February 26, 1998 in Nation/World

Astronomers Stars Of Eclipse Sold-Out Cruises In Caribbean Chasing Today’s Solar Event

Seth Borenstein Orlando Sentinel

Astronomers usually are not at the top of party guest lists. But this week that changes.

Steve Maran, a Maryland astronomer with an Einstein-like frizz of hair, was asked to go on a free luxury cruise through the Caribbean. Same goes for Barbados-bound Jack Horkheimer, eccentric director of the Miami Space Transit Planetarium.

Donald Trombino of Deltona, Fla., an astronomer who owns the Davis Memorial Solar Observatory, had three offers for free cruises but had to turn them all down. He’s got pneumonia.

Astronomers are in great demand because about 1 p.m. today, a total solar eclipse will darken parts of the Caribbean and South American coast. And with thousands of eclipse-chasing tourists spending millions of dollars to follow the sun, travel companies offer prominent astronomers free trips in exchange for lectures.

A veteran of 14 eclipses, Trombino will truly miss this year’s freebies: “They give me a first-class cabin, all the expenses and all the perks that go along with it.”

While Maran is in the Caribbean, Trombino will watch from Central Florida, where there will be a 41 percent solar eclipse, starting at 11:48 a.m. EST.

Astronomers staying in Central Florida must find ways of making their own fun. At Brevard Community College’s Astronaut Memorial Planetarium, director Ian Griffin will launch rockets from the building’s roof to celebrate the sun’s diminishing.

“We’re going to launch a few rockets to scare off a dragon that’s eating the sun,” Griffin said, alluding to an eclipse myth. “You can’t beat a good eclipse. An eclipse is a great opportunity to party and get people interested in astronomy.”

Still, the best parties seem to be on board ships.

“The people who go on these eclipse cruises will have black tie on for three nights,” Horkheimer said. “With an astronomy group that means you’ve got to wear socks with your sneakers. Shipboard is always nice because you eat like a pig for two weeks.”

While NASA is conducting real scientific research on this eclipse, these cruising astronomers are mostly just having fun, taking pictures and eating a lot.

So why do travel companies want these buffet hoggers?

It’s big business. Scientific Expeditions, a Florida travel agency, sold out four cruises, with 2,000 cabins costing up to $13,806. Norwegian and Holland America ships are now eclipse chasing. The Queen Elizabeth II has done it in the past.

“It has sort of become an in thing to do,” said astronomer Joel Harris, founder of Twilight Tours, a California travel agency for eclipse chasers.

People following an eclipse want someone to explain what’s going on. Astronomers “are all volunteering their services,” said Scientific Expeditions president Virginia Roth.

But why pay thousands of dollars to chase an eclipse?

If you have to ask, you’ve never experienced a total eclipse, veteran chasers say. They trip over words trying to rhapsodize about what it’s like during the phenomenon. “Eclipses are kind of soulshattering experiences,” Horkheimer said. “Once you have a taste of one, you’re kind of addicted. An eclipse is primal, very, very primal.”

Temperatures drop suddenly. The wind changes directions. Animals howl and roost. Harris said,”It transforms the landscape to an alien type of scene.”

Trombino’s favorite eclipse story comes from when he visited Bali. Natives banged drums and played xylophones to chase demons away. Pregnant women hid under beds for fear their children would be born with a moonface.

“It’s very eerie, it’s awe-inspiring,” Trombino said. “No film, no video can do an eclipse justice.”

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