange is going on around you. But, that's it. That's all you'll get, and like your friends who are still well outside the path, you'll also come away feeling like you didn’t quite get the full experience.
The partial phase deepens
Let's say, then, that you've happily found your way into the path. EVERYTHING THAT FOLLOWS ASSUMES YOU ARE IN THE PATH OF TOTALITY. You don't have to be right on the centerline, but the closer to the centerline you are, the more totality you'll get. Most eclipse observers like to stay on or near the centerline, but there are some who enjoy the "edge" effects you get by being just inside the northern or southern path limits - more about them later. For now, let's consider if you're in the middle half of the path, nearer the centerline than you are to either edge. What happens then?
Well, you'll still see all the effects of deepening partiality. You'll get the shrinking sliver of Sun, which is kind of cool but is not the real show. As the sliver thins, though, you get the very weird atmosphere that surrounds an eclipse, which is very difficult to describe. As the sliver of sun gets thinner and thinner, the sky darkens a bit, and the light around you takes on a weird, "clearer" quality. Everything seems sharper and clearer, though darker. It's kind of like if you were squinting, and everything seemed much more distinct to you. It's very strange, and it's a very powerful effect on your senses.
As partiality deepens, and the sliver of Sun shrinks even more, the sky gets darker - very slowly, but noticeably darker. You don't really see it happening, but you can tell it's changing somehow. The shadows on the ground become very sharp, very contrasty, and you feel like there's something wrong with your eyes. At this point, some veteran eclipsers will put an eye patch over one of their eyes, to get it dark-adapted so they can see more detail in the corona during the upcoming totality. Some people don't like that idea, because they like to use both eyes to see totality, and besides, wearing sunglasses during this darkening period probably gets your pupils as open as they're gonna get. But many people do it, so there must be something to it. We wouldn't recommend you do it if this is your first eclipse.
The wind picks up a bit, and the temperature drops noticeably. Birds roost, evening insects come out, and the world prepares for sunset in the middle of the day....
Onset of Totality
Partiality deepens even more, and the atmosphere actually starts to be a little scary. The sky gets deeper and deeper dark blue, a kind of gray veil falls over everything, and the Sun-sliver gets thin enough that you can actually (through your filters, remember?) start to see it shrinking as you watch it. In the five minutes before totality, you can really get a feel for how earth-shatteringly frightening this event must have been to ancient people who had no idea what was going on. We can truly believe that people could have been frightened to death! But not us - the spectacle gets your heart beating fast, your mouth watering for more, and your whole body trembling with excitement that you're being swept along in a wonderful dance of the cosmos that nothing is going to stop. But we're all too "modern" to allow anything like this to affect us emotionally, right? Ha - Don't you believe it!
As the last bite of the Sun slides away, things happen way too fast to describe concisely. You simply cannot focus on every one of the events that are taking place all around you, so you have to pick the few that seem the coolest to you. (There will be more eclipses, after all, and in about 5 minutes you're going to be on the phone making travel plans to see the next one!) The most important thing going on is the actual Sun up in the sky, but let's take a peek at just a couple of other things first.
The sky surrounding the Sun will grow very dark very quickly. In real time, you will be able to see the deep blue turn to twilight blue, and then to bluish-black. Stars and planets will pop out of nowhere. Roosters will crow and insects will chirp as though night is falling. The temperature has dropped maybe 10 degrees, and there is a positively electric energy that everyone around you is sharing. It is a very spiritual, positive and uplifting experience, which everyone should have the opportunity to experience at least once!
If you look to the west, you'll see a beautiful black curtain rising up out of the Earth, with hints of sunset-orange north and south of it, while off to the east, the sky at the horizon is still rather light. On the ground, your shadow will become impossibly clear and thin, and then will vanish completely as the Sun's light fades to about the intensity of the full Moon. In the last few seconds before totality, that dull blackness you saw off to the west will suddenly spring up out of the Earth, and take over the whole sky like a gigantic curtain being pulled over you - like that scene in the original Disney Fantasia movie - only about a hundred times faster. If you aren't focused on the Sun at that time (like most people will be), you'll be looking at the actual shadow of the Moon racing toward you at supersonic speed, covering you with its blackness. If you see that, you're very lucky, because it happens so fast. And besides, you'll probably be too awe-struck by what's going on center stage...
As the last sliver of Sun melts away, you will be able to see several things happening simultaneously. You will now definitely have the feeling that there are two bodies involved, because it is impossible to miss the movement of the Moon’s disk in these last seconds. (You should still be watching through the eclipse glasses, by the way.) But while the last bit of the sliver is shrinking, the Sun's corona will start to come out. The last little bit of the Sun's light will glare through valleys on the Moon, and will create a "bead" effect at the edge of the Moon's disk. These are called "Baily's Beads", and they are stunning. These will dance around a little, and then will fade away as the very last one of them brightens into a huge bead. Around the edge of the Moon, the Sun's corona will begin to glow, giving us the famous "diamond ring" effect. It lasts for only about 2-3 seconds, but it is stunning beyond words. Most people will take their filters off at this point (though technically, you're not supposed to look until the diamond ring is totally gone, we're just saying that some people choose to do it anyway). You will see the corona burst into view as the diamond fades away, appearing as though someone is smearing wispy-white cotton candy all around the impossibly black hole that's been cut out of the fabric of a blue-black sky. (We are convinced that the corona comes out while the diamond is still blazing away, and it is a beautiful sight to see.) There may be tongues of red fire visible around the edge of the Sun - these are solar prominences, and no one knows what they will look like until they see them right along with you. The corona’s shape is like that, too. There may be predictions of what it will look like, but every eclipse is different. You will be seeing it for the very first time, right along with the pros. The sky belongs to everyone!
Someone might blow a whistle to signify that totality has officially begun, and you can take your viewing glasses and all your filters off, and stare away. If there's no whistle, then once you can't see anything at all with your filters, take them off! You will see nothing if you keep them on, and now, during totality, they're not necessary! Keep them in your hand for when totality is over, but use your eyes. Use your binoculars with impunity. Don't look away if you can help it. The diamond is gone, all the sun's light is blocked, and you're looking at the most beautiful thing you're likely to ever see - the solar corona, shimmering around the Moon's disk brilliantly (and which is only about as bright as the full Moon). It will look to you as though someone has painted the sky a deep bluish-purplish-black, has cut an impossibly black, perfectly circular hole in it with a pair of scissors, and then smeared radiant, glowing, shimmering cotton candy around that hole. No picture in the world can do justice to the sight you have before you, and you will want to etch it in your memory forever. Ten years from now, you'll still be able to imagine this sight in your mind - so burn it in there now, while you can. Listen to the people around you scream and yell and hoot and holler and yell "Oh My God" and do whatever else it is they do when there's nothing else to do but blither like a mad fool. Look and enjoy the gift you've been given, and be amazed.
If you have a second to look away, look at the horizon all around you. It will be the orange of a sunset, all the way around the whole horizon! You are in the middle of the circle of shadow that the Moon has projected onto the surface of the Earth, and all around you at the horizon, the eclipse is not total! You're seeing the sunset effects of the Sun's light from a hundred miles away or so, all around you! It will be too dark for you to see anything close at hand, but remember NO flashlights, NO flash pictures (they won't come out, and you'll ruin the scientists' pictures). Just stand there and enjoy it. Hoot and holler all you want. Talk to the Sun. Thank it for its gift in your own special way. Experience everything that is going on around you, as you share this moment with all the people who are now your eclipse buddies forever. After all, whatever craziness happens in the shadow, stays in the shadow….
After the initial cheers from the crowd, the atmosphere will settle a little, and you'll be tempted to look away. This is the stage where you have to remember that you're only going to get this show for a VERY short time, and you have to record it in your mind in order to keep it forever. NO pictures will ever do it justice, so whatever you store in your brain is what you're going to be left with. Enjoy it, and immerse yourself in it. Tomorrow, you will look at the pictures in the paper, and you won't believe that those are pictures of what you remember seeing! (You HAD to be there! We told you so!)
You'll know when totality is finally coming to an end, because the western sky will brighten dramatically. The shadow is racing along to the next group of eagerly-awaiting victims to the east, and your time is sadly coming to an end. The right side of the Sun's black disk will brighten a little, you may see prominences or chromosphere again, and some people will plaintively yell "no, please don't go away". Just like that, the corona will dim, the diamond ring will flash into view on the right side of the Sun's disk (and it's time again for your eclipse glasses to go back on!), the whistle will blow, the beads will come back, and it will be over. That bright bead of sunlight tells you that the Sun has come back, and you need to IMMEDIATELY put on your eclipse glasses or filters. Totality is gone for you, and you will desperately want it to not be over. Your brain will be frantically clearing its buffers, filing away the overload of memories of what you've just seen into permanent storage, and your body will be weak from the adrenaline crash that now comes over you. Everyone will cheer like idiots. The shadows will come back, the sky will brighten, and the sliver of Sun will majestically return. This is third contact - the end of totality - and you've just joined the very select, very small percentage of humans who have witnessed a total solar eclipse. Congratulations!
We believe this is the most anticlimactic feeling a person can have in life. In under two hours, you've been built up so much by the events that have overtaken your senses after months of planning, and you've just experienced a couple-hundred-second orgasm of amazement with a few hundred of your new comrades in eclipsedom, only to be dropped like a rock into the ocean of anticlimax while the Moon marches on across the face of the Sun. There is no more show to be had, and nothing you can do to see it again until the next one comes around in a year or so, in some far-off corner of the planet. After the spectacle of totality, the views of the waxing crescent Sun that are still there for the viewing will seem silly to you, and you'll likely just want to go relax somewhere with friends and a favorite beverage or two. Later that night, you'll see pictures on the news. The next day, you'll see pictures in the paper, and you won't believe those pictures are of the same thing you saw. That's how bad pictures are! You'll smile, because you will have the memory of your most perfect view of the glory of a total eclipse, and that can now never be taken away from you. If you’ve shared it with a child, they will remember that day with you for the rest of their lives.
Traffic driving away from your viewing location may be tight, so you could simply plan on staying right where you are for a time. You might want to take a bit of the dirt that was around your feet, and save it in a film canister or a baggie as a memento of something that physically shared your experience. But you will feel a curious mix of letdown and exhilaration and pride and withdrawal. You will feel like you've shared something intimate and erotic with all the people around you, while at the same time something so personal, you're scared to try and describe it lest it escape your memory as the inadequately descriptive words escape from your mouth. Please though, come back to this site and share your experiences with us - we want to share them with the world!
The Edge of Totality
There are those who like to be near the edge of totality. Before we talk about them, let us be very clear - if this is your first eclipse, you would do much better to try and station yourself near the centerline, in order to maximize your experience of totality. But some eclipse veterans feel strongly that the tradeoff of less time in the shadow near the edge is more than compensated for by the intensity and splendor of the changing effects they see "out there". It is true that you will see more chromosphere - that thin band of deep, beautiful red that hugs the solar disk - near the edge than at the centerline. (In fact, it has been said that at the edge, you get chromosphere for the entire duration of totality, whereas near the centerline, you only get it for a few seconds at the onset and end of totality.) You will also see the effects of Baily's Beads, as thin slivers of sunlight dance in and out of lunar mountains and valleys along the edge. One of the most valuable things amateurs can do at the edge, in fact, is to accurately (within tenths of a second) record on video those effects, so that the lunar limb profile can be more accurately mapped. If you wish to do this, you need to have a very high-resolution camera, a very accurate fix on your latitude and longitude (use a good GPS), and a time signal that has been checked to be within a half-second or so of actual UT (synch with the WWV signal or time.gov, and make sure you're recording the time stamp or audible signal as well). If that sounds like a lot of work, it is! We will be coordinating some efforts to perform these activities along the path edge in a couple of cities, and if you'd like to participate, please let us know!