'For 15 years, I Had Planned': The Story of a Cape Girardeau Eclipse Chaser

Aug 20, 2017

Eric Cunningham is the city attorney for Cape Girardeau. But not too long ago, he spent his spare time trekking the globe as an eclipse chaser. It’s a journey that started nearly 40 years ago in 1979 as a student at the University of Missouri. He didn’t get a chance to see the eclipse, but it didn’t stop him from spending countless hours and years tracking others down. Although his days of chasing eclipses are somewhat behind him, come Monday Cunningham won’t have to go too far to see another one.

Interview Highlights

On why he got into eclipse chasing

Cunningham: When I see a total eclipse of the sun I see an awesome God. [I see] an awesome creator that hung all the stars in space and created everything with a mathematical precision that when you look at the orbits of the moon and the earth, it is so mathematically precise that they can mark the places of the shadows on the ground hundreds and thousands of years in the future and in the past. Because it is so mathematically perfect.

On what the first eclipse he saw in Bolivia

Cunningham: You have wanted something for as I've described here 15 years. I had been wanting to see a total eclipse of the sun. [For] fifteen years I had planned where the next place would be. With expenses for travel and being a college student, and then fresh out of college and beginning a new job, having to save money to make those kinds of trips. There was a lot of expense. There was a lot of effort to it. And a lot of study because it was going to be that expensive. You wanted to go where the chances of seeing it were the best. And so, you studied weather patterns and all of these things. And so, because of all of that preparation, the morning of Nov. 3, 1994, [when] the sand storm had subsided and the clouds had dissipated and the sun was coming up at around 20 after eight, when the last little bit of the light of the sun went behind the moon, the feeling of exhilaration was difficult to describe. Everybody was cheering. People were shouting. There were thousands of people out in the middle of nothing on the Altiplano in Bolivia. And it was just a spectacular occurrence to see as the first diamond ring took effect and then totality was there with the corona being so visible. It was about three and a half minutes I think of totality before the diamond ring came out on the other side.    

On what happens during an eclipse

Cunningham: It's important to realize just what it is that you're seeing. Here the moon is in between the sun and the earth. And the moon is moving between the sun and the earth, and what we see is that little shadow that round ball shadow, which is very tiny on the surface of the earth going from west to east. And as it goes across a particular area, if you happen to be in the path of the path of totality then you will see a bright ball of the sun and when the moon's shadow first touches it, you will see just a little nick that forms there. That's called first contact. And then that will continue across the disk of the sun until it covers the entire disk of the sun. That is called second contact. And at that moment, you will be able to see the corona that oral plasma around the sun, which is not normally visible. Immediately prior to that, a couple of neat things happen. Just before totality when you can see the corona of the sun. There will be the last little bit of light of the moon just before it is covered by the moon, and you will see the beginning of the corona and the last little bit of light of the sun. And if you take a picture just right and you see that I have one right here, it looks like a diamond ring. And that is what they call the diamond ring effect. That only lasts for a couple of seconds just before totality. And so you get one chance to get that just before totality and if you missed it, you get another chance as the moon comes away from the disk of the sun on the other side and the sun starts to appear again.