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Eclipse-chasers trot the globe, addicted to Moon’s shadow

Miami, UNITED STATES | AFP | Eclipse-chasers are a dedicated crew of scientists who travel the globe to catch a few moments in eerie darkness, and even after seeing dozens of eclipses, they say they can’t get enough.

Also known as “umbraphiles,” these self-described addicts live their lives in pursuit of the intense experience of falling under the Moon’s shadow.

“The sudden onset of twilight was so surreal and so electrifying,” recalled Fred Espenak of the first total solar eclipse he saw in the United States back in 1970.

“It is such an incredible, sensory-overload kind of event,” he told AFP.

Once it was over, he said he “immediately started thinking about future eclipses.”

Espenak, now 65, is a retired NASA astrophysicist who goes by the moniker “Mr. Eclipse.”

He has been to 27 eclipses, and seen 20 of them — cloudy weather interfered with the rest.

Each one is unique, he says — the way the twilight falls in the middle of the day, casting shadows on the Earth; hearing birds return to their nests; feeling the temperature suddenly drop.

The most memorable, he says, was an eclipse he traveled to in India in 1995 with about 35 other people.

One of the women in the group became overwhelmed — she said she’d waited 25 years to see an eclipse, and wept over how it had gone by so fast, lasting just 41 seconds.

“We stayed in contact,” Espenak said. “And to make a long story short, we got married.”

When the so-called Great American Eclipse marches across the country on Monday, Espenak plans to be in Wyoming, operating 17 different cameras.

His advice for first-time eclipse-watchers?

“Don’t do what I do. Don’t take any pictures. Just watch it and enjoy it. There is so much to see,” he said.

– World record-holder –

Most people who see an eclipse will experience just a minute or two of darkness, but in 1973, Donald Liebenberg set a world record when he rode the Concorde jet and chased an eclipse at supersonic speed.

From the cabin of the aircraft at an altitude of 60,000 feet (18,200 meters), his view of totality — when the Moon’s shadow completely blocks the sunlight — lasted 74 minutes.

“The corona is so brilliant especially when you are above most of the water vapor and the other scattered light problems in lower altitudes,” he said, recalling the deep purple sky.

Now 85, Liebenberg has spent more than two and a half hours of his life in totality, longer than anyone else on the planet.

He has traveled to Indonesia, Turkey, South Africa and Zambia, among other places, and seen 26 eclipses so far.

“Looking forward to the 27th,” said Liebenberg, an adjunct professor at Clemson University in South Carolina.

“This one is special in the sense that it will occur over my house. I will be in my driveway instead of traveling thousands of miles.”

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