Rare solar eclipse astounds sky gazers: 'Like nothing else you'll ever see'

Millions view a rare celestial phenomenon — the first total solar eclipse to sweep across the U.S. in almost a century — with Canadian sky gazers soaking in a partial eclipse of as much as 90 per cent.

Millions view the rare celestial phenomenon, the 1st to cross most of the U.S. in nearly 100 years

Solar eclipse from Vancouver

5 years ago
Duration 0:56
The moon blocked 86 per cent of the sun during the peak of a partial eclipse in Vancouver.

It was first total solar eclipse to sweep the U.S. from coast to coast in nearly a century..

Sky gazers across the continent watched in wonder through telescopes, cameras and protective glasses Monday as the moon blotted out the sun and turned daylight into twilight.

Totality — when the sun is completely obscured by the moon — lasted just two minutes or so in each location along the narrow corridor stretching all the way across the U.S. heartland to Charleston, S.C.

The moon covers the sun during a total eclipse Monday near Redmond, Ore. (Ted S. Warren/Associated Press)

The shadow — a corridor just 96 to 113 kilometres wide — came ashore in Oregon and then began racing diagonally across the continent to South Carolina, with darkness lasting only about two to three minutes in any one spot.

It was likely the most observed and photographed eclipse in history.

A woman wears solar glasses while enjoying the partial solar eclipse in Ottawa.

In Canada, people were treated to a partial eclipse that was still pretty impressive. The best viewing sites were in Victoria, where the moon blocked 90 per cent of the sun, and Vancouver, where the the eclipse was 86 per cent. 

The Royal Astronomical Society of Canada also said Calgary enjoyed 77 per cent coverage and Toronto 70 per cent.

In Vancouver, a large crowd gathered on the grass outside the H.R. MacMillan Space Centre and broke into a cheer when the eclipse reached its peak.

"It's a once-in-a -ifetime experience," said Sarah Tanveer, from Port Coquitlam, B.C.

Astronomers were giddy with excitement.

What to know about the solar eclipse | Ask Bob

5 years ago
Duration 19:49
CBC’s Bob McDonald answers questions about the upcoming solar eclipse, saying it will be a “sight to behold.”

NASA solar physicist Alex Young said the last time earthlings had a connection like this to the heavens was during man's first flight to the moon, on Apollo 8 in 1968. The first, famous Earthrise photo came from that mission and, like this eclipse, showed us "we are part of something bigger."

With a half hour to go before totality, NASA's acting administrator, Robert Lightfoot, enjoyed the moon's "first bites out of the sun" from a plane flying over the Oregon coast and declared it "just an incredible view."

James Courtwright sets up his camera to take pictures of the solar eclipse in Depoe Bay, Ore.

"I'm about to fight this man for a window seat," Lightfoot said, referring to a fellow NASA official.

NASA's planetary science director, Jim Green, a usually talkative sort, managed an "Oh, wow!" when totality arrived in Idaho Falls, Idaho, and shouted: "There's Venus! There's Venus."

Hoping to learn more about the sun's composition and activity, NASA and other scientists watched and analyzed from telescopes on the ground and in orbit, the International Space Station, airplanes and scores of high-altitude balloons beaming back live video.

NASA reported 4.4 million people were watching its TV coverage midway through the eclipse, the biggest livestream event in the space agency's history.

"It's really, really, really, really awesome," said Cami Smith, 9, as she watched the fully eclipsed sun from a gravel lane near her grandfather's home at Beverly Beach, Ore.

The temperature dropped and birds quieted down as the line of darkness crossed the continent.

Clayton Uyeda and his wife Jo planned to enjoying the partial eclipse while travelling by ferry from Swartz Bay, near Victoria —where the eclipse was 90 per cent — to Tsawwassen ferry terminal on the mainland. (Chad Hipolito/Canadian Press)

David Avison showed up in Salem before dawn with his wife and relatives, after travelling by car and overnight train from their suburban Portland home. They couldn't get reservations at a nearby resort, despite making plans six years ago.

"I'm telling people if you want to see the one in 2024, you'd better make your reservations now," Avison said.

The International Space Station is seen in silhouette as it transits the sun during a partial solar eclipse Monday near Banner, Wyo.

With 200 million people within a day's drive of Monday's path of totality, towns and parks braced for monumental crowds. Clear skies beckoned along most of the route, to the relief of those who feared cloud cover would spoil this once-in-a-lifetime moment.

Cosmic spectacle

Astronomers consider a full solar eclipse the grandest of cosmic spectacles.

The Earth, moon and sun line up perfectly every one to three years, briefly turning day into night for a sliver of the planet. But these sights normally are in no man's land, like the vast Pacific or Earth's poles. This is the first eclipse of the social media era to pass through such a heavily populated area.

Jonathan Moric, left, and Finn Power, both of Vancouver get ready to watch the eclipse in a park in Salem, Ore. (Andrew Selsky/Associated Press)

The moon hasn't thrown this much shade at the U.S. since 1918. That was the country's last coast-to-coast total eclipse. In fact, the U.S. mainland hasn't seen a total solar eclipse since 1979 — and even then, only five states in the Northwest experienced total darkness.

In Boise, Idaho, people clapped and whooped, and the street lights came on briefly in the middle of the day, while in Nashville, Tenn., people craned the necks at the sun and knocked back longneck beers at Nudie's Honky Tonk bar.

Scientists said Monday's total eclipse cast a shadow that raced through 14 states, entering near Lincoln City, Ore.,, at 1:16 p.m. ET, moving diagonally across the American heartland over Casper, Wy., Carbondale, Ill., and Nashville, and then exiting near Charleston at 2:47 p.m. ET.

Les and Mary Anderson marked their 13th eclipse with hundreds of amateur astronomers who have descended on Casper.

The couple from San Diego is attending Astroncon, organized by the Astronomical League.

The Andersons met on a photography field trip at Yosemite National Park and went to Mexico for an eclipse in 1991, the year before they got married.

In Casper, they joined a friend they met during an eclipse in Aruba in 1998.

Mike O'Leary was ready Monday with a camera outfitted with a homemade eclipse filter. He says seeing an eclipse is "like nothing else you will ever see or do."

Shawnee National Forest in southern Illinois saw the longest stretch of darkness: two minutes and 44 seconds.

Joe Roth, left, and Scott Foster from the Chicago area are silhouetted as they prepare telescopes and cameras to observe the eclipse in Alto Pass, Ill. (Charles Rex Arbogast/Associated Press)

Joe Roth, an amateur photographer, travelled south from the Chicago area to Alto Pass, Ill., to catch his first total solar eclipse — on his 62nd birthday, no less. He said the stars aligned for him — "a Kodak moment for me to cherish and experience."

Animal reaction

Citizen scientists also planned to monitor animal and plant behaviour as day turned into twilight. Thousands of people streamed into the noisy Nashville Zoo just to watch the animals' reactions.

Zoo spokesman Jim Bartoo says people were camping out at the zoo entrance at 6 a.m., three hours before the gates opened and 7½ hours before totality.

Paulette Simmons of Nashville said she came to the zoo because she wanted to see how the animals reacted.

The crickets and other animals grew noisy as it got darker, but when the sun was totally blotted out, it was the humans who drowned out the animals, clapping, "oohing" and "aahing" for more than the nearly two minutes the total eclipse lasted.

And then once the light returned, the show began.

Madison the dog watches the solar eclipse in Nashville, Tenn. (Harrison McClary/Reuters)

The two juvenile giraffes, Mazi, a 6-month-old, and Nasha, a 3-year-old, raced in circles as the people stared. About 20 feet away, some of the rhinos were doing their best imitation of running after heading toward their pens when it got dark.

When's the next one?

If you missed Monday's eclipse, you'll have to wait seven years to see another one in the continental U.S. and Canada, on April 8, 2024.

New Brunswick and Newfoundland will boast the best eclipse views in Canada. Those in Labrador, as well as other parts of Atlantic Canada, will be treated to a partial eclipse.

The line of totality will cross from Texas, up through the Midwest, almost directly over Indianapolis, Cleveland and Buffalo, N.Y., up over New England and out over Maine, New Brunswick and Newfoundland.

The very next total solar eclipse will be in 2019, but you'll have to be below the equator for a glimpse — in the South Pacific, Chile or Argentina. It's pretty much the same in 2020.

With files from CBC News.