Jeffery Keffer, a West Virginia CEO, arrived last March in Svalbard, a chilly, remote Norwegian archipelago where polar bears roam. He’d come specifically for the total solar eclipse, a rare event during which the moon passes between the earth and the sun, resulting in a bright, halolike ring behind a shroud of complete darkness. Although Svalbard had been named the earth’s prime viewing spot for this particular eclipse—the place where the darkness, also known as “totality,” would last the longest—photos, Keffer knew, would be tricky. He’d brought with him a professional’s arsenal of eclipse gear: a Tele Vue 76mm refractor, his Canon image stabilization binoculars, a camera with several lenses and half a dozen solar filters, specially made to help capture natural-color images of the sun, even though, as he says, “it’s the images that I carry with me in my memory that make these trips so worthwhile.”
There are a lot of those images—the Svalbard solar eclipse was Keffer’s thirteenth.
Keffer is part of a global band of passionate devotees known as “eclipse chasers” who travel to far-flung locations, rearranging schedules and often sparing few expenses, to glimpse an event that lasts anywhere from just two to seven minutes. It’s less hobby than object of obsession. “Eclipse chasing is a bucket list that never ends,” says Keffer, if mostly because eclipses happen, in some form, every 18 months or so—there’s always a new one to chase. Keffer’s love affair started in 1991 at the southern tip of the Baja Peninsula, and he’s since traveled in pursuit of darkness from the Taklamakan and Gobi deserts in far western China to the Cook Islands, Zambia, Chilean Patagonia and Antarctica.
Letting the earth’s eclipse pattern dictate the when and where of your vacations might seem a little restrictive, and yet those who get into it really get into it. After planning two years in advance, seven-time eclipse chasers Giuseppe and Patrizia Piccinotti arrived in Svalbard from Northern Italy ready for, as Patrizia says, “the combination of a total solar eclipse, a fantastic trip around it that included dog sledding and snowmobiling and a reunion with previous eclipse-chasing friends.” As U.K.-based psychologist and author Kate Russo, a nine-time eclipse chaser, says, “for some people, it’s impossible to just stop at one.”
Well-heeled travelers typically accompany niche travel outfits, like Arizona-based TravelQuest International, to reap the benefits of luxe hotel accommodations and access to prime viewing spots, both of which are often claimed years in advance. Shrewd businesses know how to capitalize on the event—this is often referred to as the “eclipse tax.” In Svalbard, the population doubled. Over 800 commercial beds were sold out close to four years in advance, and rooms, usually averaging $350 per night, commanded as much as a 100 percent rate increase. Some hotels set a minimum stay at five nights. Last-minute travelers, as you might imagine, often pay substantially more, if they can find a place to stay at all.
Which is why chasers are already preparing for a trip to the Indonesian islands of Sumatra and Sulawesi, which will play host to a total solar eclipse in March of 2016. TravelQuest, which says that 65 percent of its eclipse travelers have already seen at least one, is offering two custom itineraries on the ground as well as a 100-person luxury cruise through the Spice Islands, where low cloud coverage promises optimal viewing.
Keffer and his wife will be on this cruise. “For some reason the tropical Spice Islands sound much more inviting than the Arctic,” he quips. That said, for chasers, part of the allure lies in the invitation to visit destinations they might have otherwise overlooked—to follow the darkness, wherever it leads. “Would I have ever planned to travel across China on Mao’s personal train, flown over the South Pole, canoed by hippos in the Okavango Delta or watched a rainbow grace Easter Island?” Keffer asks. “Probably not. But by chasing eclipses I have done all of the above and much more.”