Eclipsed Sun And Volcanic Debris


The wonders of mathematics become obvious when we think that mankind has been able to calculate with astonishing precision the heavenly phenomena of lunar and solar eclipses since the dawn of civilization. The Egyptians and the Greek knew the diameter of our planetary home with astonishing precision and the Chinese used lunar eclipses to define degrees of longitude, at least so we are made to believe by an aspiring historian. A small contributor of lateral arguments to my decision to jump on the narrow weather window and depart my winter home in the tortured land of Fiji rather hastily was the announcement in the global news arena of an upcoming total solar eclipse, whose narrow path would drag a slim circular shadow along a line somewhere around 30 degrees Southern latitude from just East of the date line until evaporating somewhere in the dusty heat of Australia’s outback. On the morning of the 14th of November, by now five days out at sea, the only problem was that I couldn’t remember the time of day this astronomical phenomenon was supposed to come to pass.


In the early morning hours while listening to David and Patricia’s weather discussion on Gulf Harbor Radio through the tiny headphones, which nowadays is the only way to coax some sound out of the arthritic Sony short wave receiver, crippled like most electronic gadgets in boats by the corrosive salt air, I was hoping to get some hint towards what part of the day I needed to scan the firmament. Alas my hopes were in vain. The eclipse was mentioned a couple of times, but without any indication as to the precise time. However from judging the excitement towards the end of the broadcast, and from the fact that it was terminated early, I was able to deduce that it might be coming up sooner rather than later. From then on I casually and periodically glanced up at the gleaming disk of fire that slowly climbed up on the eastern side of the sky. Lazy heaps of trade wind clouds were streaming in front of it from time to time, cutting the blinding glare and allowing me to discern the sharp outline of the perfectly circular bright white disk.


For a couple days now I had been witness to remnants from another vital fire, the one that’s bubbling and churning constantly and eternally underneath us all. Whatever flotsam and jetsam you encounter on the wide blue ocean surface is usually man made debris of our wasteful civilization or some living critter edging out a precarious existence at the wild mercy of the maritime elements. But this time, about three days away from the last spec of Fiji’s disintegrated landmass, I started spotting more and more pieces of floating yellow to dirt-white things on the water around me. They ranged in size from miniscule grains to fist size-rounded boulders, every now and then even bigger, irregularly sculpted blocks. I fished some out with my fish landing net, laying my belly down on the forward beam, and a quick examination revealed porous stones with an immediate association to the soap shaped piece of raspy rock that used to lie on the rim of the bathtub when I was a little boy. My mother used to scrape the calluses from her skinny feet with it and I remember curiously exploring its coarse surface with my ever-nimble and water-rumpled fingertips while soaking in the sultry weekly bath.

Camera Camera Camera

pumice7 pumice6


A couple days later there were whole patches of the stuff, some up to a couple hundred feet wide and mostly of yellow color. Once I was sitting down below checking up on something in the starboard hull when a hissing sound got me jumping up the companionway. Aluna had decided to drive straight through one of the patches and for half a minute the pumice grains were sanding her ever-stained waterline. I wasn’t quick enough to grab the camera in time, so the pictures you see here are from once Aluna’s twin hulls had just cut two grooves into the carpet of floating rock and sand.

Camera Camera


Once back here in this land that desperately aspires to be civilized, I researched the internet about this curious phenomenon. Apparently there was an underwater volcanic eruption of considerable strength along the Kermadec Trench, which is the Southern end of the Tonga Trench, where the Australian tectonic plate creeps underneath its Pacific sibling. This eruption sometimes back in July or August of this year must have spewed out this massive amount of debris. Its first official sighting happened to be done by a New Zealand Navy ship patrolling the extraterritorial waters, which only goes to show who’s in charge nowadays. The fact though that the little pebbles came in such different shades, from a fresh white through dirt yellow to decorated with patchy green algae growth, made me doubt their origin from a singular big bang. That eruption, or similar ones like if must be happening continuously somewhere down there in the murky depths.



But now back to the eclipse. The day had started out with a gorgeous sunrise and for once I was upright at such an uncivilized hour and sober enough to enjoy it. Orange flames were licking around the cloudbanks to the east and a pink hue crawled across the ones overhead. A little over three hours later I was just about to descend down the port companionway to fix a lazy mid-morning breakfast when I had a peak up forty-five degrees towards the sun through a slit in my tightly squeezed eyelids. The gap amongst the giant jumble of lashes toned down the glare to the point of allowing me to realize that there was something missing. A tiny timid bite of the solar disk had been eaten away! So this was it: show time! I decided to postpone the bodily feast and turn my full attention to the heavenly happening.


Wondering about what to use as a shade to protect my curious retina from the powerful rays of the sun, I dug out my Standard Mark 3 Marine Sextant manufactured by Davis Instruments in Hayward, California, which in spite of its impressive name is built entirely from hard, grey plastic and, according to the manufacturer, is virtually indestructible. It has a pair of green and orange horizon shades, meant to cover the eyepiece, and a pair of framed red and green index shades, located half way between the horizon and the index mirrors. That latter red shade proved to be the ideal weapon to face the deadly rays. So there it was: a solar eclipse in full swing.



When navigating you’re acutely aware of the positions of most major heavenly bodies, so in my mind’s eye I could trace path the moon was going to take across the sun’s face, since I had seen her wane and finally disappear in the early morning hours of the last couple days. This instant mental modeling induced a slight disappointment. At the peak of the eclipse a good chunk of the sun promised to be obscured, but it was obvious that I had not progressed far enough South to be under the narrow path of the total shadow, which due to the complex heavenly optics is only around a hundred and eighty miles wide. In good accord with its customary nasty habit, my rational mind was doing its best to spoil the delicious enjoyment of a very unusual and rare sight.



It took the moon a good hour and a half to make her way across the sun and it did get remarkably darker, especially during the peak time, when maybe over eighty percent of the gleaming disk was eclipsed. The translucent heaps of trade wind clouds allowed for unaided observation of the sickle shaped and blinding white remnant of an orb, and I wondered what an uninformed observer innocent of the cruel sting of knowledge must feel in such an unusual event. He or she might stare up at the heavens to see the life giving light of day being taken away without the certainty of it ever coming back, and there would be no need for a commercially efficient media hype to promote furious fairy tales of Mayan calendars and astronomical coincidences to announce the end of time. Uncertainty is certainly one of the major spices of life, which lacks in many modern stews, and any soul burdened by the knowledge of what will come must steep in an insipid brood of distant isolation where waste has become a virtue and cool has trans-mutated into culture.



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3 Responses to “Eclipsed Sun And Volcanic Debris”

  1. rudy Says:

    Very intererestng experience…
    I and my now deceased son who was only 21 went in search of the Big Island of Hawaii total eclipse. Feared we might miss it on the wet side of the island we headed for the hotels on the Kona side but they would not welcome us with open arms like they normally would due to the full house of heavenly event seekers from across the globe with cameras and telescopes galore so we were forced down to a little sleepy town named Puako right on the beach. In the morning we woke up and heard the entire island was over cast. It was day brake. We had slept in the car over night. Folks across the island were trying to see on the tv the eclipse via the Monakea big eye telescopein the sky but as i remember even it was socked in. About 15 minutes or so before the event was to occur a small window in the sky opened up with the sun center stage and we watched the day turn back into the night and all the chirping birds muted themselves. It was totally awesome. There was only one other couple on the beach who had spent the night in thier car. We possibly may have been the only people to witness this heavenly event. I believe it was the same year that Brian went to heaven. God gave us both a special glimpse of His handy work on that day. Our God is an awesome God. Glad to see you had such a good celestial view.

  2. Beatriz Restrepo Says:

    Amazing Beat!!!! Que linda experiencia.

  3. Pumice Revisited and Other Tasty Creatures of the Sea | Aluna's Travel the World Blog Says:

    […] might remember the curious flotsam Aluna encountered along the way on last November’s trip south from Fiji to New Zealand, remnants of a serious outburst of some underwater volcano sitting proudly […]

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