Tuesday 15 March 2016

Chasing the total solar eclipse aboard Ponant's Le Soleal


Guest contributor, Justin Friend, has his sun and moon align aboard Ponant's Le Soleal

Le Soleal at anchor in the Spice Islands (J Friend)


For two days the relatively unknown island of Ternate has been the centre of the earth for many expedition oriented people. A significant sub group of these adventurous expeditionary folk are affectionately known as “eclipse chasers”.

The whole underlying reason for Le Soleal to be in the Spice Islands at this specific point in time is due to the fact that we have just experienced a total solar eclipse. The world leaders in astronomical travel, TravelQuest International have put this expedition together, hand in hand with Ponant.

TravelQuest are best described as purveyors of the extraordinary and the amiable president of the company Aram Kaprielian is personally travelling on board Le Soleal to experience this astronomical event along with his guests, over 80% of whom are regular TravelQuest clients with many many eclipses under their belt.

But before the eclipse starts to dominate our adventures we still had to explore Ternate, which was now overflowing with visitors aware of the impending eclipse event and the fact that Ternate is the best place to view this event.

The essentially non-existent tourism industry of Ternate was stretched to its absolute limits. For our group of cruisers to be able to be transported to the main sites in Ternate involved acquiring a convoy of buses that belong to the Indonesian National Police, with POLISI emblazoned on the bus sides, and complete with blue flashing lights we wound our way through the narrow bustling streets of Ternate, red lights being optional when you are in a police vehicle.

Sultan's  Palace
The longest continuous sultanate in Indonesia has its home in Ternate, and as would have been customary in the days of spice traders, we presented ourselves to the Sultans Palace for our official welcome. Members of the royal family were on hand to greet us and chat, and as is also customary, numerous dances took place, that included participation from those among us who did not have two left feet.

The afternoon in Ternate was set aside for a visit to a centuries old clove farm, however our police buses were too big to get into the plantation so dozens of private cars turned up at the port as our next available form of transportation. Although I certainly recognise the significance of cloves to the history of the region, I, and many other like-minded adventurers opted out of the multi-vehicle convoy to “clove heaven”, and took the opportunity to wander the bustling streets.

'eclipse chaser' gets in the swing
Everywhere you looked visitors from both wider Indonesia and indeed globally were scouting for their position to view the impending eclipse. One group I passed were from the Hong Kong Astronomical Society, another came from the dramatically named Soldiers of the Red Dragon Astronomical Division of the Peoples Republic of China. But we did not need to worry about such things, nor did we need to worry about cloud from the island interfering with eclipse viewing, as we had our trusty vessel Le Soleal to chase the open skies and give us a wide stable platform to view this phenomenon.

Leaving the crowds of observers in our wake Le Soleal steamed out in between Ternate and the larger land mass of Sulawesi. TravelQuest had brought their own astrophysicist in Rick Fienberg who in the imminent build up to “first contact” (the point where the moon starts to obscure the sun) was Captain Debien’s constant companion. Together the two plotted and schemed through the night and into the next morning.

Watching the weather patterns, changing the course of the ship several times, until we were steaming north into perfectly clear skies as daylight broke, leading us forward to a head on collision with the impending eclipse. The ample deck space and extreme stability of Le Soleal, provided the perfect base for the dozens of cameras and telescopes now appearing all over the outer decks.

Professor Fienberg provided an informative commentary as the eclipse unfolded, and the hard work he’d put in with the captain paid off as perfect weather heralded the arrival of the eclipse. Cheers and gasps of awe echoed from the decks as totality was achieved, the moon entirely obscuring the sun yet creating the glowing corona bursting out from behind the moon. TravelQuest boss Aram breathed a sigh of relief as his team, together with Le Soleal, had pulled it off and delivered perfect eclipse viewing conditions to the masses on board.

This was my second total eclipse and whilst I may not quite be an “eclipse chaser” there is something magical about bearing witness to such an astronomic event while drifting at sea, and whilst the eclipse has now passed, our adventure continues we have snorkelling and wildlife walks still to come in Sulawesi before we head to Borneo in the days ahead.

For more info about TravelQuest Tours, see www.travelquesttours.com

Justin Friend is an experienced
expedition leader and proprietor
of Austronesian Expeditions 

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