Maui astronomy fans are off to chase the total eclipse

Maui residents travel to Mainland to witness the once-in-a-lifetime event

Rebecca Sydney

Olinda resident Rebecca Sydney could not contain her excitement last week as she packed her solar glasses, eclipse binoculars and sun spotter telescope before leaving for Madras, Ore., which is in the path solar eclipse’s totality on Monday.

“It’s going to be amazing,” said Sydney, via cellphone Tuesday.

The owner of Maui Astronomy Tours gushed about the organic farm she’ll be staying at and even brushed off probably losing more than $1,000 because she no longer needs a hotel room near Portland, Ore., with a new opportunity to be in a total eclipse in Madras.

“It was a loss, but that’s OK. It’s once in a lifetime. I got to do this.”

Sydney is not alone. Other Maui residents, amateur astronomers and at least one Maui researcher are heading to the Mainland to admire, view and study “The Great American Eclipse.” Fourteen states will be in the path of totality. Maui will see only a partial eclipse around sunrise.

Garry Nitta

University of Hawaii research associate Garry Nitta was already in the continental U.S. early last week en route to Alliance, Neb., which is also in the totality path.

Nitta works for UH’s Institute for Astronomy on Maui, and he’s in charge of perfectly positioning six telescopes and mounts to monitor the eclipse. He’s working with several teams doing eclipse research projects funded by NASA. This includes a project studying the corona by UH astronomer Shadia Habbal of Oahu.

For Nitta, it’s all about getting his job done.

Days before the eclipse, he wouldn’t say he felt excited.

“You want to make sure everything goes OK. Only thing you can’t control is the weather. We hope for good weather,” he said via cellular phone from Alliance, which is 370 miles west of Lincoln, Neb., and 250 miles northeast of Boulder, Colo.

The 61-year-old, who been on about a half-dozen treks to study total eclipses, said that only one trip was really successful with clear weather. The other locations had the eclipse obscured by rain or clouds.

“It is really hit or miss,” he said.

Nitta’s treks included trips to French Polynesia, Indonesia and the Arctic Circle.

“This one is easy, actually, as far as logistics,” Nitta said.

A handful of scientists and researchers, some from other countries, including Germany, are with Nitta on a property owned by a local dentist. Team members may sleep in a house or a recreational vehicle.

The team will set up the camera-equipped telescopes that will monitor solar wavelengths during the eclipse, Nitta said.

He will catch glimpses of the eclipse as it progresses, as long as telescope operations are running smoothly.

As of Thursday night, Nitta said he had not seen an influx of sun gawkers, but he expected tourists to arrive over the weekend.

“It’s really rural where we are staying at, lots of corn fields and stuff,” he said.

Alliance is 3 miles north of “Carhenge,” a replica of Stonehenge, made of cars.

Farther west, Kihei amateur astronomer Mike Herbert will join Sydney at Organic Earthly Delights, a 103-acre organic farm, in Madras. Both will make astronomy presentations while the farm hosts its own eclipse events over the weekend.

“I feel so happy for the people of America, basically North America. . . . There is a good chance the majority in the U.S., will have an opportunity to see a partial eclipse,” Herbert said last week before he left Maui.

The 54-year-old delivers astronomy talks and presentations at hotels, schools, production companies and public and private groups.

This will be the first total eclipse that Herbert and Sydney will experience. In 1991, clouds blocked the eclipse on Maui. They both tried to witness the spectacle then.

“I want to see the diamond ring, the Baily’s beads and the corona,” Sydney said, describing the various effects during the total eclipse. “Those three things are my bucket list things.”

Baily’s beads happens during a total solar eclipse when the moon’s rugged topography allows beads of sunlight to shine through some places and not others, said Sydney, who used to track and discover near-Earth asteroids at Boeing Aerospace.

She said the diamond ring effect is when there is one “flare-up” of light in one area of the sun’s diameter before totality hits. (The “flare-up” is the diamond, while light around the sun’s diameter is the ring.)

The effect can occur at the beginning and end of totality.

“We are so excited. We are jumping out of our skin,” Sydney said.

* Melissa Tanji can be reached at