Total Solar Eclipse Plunges Australia Into Darkness

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SYDNEY (AP)
— From boats bobbing on the Great Barrier Reef, to hot air balloons
hovering over the rainforest, and the hilltops and beaches in between,
tens of thousands of scientists, tourists and amateur astronomers
watched as the sun, moon and Earth aligned and plunged northern
Australia into darkness during a total solar eclipse Wednesday.

Stubborn
clouds that many feared would ruin the view parted – somewhat – in
north Queensland, defying forecasts of a total eclipse-viewing bust and
relieving spectators who had fanned out to glimpse the celestial
phenomenon.

“Immediately before, I was
thinking, `Are we gonna see this?' And we just had a fantastic display -
it was just beautiful,” said Terry Cuttle of the Astronomical
Association of Queensland, who has seen a dozen total solar eclipses
over the years. “And right after it finished, the clouds came back
again. It really adds to the drama of it.”

Spectators
whooped and clapped with delight as the moon passed between the sun and
Earth, leaving a slice of the continent's northeast in sudden darkness.

Starting
just after dawn, the eclipse cast its 150-kilometer (95-mile) shadow in
Australia's Northern Territory, crossed the northeast tip of the
country and was swooping east across the South Pacific, where no islands
are in its direct path. A partial eclipse was visible from east
Indonesia, the eastern half of Australia, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea
and southern parts of Chile and Argentina. Totality – the darkness that
happens at the peak of the eclipse – lasted just over two minutes in the
parts of Australia where it was visible.

Gloomy
weather had left many eclipse-chasers who had traveled to Australia
from around the globe anxious that they wouldn't be able to see a thing.
But the clouds moved in time for many to watch as the moon blotted out
the sun's rays and cast a shadow over the tropical landscape.

Hank
Harper, 61, and his two children flew from Los Angeles just to see the
eclipse, and feared the clouds would ruin their adventure. The three of
them hopped on board a hot air balloon with other eager tourists and
staff from Hot Air Balloon Cairns, crossed their fingers – and were
rewarded with a perfect view.

“We gambled
everything – drove through the rain and didn't even know if the balloon
was going to go up,” he said by phone from the hot air balloon as he and
Harrison, 10, and Reilly, 12, watched the sun's rays re-emerge from
behind the moon while kangaroos hopped on the ground below. “It was
everything I could have hoped for.”

On a
dive-boat drifting along the blue waters of the Great Barrier Reef, a
cheer of relief erupted as the clouds moved away at the moment of total
eclipse, followed by a hush as darkness fell across the water. One scuba
diver floated on his back in the sea, watching the phenomenon unfold as
he bobbed in the waves. Birds on a nearby island, startled by the
sudden lack of light, began to stir.

“It was
absolutely amazing. We were coming out this morning and there was a wee
bit of cloud around and we were apprehensive,” Adam O'Malley of the
Passions of Paradise dive company said by phone from his boat. “We got a
full view – absolutely breathtaking.”

Some
Queensland hotels have been booked up for more than three years and more
than 50,000 people flooded into the region to watch the solar
spectacle, said Jeff Gillies, regional director of Queensland Tourism.

Skygazers
crowded along palm-fringed beaches, fields and clifftops to watch the
event through protective viewing glasses and homemade pinhole cameras
that projected the sun's image onto makeshift screens. Fitness fanatics
gathered for the Solar Eclipse Marathon, where the first rays of the sun
re-emerging from behind the moon was the starting gun. Some began
partying days ago at a weeklong eclipse festival.

Scientists
were studying how animals respond to the eclipse, with underwater
cameras capturing the effects of sudden darkness on the creatures of the
Great Barrier Reef.

The next total solar eclipse won't happen until March 2015.

Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

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