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Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Total solar eclipse enthralls sky watchers

A rare total solar eclipse plunged northern Australia into darkness for two minutes on Wednesday.

Thousands gathered on beaches and hilltops to watch this spectacular celestial phenomenon.
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.

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 will be 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.

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.

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.

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