How to see the polar solar eclipse of 4 December 2021

On 4 December 2021 a total solar eclipse will be viewable from Antarctica for only the second time in human history.

Photographer takes pictures of blowing snow on a sunny, windy day at Union Glacier.

If you’re stuck at home daydreaming, here’s a unique astronomical expedition you can get planning for now: a total solar eclipse in Antarctica that will bring a brief totality to an almost 24 hour day. At 07:33 Universal Time on Saturday 4 December 2021 an unusually accessible part of the 7th continent – easily reachable by cruise ship and plane from Argentina – will be thrown under the Moon’s shadow in peak tourist season.

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Regular cruises to Antarctica are normally booked-up a year or so in advance, and though there are many special ‘eclipse cruises’ being organised, the event is now less than 600 days away. It’s time to plan!

Eclipse-chasers on cruise ships will be hoping for clear skies and a still ocean during the eclipse © Albatross Expeditions
Eclipse-chasers on cruise ships will be hoping for clear skies and a still ocean during the eclipse © Albatross Expeditions

Why will the 2021 polar solar eclipse be so special?

Antarctica has 6 months of daylight in its summer and 6 months of darkness in its winter, so in early December daylight lasts for 22 hours.

The prize is an eclipsed Sun just after sunrise, a rare kind of ‘horizon-proximity’ totality that will afford those in the Moon’s shadow a glimpse of the Sun’s corona for just under 2 minutes.

What partly makes this eclipse so special is that only one group of people have ever experienced totality in Antarctica.

“I was on a Quark Expeditions trip to Antarctica in 2003 – the first human experience of totality in Antarctica,” says Babak Tafreshi, an astrophotographer and founder of The World at Night, who in 2021 will be lecturing on one of that same company’s two eclipse voyages.

“In 2003 we were in a Russian icebreaker and we visited some of the most remote places on Earth, such as the McDonald Islands, and we had challenges with the thickness of ice,” says Tafreshi, who watched the eclipse surrounded by Emperor penguins … and 5 of his own cameras.

“We saw some very unusual colours and the Sun’s corona visible behind some thin clouds – it was stunning.”

The path of totality on 4 December, 2021 © Albatross
The path of totality on 4 December, 2021 © Albatross

How to watch the eclipse from Antarctica

There are 3 places to watch the 2021 total solar eclipse: from the ice cap on Antarctica itself, on a cruise ship, or on a plane.

The first option is by far and away the most expensive. There is only one place to go; Union Glacier at 79° South, the only private seasonally-occupied camp, which is owned by Antarctic Logistics & Expeditions (ALE).

Only one travel company has access: TravelQuest is flying 60+ people to Union Glacier from Punta Arenas for around £32,000 per person.

How to watch the eclipse from a cruise ship

All options to see 2021’s only total solar eclipse are expensive, but starting at around £9,000, taking a cruise ship is probably the most affordable way to see this eclipse and have a long holiday.

At last count there were around 20 ice-strengthened polar expedition vessels intending on being inside the path of totality on 4 December, 2021.

Trips to compare include Chimu Adventures and Sur Cross aboard the Ocean Endeavor, Albatross Expeditions on the Ocean Atlantic and the Ocean Victory,  Ring of Fire Expeditions on the Le Boreal, Naturetrek on the m/v Ortelius, Astro Trails on the MV Ushuaia, Aurora Expeditions on the Greg Mortimer, Poseidon on the m/v Sea Spirit, Oceanwide Expeditions on the m/v Plancius, m/v Hondius and m/v Ortelius, Betchart Expeditions on the m/v Janssonius, Hurtigruten, on the m/s Fram and m/s Roald Amundsen and Smithsonian Journeys on the L’Austral, and Quark Expeditions.

However, many operators are selling tickets for myriad cruises. As an example, Eclipse Travel is currently offering spaces on no fewer than 17 different vessels. All of them conduct round trips from Ushuaia in Argentina.

Around 20 cruise ships are expected to congregate around the South Orkney Islands for totality © David Merron Quark Expeditions.
Around 20 cruise ships are expected to congregate around the South Orkney Islands for totality © David Merron Quark Expeditions.

What will the weather be like?

As with all kinds of astronomy, a clear sky is essential to get the full totality experience. On 4 December, 2021, the Moon’s shadow moves over an area of the globe where average cloud cover is 85-90%.

That doesn’t sound promising, and yet there are reasons to be positive. Those in planes will probably be above any cloud, and those on the ice cap itself won’t be able to move quickly.

However, cruise ships will have a tempting option; satellite imagery shows that there are often gaps in the clouds on the leeward side of the South Orkneys.

“Observing the eclipse from the sea does give us one advantage in that we’ve got some manoeuvrability, so if the cloud cover is patchy we can try to move a short distance to get into a better location,” says Fred Espenak, retired NASA astrophysicist and eclipse-chaser also known as ‘Mr Eclipse’, who is also lecturing on a Quark Expeditions cruise.

He will be praying for calm conditions as well as for clear skies.

“The tricky thing about observing an eclipse at sea is that you can never predict in advance how calm the ocean will be on eclipse day,” says Espenak.

“I’ve been on several eclipse cruises – one of them was on a very small boat where we had to hang on for dear life with one hand and try to snap a picture with a free hand, while another was as calm as a lake.”

Wherever eclipse-chasers travel to within the path of totality on 4 December, 2021, a unique experience is assured. “At just five to 10 degrees above the horizon it will be quite an amazing event to see the sun so low in the sky during a total eclipse,” says Espenak. “Whatever happens it’s going to be very exciting.”

Solar eclipse paths 2021-2041 © Fred Espenak, NASA_GSFC
© Fred Espenak, NASA_GSFC

How to watch the eclipse from a plane

With relatively poor prospects of a clear sky it’s no wonder there are a few special eclipse flights to being planned.

Taking-off from Punta Arenas in southern Chile, flights will head towards the beginning of the path of totality to give those on board a unique view.

“The full glory of totality and its magnificent corona will be seen standing seven solar diameters clear of, and above, the terrestrial horizon,” says Glenn Schneider at the Steward Observatory and the Department of Astronomy at the University of Arizona who has developed flight plans for two special eclipse flights called EFLIGHT 2021-SUNRISE.

Passengers – each paying from $6,000 per row of seats – will see an eclipsed sun for 1 minute 45 seconds just moments after a partially eclipsed sunrise.

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Jamie is editor of WhenIsTheNextEclipse.com and will be lecturing onboard Albatross Expeditions’ cruise ship ‘Ocean Victory’ during the 2021 solar eclipse.