The stargazers are aboard their cruise liners steaming south into the Pacific Ocean. Others are in their hotels in Chile, ready to board airliners that will take them above the clouds.
On the boutique liner Paul Gauguin, 300 guests are anxiously watching the horizon – not for the sun but for the rain. Three days away from the spectacle of a lifetime, and they have no insurance.
If the weather is overcast for three critical minutes on Tuesday morning, they will miss the total solar eclipse they have paid tens of thousands of dollars to see.
Fancy a wager? This is no gamble for the fainthearted …
The Paul Gauguin left Aitutaki and Rarotonga last week, and this weekend is sailing south from Tahiti to Pitcairn Island – and then 500km out into the middle of the ocean.
The liner has a team of astronomers to guide its 300-plus passengers through the totality experience.
One of the astronomers aboard the Gauguin in pursuit of Tuesday’s solar eclipse, Dr Richard Fienberg, tells Cook Islands News that for this solar-eclipse cruise, Arizona-based TravelQuest International and California’s Wilderness Travel had jointly chartered the Paul Gauguin.
The two companies have nearly filled the ship with about 320 eclipse chasers.
“Most have already seen at least one eclipse, thanks to the August 2017 Great American Eclipse across the continental United States,” says Fienberg.
“On past eclipse cruises, typically more than half the passengers were seeing their first total solar eclipse, so that’s a big change.”
He says the days leading up to an eclipse always produced some anxiety as people watched the sky and hoped for good weather. They are starting to pay close attention to the weather maps.
So far on this trip, now two days out of Tahiti, they’d had mostly clouds and even some rain – but nonetheless, passengers were generally optimistic and excited.
Fienberg says one advantage of being on a ship is they can manoeuvre out from under patchy clouds to put the sun in a clear spot and see the eclipse. “So, as long as it’s not totally overcast, we should be okay.
“Assuming we see the Sun’s glorious corona on Tuesday, there will be a palpable sense of relief on the ship for the rest of the cruise.”
All passengers will be required to cover their eyes with safety filters to protect them from eye damage during the partial phases of the eclipse before and after the brief total phase.
“Every total solar eclipse is significant in the sense that such events are the only times when we can see the Sun’s spectacular corona — it’s very hot, very tenuous outer atmosphere, which is sculpted by the Sun’s magnetic field into magnificent streamers and loops.
“The experience of totality is so grand that people are eager to do whatever it takes to get into the path of the Moon’s shadow, which – being roughly only 100 miles (160 km) wide – typically touches at most 0.5 per cent of Earth’s surface as it traverses thousands of miles from west to east.”
Fienberg says you can only see totality if you’re in the right place at the right time, and that usually means traveling to exotic, faraway places – which is part of eclipse-chasing’s appeal.
The environment changes very rapidly in the minutes before totality.
It’s like sunset, says Fienberg, and it occurs suddenly rather than gradually.
Ancient cultures feared they’d somehow angered the gods or that a dragon or some other creature had devoured the Sun.
“If you didn’t know a total solar eclipse was coming, you’d be scared and wonder what’s happening – is it the end of the world?”
In Aitutaki in May 1965, the sky darkened in the middle of the afternoon. Chickens hopped onto their roosts, crowing as if preparing for the night.
One New Zealander brought up on Aitutaki said he still had “unforgettable” memories of that day, May 30 1965.
School pupils were cautioned to take care how they watched the eclipse.
“We were told we could watch the eclipse by various means. We watched looking at the reflection in a big tub of water, through black film of used Polaroid rolls or shades if you had any.
It happened in the afternoon and it got dark.”
His story is taken up by retired BBC TV and radio reporter John Roberts , who has long been interested in eclipses since he first first visited the Cook Islands nearly 20 years ago.
Manuae was almost at the centre of the path of totality in 1965, and Roberts said it was the largest gathering of solar astronomers the world had ever seen on the deserted island of Manuae.
It was good advice from the New Zealander’s school teachers, Robert said. One must not look directly at this forthcoming eclipse; enough of the sun will still be visible to blind you.
In those pre-internet days, Roberts said the Cook Islands Administration issued special stamps and set up a post office on the island so scientists could tell the world about what they'd seen and send letters, postcards and old-fashioned photographs on their way with an appropriate reminder.
Manuae is the only deserted island in the world ever to have had its own stamps.
Another memorable solar eclipse was the 2010 Mangaia eclipse. Roberts said the population of around 500 on this southern group island doubled overnight.
“At 20,000 years old, this is the most ancient island in the Pacific, and even at a normal dawn or dusk the jagged rocks and thick green landscape take on an eerie appearance,” says Roberts.
For three minutes and 18.8 seconds, day turned to night, nature went to sleep and eclipse watchers were treated to one of the world’s most awe inspiring sights.
“The Cook Islands is in for a treat with the forthcoming eclipse. Even though it’s only a partial one, there’s so little light pollution it should – weather permitting – be awe-inspiring, especially if you’ve never seen such a phenomenon before,” says Roberts. It won’t go completely dark, but as the moon passes in front of the sun, you’ll be bathed in a greyish sort of light which is different from normal twilight, and strange things start to happen.
“The temperature drops noticeably, birds and animals become quiet as if getting ready to sleep and you get an eerie feeling as you see the sun that we rely on so much for our life on this planet being partly covered up. At least that’s how I’ve felt when I’ve seen a partial eclipse.”
Nature lover Tiziana Margarito is excited to view Rarotonga’s partial eclipse on Tuesday morning.
Scientists say those watching on Rarotonga should see 49 per cent of the sun obscured around 7.52am on July 2.
“Years ago I saw an eclipse in Italy and I used sunglasses to watch it,” says Margarito.
“It’s something that doesn’t happen very often and I think people who appreciate the beauty of the stars, the moon and the sun should definitely wake up early for the eclipse.”