Sky gazers flock to islands for total solar eclipse

Catherine Gaschka
Associated Press

Torshavn, Faeroe Islands — For months, even years, hotels on the remote Faeroe Islands have been fully booked by fans who don’t want to miss an almost three-minute-long astronomical sensation. Now the sky gazers just hope the clouds will blow away so they can fully experience Friday’s total solar eclipse.

Scores of eclipse chasers and scientists have invaded the archipelago armed with telescopes, cameras and glasses for safe direct solar viewing ahead of the big event.

The weather forecast is better more than 1,270 miles to the northeast, in the Arctic islands of Svalbard, where spectators can hope for a clear day. The full eclipse will only be seen in a narrow path across the northern hemisphere, reaching the Faeroes at 5:45 a.m. EDT on Friday.

“This is our 10th total eclipse. We love to watch them and being able to look at the corona with your eyes in the middle of the eclipse is really an exciting moment, to experience the diamond rings coming and going,” said Les Anderson, a 60-year-old from San Diego, California, in the Faeroe capital of Torshavn.

The population of the 18 rocky islands between Scotland and Iceland has swelled by approximately 10,000 for a few days from its usual 48,000 souls.

“There has never, never been so many people on the islands before,” said Theresa Kreutzmann, head of the tourism office in Torshavn.

The two best places to fully experience the total solar eclipse are the Faeroes, where the moon covers the sun completely for 2 minutes 45 seconds, and Svalbard, more than 500 miles north of the Norwegian mainland, where it will be 15 seconds shorter.

A partial solar eclipse can be seen across Europe and parts of Asia and Africa. Britain’s Meteorological Office says 95 percent of the sun will be covered in the Hebrides, Orkneys and Shetland Islands.

Although Faeroe camping sites have opened ahead of time for those willing to brave nighttime temperatures of around 35 degrees Fahrenheit, authorities on Svalbard have reminded last-minute visitors that bringing a sleeping bag and finding a cozy corner for the night is not an option. The thermometer there hovers around minus 5 degrees Fahrenheit. And then there are the polar bears, which roam freely — meaning that people need to carry firearms when moving outside settlements.

On average, three bears are shot in self-defense every year on Svalbard with an estimated polar bear population of 3,000 — roughly the same as the human population. Visitors have been attacked. Just Thursday, a bear attacked a tent in which a Czech tourist was sleeping, slightly injuring him. In 2011, a British teenager was fatally mauled by a bear that attacked the tent he was sleeping in.

The bears aren’t an issue in the Faeroes.

“We don’t have polar bears here,” laughed Torstein Christiansen, tourist chief in Torshavn. He said the islands’ main problems are traffic and the treacherous and sudden fog that can quickly wrap the islands and its steep cliffs.

Finnur Johansen, 82, is eagerly awaiting the total solar eclipse. He recalls the one in 1954 when Faeroe animals were fooled by the sudden darkness.

“I remember the reaction of the birds. They go to sleep,” Johansen said. “The hen, they go into hen house, under the perch, and slept there with the head under the wing.”

If eclipse-chasers have been preparing for years, local authorities have been doing the same, Christiansen said. Authorities have posted online information to help visitors find accommodation and the best spots to be for the eclipse.

Solar eclipse merchandising — including books and toy puffins in eclipse T-shirts — are on sale, hotel prices have risen and a ferry boat has been moored in Torshavn to house visitors.