Solar eclipse chasers travel the world for minutes in the shadow of the moon

Travelling is an added perk for those who seek out total solar eclipses

For David Makepeace, falling in love with eclipses was just pure happenstance.

It was 1991. He was 28, and in love with a young travel agent in his hometown of Toronto.

"She and I were moonstruck to begin with," he said. "We would sit and watch the moon rise and set … So the moon was already a part of … the culture of our relationship."

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His girlfriend was recruited to visit La Paz, Mexico, to help with what was sure to be an influx of eclipse chasers and tourists from neighbouring California. She told him that it was supposed to be quite the show. He decided to join her a few days before the eclipse.

On the day of the eclipse, they ended up on a hilltop, with a clear sky and the expanse of the Pacific Ocean seeming to reach out forever.

And then it happened.

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The moon slowly enveloped the sun, and darkness descended. The sun's corona was all that could be seen for roughly six minutes. And it was life altering.

David Makepeace/Liz Malicki via CBC

David Makepeace cheers in joy and triumph after witnessing a solar eclipse in Arizona in 2012. (Liz Malicki)

"I spent the next couple of days sitting on the shores of the Sea of Cortez, with pelicans flying in and out, and diving in and out of the water, just pondering my own existence and how could something have been just so fantastic, and so uplifting? It felt like there was something I had to figure out about it."

He knew he had to see another one.

Today, Makepeace is one of the most prolific eclipse chasers in Canada. He's seen eclipses from a plane above the Norwegian Sea, from Antarctica, China, Libya and Zambia, just to name a few locations.

But it's more than a passion, it's something spiritual that's with him 24/7.

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"The initial spiritual experience is really just an awakening to the fact that you are not just the things that you're thinking in your head and the two-dimensional identity that you have."

A 'euphoric' feeling

Jay Anderson is a former meteorologist with Environment and Climate Change Canada — and another well-travelled Canadian eclipse chaser, having chased the moon's shadow for 45 years.

"Travel for me is as much a marvellous part of the eclipse as the eclipse itself," he said. "Because you're sometimes forced to go to really remote places — places that have never seen a tourist from any country before."

Like Makepeace, Anderson has travelled the world to view eclipses, visiting places like Antarctica, Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Madagascar, Egypt and Rwanda.

Judy and Jay Anderson/Jay Anderson via CBC

Solar eclipse chasers Judy and Jay Anderson celebrate after seeing a total solar eclipse in Chile in 2019. (Jay Anderson)

He believes that solar eclipses are the best displays of nature.

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"Mother Nature gives human beings several different shows," he said. "I mean, you could say forest fires, hurricanes — I know people who chase hurricanes, they chase tornadoes, too — but the solar eclipse is one of those spectacles that's harmless, in the sense that it doesn't leave destruction behind it; it leaves a whole bunch of shouting and cheering and happy people for the most part."

It's that human experience that he loves so much.

"I also say I'm a little bit of an eclipse vampire, because I like to position myself beside somebody who's never seen it before, and sort of feel the emotion coming off of them a little bit, too," he said.

"I love the moments after the eclipse when everybody is just, I mean, just euphoric, really. And it's a feeling we don't often get collectively as human beings."

'It's an addictive thing to see"

Fred Espenak is a retired NASA astronomer and the agency's lead eclipse expert.

He saw his first eclipse when he was 11. And like so many others, he knew that once just wasn't enough.

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"After the eclipse was over, I was so overwhelmed by the experience that I realized immediately, 'No, this cannot be a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I've got to see another one.' And that was the start for me."

He says travelling to see an eclipse is a gamble, but one that usually pays off.

"It's an addictive thing to see. It's so exquisitely beautiful and exciting," he said.

"And you only get a minute or two or in rare cases, four minutes to see it every two years or so … So it's a challenge to try to get to the right place and the right time and battling the weather odds, but the rewards are just an incredible experience."

He's visited every continent in search of those few minutes of almost magical daytime darkness.

"In the last 30 seconds, in the direction that the moon's shadow is approaching, the sky grows quite dark. And in those 30 seconds, you're suddenly enveloped by the edge of the moon's shadow as it sweeps over your location," Espenak said of the moment of totality.

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"Your daylight suddenly fades into this very eerie twilight. It's not as dark as night, but it's about as dark as the sky gets, perhaps 30 or 40 minutes after sunset," he said.

"It's dark enough to pick out the bright naked-eye planets and maybe a handful of bright stars. But you're plunged into that twilight in a matter of seconds. So it's very dramatic, very sudden, quite startling."

Makepeace will be chasing the moon's shadow in Mazatlan, Mexico, where weather prospects are very good. But if he gets clouded out — which has happened before — it won't affect his spirituality.

"After all these years, there's nothing that I'm still seeking really from the eclipse other than that experience I absolutely love," he said, noting that the sense of his own soulfulness he experienced during his first eclipse is something that surrounds him all the time.

"And thank you eclipses, for helping to sort of establish that disposition."

WATCH: How does a solar eclipse damage your eyes?

Thumbnail courtesy of Oren Ravid/Getty Images-1176077376.

The story was originally written by Nicole Mortillaro and published for CBC News.