Saturday, 15 July 2017

The Eclipse Chaser Community

The eclipse this year has been interesting as numerous reporters are keen to get a scoop or some sort of unique angle on the story.

One question I am asked repeatably regards the "eclipse chaser community". It is because of the web site - www.eclipse-chasers.com - that I started back in 1999. My original intent was to simply put my own eclipse chasing experiences up on the web. The community aspect was never part of the plan, it was intended to be a tool to keep track of past eclipses and share ideas for future ones.

I had never thought about the community concept before the questions began to appear. Yes, we do have conferences and meetings, but a community?

Group photo at an eclipse conference

Do we have a community?

One could argue that the various astronomical societies serve as a type of community. The American Astronomical Society, the International Astronomical Union, and Astronomers without Borders are just a couple examples. These types of communities focus on astronomical things like research, education, and public outreach. These are not really communities as much as organizations. There are officers, there are rules, in some cases there are even dues to join. Within these organizations one finds communities of common interests, yet none really cover eclipse chasers.

Eclipse chasers are an amorphous collection of communities at best. I must qualify that statement as being from my perspective. As viewed by an outsider, a reporter for a newspaper looking for a story, we are all one big community.

So here is how I break it down for the reporters that have asked.

Shared Interest Groups

On Facebook and Yahoo you can find some eclipse chaser groups. They range in size from a couple of people on up to several hundred. Many overlap in that they are the same members in the multiple groups. On the mailing list oriented group discussion ranges from the absurd to the technical about eclipses. In general the conversation is very well controlled thanks to it being moderated by a true diplomat amongst people (thank you Mr Gill). The Facebook groups tend to get infiltrated by various lurkers and vendors making them less popular with the more technical crowd. They are fun in that some of the topics tend to be more about silly and absurd aspects of eclipses and travel.

The log at the eclipse-chasers.com web site includes over a hundred members and they represent a sizable fraction of the eclipse chasers out there. The list is by no means complete. There are some who refuse to be put on it for what ever reasons. As the programmer of the log, I just hope it is not because it didn't work for them and they got frustrated.

Travelers

All eclipse chasers must travel. If you just wait for an eclipse to happen in your neighborhood, you might find yourself very limited. Even the luckiest neighborhood may see only one or two eclipses in a life time. Eclipses cross a place at an average rate of once every 350 years or more. Yes, there are lucky places. Like Carbondale Illinois where one can see an eclipse in August and again in April 2024.

Thus eclipse chasers have to travel to see multiple total eclipses. When traveling around the world to these events you do get to meet the same people over and over again. Of course, group rates can help at times too. If you have a band of eclipse chasing friends it is possible to secure excellent places to stay and methods of transport to get there. This can be very important when considering costs. Unlike the popular myth that all eclipse chasers are wealthy there are some who do have to struggle financially to get to the various eclipse locations. Obtaining a group rate saves a bit here and there, may even result in a few free rooms, and that helps everyone out.

In addition to the band of friends you can also find travel companies. They use the group rates and then package the entire thing into a product one can join. Loyalty to travel companies is common as they often bring astronomical expert/celebrities along and market to past customers aggressively. You don't save much money traveling with tour companies but you do develop good friends and find others who share your passion for eclipses. Most of the travel/tour companies do an excellent job at providing the type of experience one would want when going to different parts of the world chasing eclipses.

In my opinion there are traveler communities inside the eclipse community. Most are quite diverse in their make up. They may have serious astronomers, amateurs, families, retirees, friends, and who knows what else in their ranks. I have met a variety of people ranging from what some would call the super-rich to recent (unemployed) graduates spending their gift money. Many of us save up just for eclipse travel and don't bother with the more traditional types of vacations. (In my situation we did a lot of camping vacations to save from one year to the next before splurging on something special - a solar eclipse.)

The key to eclipse chasing travel is that it is travel with a purpose. Everyone shares the same goal, to see the eclipse. The other stuff is a bonus extra. Others might say something about always wanting to visit where ever as well as see the eclipse. Thing is, it all comes down to the common goal of seeing the eclipse. And that makes us a community. We travel with a purpose.

Calculators, Computers and Map makers

The other sub-community within the global eclipse chasers group are those of us that enjoy the challenge of calculating eclipse paths, making maps for others, and computing various details related to the eclipses. There is no real formal community here, just a bunch of people who share that interest.

There are quasi-professional groups such as the IAU WGSE (International Astronomical Union Working Group on Solar Eclipses). The IAU WGSE presents papers and has a goal of promoting eclipse knowledge. We don't have meetings. We mostly just use email to share information, even then not very often, and it is mostly consists of requests to check each others works.

This is a very small community at best. Some skills are required and then one must want to share with others.

Yes, we are a community

So in thinking deeper about the question, yes there is a community of friends, associates, businesses, professionals, and others who share a passion about solar eclipses. It really is something you need to see to understand how this can happen. A diverse group of people, some highly educated and others who never finished school are all attracted to one of nature's most amazing shows. It just goes to show how powerful the total solar eclipse experience can be for people.

A Follow Up

A question that was asked after this entry was published related to the number of eclipse chasers out there and if they are all Americans. Getting a count on eclipse chasers is difficult as it is not something everyone will admit to being. There are over 300 chasers listed in the log. Yet the Solar Eclipse Mailing List has over 500 members. So if we double that number we get about 1000 serious eclipse chasers.

Now what about the not-so-serious eclipse chasers but people who do go to solar eclipses. These would be people who have seen more than one eclipse. I'd estimate there are several thousand people in this category. During the eclipse of 1998 almost a dozen cruise ships carried over a thousand people each into the path of totality. The eclipse of 1999 had several cruise ships in the Black Sea along with eclipse chasers from England all the way to Iran.

And eclipse chasers are international. It is the nature of the game. Not only do Americans enjoy it, so do other nationalities. I host an English language eclipse chaser web site yet I get visitors from all over the world every day. There are eclipse web sites in other languages too. Solar eclipses are something every living human being can enjoy.

So how many eclipse chasers in this community? I don't know, quite a few is my guess.

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