Amateur Astronomer Travels the World to See Total Eclipses

Aug 16, 2017
In our area we can expect to see 75.2% of the sun covered by the moon on Monday, Aug. 21.

In the Midwest, you’ve heard of storm chasers, people who risk their lives to get as close as they can to film a tornado as it ravages the countryside. The Robert J. Novins Planetarium at Ocean County College has a genuine eclipse chaser: Phil Zollner, a retired middle school librarian who serves as a program presenter at the Toms River facility.

“This will be my 12th total eclipse in the past 44 years,” said the 81-year-old amateur astronomer and former U.S. Army counterintelligence specialist.

He will not be in New Jersey to watch the astral proceedings on the afternoon of Monday, Aug. 21. Instead, he will join many other eclipse buffs in Casper, Wyoming, where they will experience a total eclipse.

“In New Jersey, it is going to be a partial eclipse, around 75 percent,” he said. “At its maximum time, which will only take a few minutes, the sun will look like a glowing golden crescent.”

He said the eclipse will track from the Pacific coast to the Atlantic. The shadow of the moon will begin over Oregon and move east to Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Nebraska, Kansas, Missouri, Illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee, Georgia and South Carolina. Totality will begin in Newport, Ore., at 10:16 Pacific Time and will end near Charleston, S.C, at 2:48 Eastern Time. A partial solar eclipse will be viewable over the rest of the country.

“This will be the first solar eclipse to cross the continental U.S. from coast to coast since 1918,” said the Howell Township resident, who is a member of the Astronomical Society of the Toms River Area.  

To be able to see all those total eclipses, one has to be quite the globetrotter. Some of the more remote areas Zollner has viewed the event include 14,000 feet up in Bolivia’s Altiplano, the Taiga Forest in Siberia and the Austrailan Outback.

“The skies were stunning and beautiful over the Altipano,” he said. “The only problem is that going to such places are (sic) very physically demanding. When you go to such a desolate place, you have to think about a lot of things, such as food, water and toilet facilities. Eclipse chasing has allowed me to have some incredible life experiences. I gain an insight into different cultures on a level I would never have before, and I get to meet people in locations I would never have traveled to if it weren’t for the path of the total eclipse.”

Another time, Zollner observed a total eclipse from the deck of a cruise ship in the Mediterranean. 

“It was on a Monarch cruise line,” he said. “There you could view the eclipse surrounded by all the amenities and luxuries that come along with those ships. It was a lot more comfortable than being out in the middle of nowhere.”  

Other lands he has traveled include southern Germany, Mauritania and twice to Kenya.

Zollner said he hopes it is sunny in Wyoming on Monday, as heavily overcast skies would put a damper on the experience.

“If it’s cloudy, you’ll still be able to notice it getting darker,” he said. “But you’re not going to get the spectacular effect when the daytime skies turn into twilight.”

Zollner said he once did experience a cloudy eclipse, in a place where’d you least expect it.

“You hear about that it’s sunny all the time in Hawaii,” he said. “Unfortunately, not on that day.”

According to the Weather Channel, the Aug. 21 forecast calls for sunny and low 80s, with a 20 percent chance of precipitation.

Zollner hopes he’ll still be around in April 2024, when the United States will again experience a total solar eclipse. He’ll be heading out for the Southwest or the Midwest as totality will be visible in Texas, Arkansas, Missouri, Illinois, Kentucky, Indiana and Michigan. Closer to home, the total eclipse will appear in western New York state.

He said that for eclipse chasers, the experience becomes their passion.

“Eclipse chasing is not just a hobby, it’s a way of life,” he said. “Many people want to see a total eclipse, but it’s not until you experience it that you really understand how overwhelming and powerful it is. It is such a strong, powerful feeling that cannot be shaken.” 

— Eric Englund

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