How Eclipse Chasers Are Putting a Small Kentucky Town on the Map

Ian Hitchcock/Getty Images
Ian Hitchcock/Getty Images

The most anticipated eclipse in American history is coming this summer. At the heart of it is Hopkinsville, Kentucky, which anticipates 100,000 visitors. Mental Floss takes a look behind the small town's preparations—and a deep dive into the passionate subculture of people who chase eclipses for a living.

 

In 2007, Cheryl Cook received an email from an out-of-towner planning a trip to Hopkinsville, Kentucky. As the executive director of the town's convention and visitors bureau, Cook was used to reading messages from potential tourists. There was one hitch, though: The visitor's projected stay was 10 years away.

The purpose of the visit: A total solar eclipse was coming to the U.S. on August 21, 2017, and Hopkinsville represented a plum location to observe it. The event would be huge, the traveler said. What exactly was the town doing to prepare?

Cook says she laughed when she first read the note.

"I didn't know what to say," she recalls. "We don't work 10 years out." Then she started Googling.

Hopkinsville, it turns out, was not only smack in the middle of the eclipse's path, but was also 11 miles from what astronomers dub the "point of greatest eclipse," where the Sun, Earth, and Moon form a nearly straight line. This was more than tavern night trivia. It was a big deal. The chance of seeing a total solar eclipse hover over your front porch is itself improbable—one appears over your location, on average, every 350 years. But the odds of living at the point of greatest eclipse was, statistically speaking, zero.

In other words, Hopkinsville—a Kentucky farm town of 33,000 whose main export is bowling balls—had won the cosmic lottery.

In the years since, Hopkinsville—or Eclipseville, as it's billing itself—has done a great deal to promote itself as the place to watch the 2017 eclipse, which will trace a path from Oregon to South Carolina: the first total solar eclipse to sail over the continental United States in 99 years.

a street in hopkinsville, kentucky
Hopkinsville, Kentucky
Jimmy Emerson, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

"We've been trying to get the idea out for years that Hopkinsville is going to become very, very busy that weekend," says Scott Bain, an astronomy professor at Hopkinsville Community College. "I started my job here 10 years ago and the eclipse was one of the things they used to lure me here."

"Busy" is putting it lightly. This year's solar eclipse could be the most viewed celestial event in history. Roughly 12 million people already live in its main path. On August 21, all they have to do is step outside and gaze up. Another 78 to 88 million more Americans live within 200 miles of the eclipse's trajectory. Many of them are expected to hit the road to see it.

Most drivers will set their GPSs for rural America, aiming at modest towns like Carbondale, Illinois (pop. 26,192), home of Southern Illinois University, which expects up to 60,000 visitors on campus. Or Idaho Falls (pop. 58,374), which is predicted to double in size. Or Prineville, Oregon (pop. 9000), which may see 30,000 people show up for an eclipse-themed music and arts festival in the Ochoco National Forest.

But Hopkinsville in particular expects to draw visitors from all over the world. The town of 33,000 expects to triple in size. Some locals, such as Cook, estimate the town's population could bloat to as high as 150,000.

For many, swimming through that crowd will be a small price to pay: A total solar eclipse is a sight so beautiful and so powerful that it's known to radically shake the course of people's lives.

 
 

The first thing you'll notice is a small, dark dent. It will be difficult to see—the Sun will shine bright like every other summer day—but, if you're standing in the right spot, a dimple will appear and people will cheer.

Over the next 71 minutes, that scallop will grow. The Sun will glare like a husky crescent moon. If you're standing under a leafy tree and look down, you'll see hundreds of tiny sickles of light dance among the shadows—the attenuating sun transforms foliage into natural camera obscuras. Step out from under that canopy and you'll notice that your own shadow appears sharper.

The western sky will blacken. Above, the blues of the sky will deepen and flirt with shades of violet. On the ground, the grass, trees, and any people will assume a leaden pallor, sapped of their vibrancy as if somebody had turned the dial on the landscape's saturation settings.

a solar eclipse at the Tian'anmen Square in China
A solar eclipse from Tian'anmen Square in China
Feng Li/Getty Images

About five minutes before the total eclipse begins, the Sun, narrowed to a sliver, will remain too bright to stare at with the naked eye. The sky will be dark enough, however, for a pinprick of light to emerge: Venus, shining now even in the daytime. More planets and stars will follow.

The western horizon will loom ominously, as if a thunderstorm were brewing. People observing the eclipse from a beach may see faint shadows undulate over their toes in the sand. These ripples, which resemble the folds of light wobbling at the bottom of a swimming pool, are called shadow bands. (If there are children in your crowd, they'll enjoy chasing them.)

The Sun disappears. Lights along the lunar rim will flicker, sparkle, and pop: These are Baily's beads, the last gasps of sunlight hurtling through the valleys of the moon. They will fade until one last torch of sunlight beams along the moon's edge like a gemstone. As it fizzles, a warm red halo, for one brief instant, may gleam around the moon.

It will become eerily quiet. Birdsong will cease. Then the darkness will swallow you.

People on mountaintops will see it sweeping across the landscape, a cloak of darkness careening in their direction at more than 2000 miles per hour. This is the moon's innermost and darkest shadow, the umbra. Mabel Loomis Todd, a 19th-century eclipse writer, described it "like a wall, swift as imagination, silent as doom."

Things will get weird, and fast. The chirp of crickets may replace that of birds. Fireflies may emerge; bats may flit. Cows may low and jangle back to the barnyard. Pigs may wallow, flowers close. Chickens may return to roost or—as happened when an eclipse passed over Easter Island in 2010—freeze in place, standing flamingo-like on one leg.

A gust may sweep across your face as the wind shifts direction. Even here in August, you may shiver as the temperature sinks 10 degrees. Anybody who brought telescopes or binoculars that aren't filled with nitrogen may be disappointed as the plunge causes lenses to fog.

The Moon's umbra is so small—this year, barely 71 miles wide at most—that spectators who gaze into the distance will see to the shadow's edge. In all cardinal directions, the horizon will radiate with the oranges, reds, and purples of sunset. Directly above, the planet Jupiter, the star Regulus, and other members of the constellation Leo will sparkle.

Most people won't notice them. Their eyes will be glued to the corona.

A total solar eclipse in Svalbard, Longyearbyen, Norway
A total solar eclipse over Norway
Jon Olav Nesvold/AFP/Getty Images

Wispy tendrils of light, frothing and flailing around a deep black disc. That's the corona, a thin shell of gas millions of degrees hotter than the surface of the Sun. Our star's interior light usually renders it invisible—with the exception of this moment.

Humans have tried to describe the corona for more than three millennia, and every account is said to not do it justice. It is ineffable. But all accounts agree: It is the most beautiful phenomenon in the natural world. The corona makes sunrise over the Grand Canyon feel like a sightseeing trip to a vacant strip mall.

The only people who will see the curtain of darkness, the 360 degree sunset, the corona—what's called totality—are those lucky enough to stand underneath the moon's narrow umbra. Everybody outside of this roving path of darkness will have a much less dramatic view. Standing under the moon's wider penumbra, people in Pennsylvania or Arizona will have to shield their eyes with special eclipse-viewing glasses the entire time and will only see a small bite taken out of the Sun, like a celestial Pac-Man. It will be, in comparison, remarkably disappointing.

"Make no mistake. The difference between whether you're inside the path of totality or outside it is literally the difference between night and day," writes astronomer Tyler Nordgren in his book Sun, Moon, Earth. "No other experience comes close to the multisensory strangeness of this most unnatural of natural events."

Totality will first appear over a rocky spit of land in Oregon called Governor's Point. It will zoom over Volcanoes Stadium in the town of Keizer, where the minor-league Salem-Keizer Volcanoes will be playing the Hillsboro Hops, prompting what's believed to be the first solar eclipse delay in professional baseball history.

Within 14 minutes, the umbra will slip over the Cascades into Idaho and, fittingly, the tip of Craters of the Moon National Monument.

2017 Eclipse Path
iStock // Lucy Quintanilla

The shadow will make stops in Grand Teton National Park and rove over Alliance, Nebraska to visit Carhenge (a replica of Stonehenge built from 39 automobiles spray painted to resemble monolithic bluestones). The umbra will divide Nebraska and hurtle over dozens of small towns before barely clipping Kansas and Iowa. In Missouri, it will fly over the towns of California, Cuba, Washington, and Mexico. It will also visit a crowd of 71,000 spectators packed in Faurot Field, home of the University of Missouri Tigers.

By the time the eclipse enters Kentucky, the umbra will have slowed to approximately 1451 miles per hour. At 1:24 p.m. (CT), the Sun, Moon, and Earth will nearly align. For two minutes and 40.1 seconds, the moon's shadow will mask a quilt of corn, tobacco, wheat, alfalfa, and soybean farms a few miles northwest of Hopkinsville, Kentucky.

In the crowd will surely be a handful of people who live for this moment. They go by many names: umbraphiles, ecliptomaniacs, total(it)y nuts, even lunatics. Most, however, call themselves eclipse chasers.

 
 

When James McClean was 12 years old, a lunar eclipse cruised over his house in suburban New Jersey. It was a hot August night, and McClean asked his mom for permission to drag a lounge chair outside to watch it. When a concerned neighbor—confused by the sight of a prepubescent squatter on one of the neighborhood lawns—saw McClean, they called the police.

At two in the morning, a cop pulled in front of McClean's yard.

"What's going on?" the officer said. Without missing a beat, the 12-year-old spent the next 20 minutes lecturing that police officer on the quirks of celestial mechanics. By the time McClean finished, the cop stood convinced: The two watched the lunar eclipse together from the lawn. "I've been hooked on this kind of stuff since," McClean says.

Today, James McClean is an eclipse chaser. That's not the name of some cute weekend hobby. It's a lifestyle. For the past two decades, McClean, a professional photographer, has given up everything resembling a normal life. He has no permanent home base, opting instead to trot the globe, work odd jobs, and live on tight budgets to see solar eclipses.

Every. Single. One.

James McClean
James McClean

McClean has made a living as a cartographer and an aurora borealis tour guide. He's lived on an island near Sitka, Alaska and taught photography. (When he needed Internet, he'd kayak an hour and a half to the nearest library.) He's spent summers in Germany doing archaeology and winters in Sweden constructing, and living in, a hotel made of ice. He's slept in bamboo huts on top of volcanic islands, backpacked through Egypt, and trudged the snows of Svalbard, Norway. One time, in Indonesia, he was invited to sip coffee in a sultan's palace.

As he told me, "You know, I've struggled with, 'Do I take this job? It pays more money, but then I won't see the eclipse. Or do I take this job where I know I'll lose money, see the eclipse, and do good for people? That's the job I took."

Currently, McClean works as a park ranger at South Dakota's Jewel Cave National Monument. I met up with him this spring as he passed through New York City, where we rendezvoused, fittingly, by the telescope and binoculars section at the B&H Photo Video superstore. He's a mutton-chopped man, 50, with an encyclopedic knowledge of photography and an infectious zeal for what he calls "that corona-action."

Standing by a sea of telescopes, he gestured toward the equipment. "Eclipse chasing is a stupidly expensive hobby," he said. "I can do it because I have nothing. I walk the Earth like Cain." He wasn't kidding. At one point, when we got on the topic of home offices, he motioned to a book-sized tin perched under his arm, a former chocolate box adorned with depictions of Mickey Mouse, in which he kept plane tickets, documents, notebooks, and his iPad. "This is my office," he said.

McClean is not alone in his pursuit. There are hundreds of people just like him, somewhere between 300 to 800 who are so passionate about solar eclipses that they will drop everything and travel to the ends of the Earth to experience one.

"We all come from different walks of life, different countries, but there's that one thing: We love a total eclipse of the Sun—that unites us," says David Makepeace, a Canadian eclipse chaser and professional videographer. "I've become friends with people I would have never met in any other way, and I might not have anything else in common with them but this. We love this shit. It's our whole existence."

Eclipse chasers are as evangelical as they are dedicated. In 2010, an eclipse passed over Chile's Easter Island, one of the most remote inhabited places on Earth. It's home to roughly 6000 people and is notoriously difficult to reach. Four thousand visitors still showed up.

A similar scenario played out in 2015 when a total solar eclipse passed over the Faroe Islands, a small archipelago 200 miles north of Scotland. The islands, which only have 800 hotel beds between them, expected somewhere between 3000 and 5000 visitors. Actual attendance surpassed 11,000.

spectators on the beach for a total solar eclipse in Palm Cove, Australia
Spectators gather in Palm Cove, Australia
Ian Hitchcock/Getty Images

In 2012, Australia learned the hard way what happens when you don't heed the warnings of eclipse chasers. "Astronomy clubs and other eclipse chasers there had tried to warn them: This is a much bigger deal than you think!" Makepeace recalls. "It wasn't until the last minute that they took it seriously—they tried to control traffic, but it was a fiasco."

Months out, officials had estimated that 30,000 people would visit the northern reaches of Queensland, Australia. They were wrong. Twice as many showed up.

It's these kinds of numbers that Cheryl Cook, Hopkinsville's tourism director, discovered when she opened her search engine 10 years ago. "I was looking at ones that had been in China, and how many people were there and what they did, and I said, 'Oh my gosh, this is a really big deal!'"

Which makes you wonder: What's the fuss about?

 
 

McClean and I were walking and talking along Manhattan's High Line on a soggy day when, suddenly, his sentences started growing exclamation points. "The problem with solar eclipses is that everybody has seen pictures! They think they know what it's like! But their whole perception is based on bad photography!"

You know the photos: A black hole in the heavens circled by a soft, opalescent halo. Even the best photography, McClean insists, can distort people's impressions. That's because total solar eclipses aren't something you see, but something you experience. "Don't think you know what this is," Makepeace said with a rhetorical wag of his finger. "Don't think you already saw one in school when you were a kid. You didn't."

Watching the star disappear during daytime stirs something deep within the brain. Our circadian rhythm, which regulates biochemical processes within the body, is braided to the light-and-dark rhythms of the Sun. When that's radically disrupted, it may spark an innate chemical rush that many describe as pure primal fear. As Nordgren puts it, "[M]y mind screams at the wrongness of what I am seeing."

John Dvorak, a science writer and trained planetary geophysicist, agrees. "The sight of a total eclipse—the sudden darkening of the sky, the radiant corona, the blood-red prominences circled around the edge of what had just been a brilliant Sun—was the most primal experience I have ever had," he writes in Mask of the Sun. "It was as if the most primitive part of the brain—the part inherited from reptiles—kicked into play and now controlled my emotions."

Primal fear is a complex nervous system response. When the brain processes unfamiliar or unusual surroundings—such as, say, a colossal sheet of darkness hurtling in your direction at Mach 3—the amygdala, the brain's fear center, goes haywire. It incites an unconscious reaction that is difficult to articulate, even for those expecting it. McClean, for instance, felt afraid when he witnessed his first eclipse. "I was terrified," he says. "I felt a sense of dread … It was like the Eye of Sauron was peering through your SOUL."

Kate Russo, an eclipse chaser and psychologist, describes the response in her book Total Addiction. "Our logical minds understand what is happening, but our basic primitive warning systems go into overdrive." Like the first drop of a rollercoaster, this experience can be deeply thrilling—and addicting. For people like McClean, the rush can make drugs look unimaginably lame. "I have, let's say, preparatory research with psychedelics," he says in Russo's book. "[A]fter an experience like a total eclipse, I realize, who needs the stuff? Reality alone is weird enough."

You can't blame the brain for freaking out. Total solar eclipses are an anomaly. Our Sun, which is 400 times larger than the Moon, is also 400 times as far from the Earth. According to the book Totality: Eclipses of the Sun, if the Moon were a mere 169 miles smaller in diameter—or if the Sun were a pinch closer—total solar eclipses would never occur. The corona would remain the stuff of imagination. The sight, in fact, would resemble Martian eclipses, where the asteroid-sized moons Phobos and Deimos prance across the Sun like cosmic googly eyes.

An annular eclipse, as captured by the Curiosity rover on Mars
An annular eclipse, as captured by the Curiosity rover on Mars
NASA

That natural we-are-doomed feeling is probably why many cultures have viewed eclipses as portents of misfortune. The Tlaxcala people of Mexico sacrificed people of ruddy complexions at the sight of an eclipse; the Aztecs targeted dwarves. The Ojibwe Indians of North America tried to relight the heavens by shooting flaming arrows into the sky. In the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, pregnant women still follow Vedic scripture and rub their bellies with a mixture of ghee (clarified butter) and cow dung to avoid an eclipse's contaminating air. In ancient China, where eclipses were regarded as indictments of the current ruler—a cosmic approval rating, if you will—record-keepers would fabricate eclipse reports to thumb their nose at unpopular leaders.

People across the globe went to great lengths to predict an impending eclipse, in hopes to prepare for the ensuing havoc. In ancient Mesopotamia, officials protected the royal bloodline by hiding kings and queens and hiring "stand-ins" as the eclipse approached. In 1628, when astrologers predicted an eclipse would kill Pope Urban, the Holy Father was whisked away to a secret room and treated with rose vinegar, silk cloths, music, and magic. He lived. Two years later, when astrologers again predicted an eclipse would kill Urban, cardinals flocked to Rome to usher in his replacement. After surviving this second eclipse, the annoyed pontiff made history by banning astrology from the Church.

(That didn't stop believers. Days before a partial solar eclipse in 1654, Catholics in France scrambled to confess their sins. One parish priest, drowning in requests, fibbed and told parishioners the event had been postponed.)

By the 19th century, terror would cave to awe. The astronomer Francis Baily wrote he was "electrified at the sight of one of the most brilliant and splendid phenomena that can well be imagined." His contemporary in Vienna, Adalbert Stifter, witnessed crowds crying at the sight. "I have always taken the old descriptions of eclipses to be exaggerated," he said. The event changed his mind. And when the poet Emily Dickinson saw a total eclipse, even a veritable garden of dashes couldn't help her describe it.

It sounded as if the Streets were running -
And then the Streets stood still -
Eclipse - was all we could see at the Window,
And Awe - was all we could feel -

In 1925, when a total solar eclipse passed over New York City, Alvin Peterson, the Navy's chief quartermaster, stood atop a dirigible and recorded a video. His description of the event was admirably succinct:

"It was the weirdest sensation I have experienced."

 
 

In 1764, a foal was born at the stables of Windsor Great Park in England. A total solar eclipse towered overhead. The horse, named Eclipse in honor of this fact, would later win 18 of 18 races and retire a stud. More than a century later, his great-great-great-great-great grandson, Aristides, would win the first Kentucky Derby in two minutes and 37 seconds—a time nearly equal to this year's totality.

Kentuckians like to riff on the Derby's slogan—the "most exciting two minutes in sports"—and joke that the Bluegrass State will be the starting gate of "the most exciting two and a half minutes in astronomy."

Most of that excitement will fall on the Orchardale-Shepherd Farm, located 11 miles northwest of Hopkinsville. The 170-acre farm will be the point of greatest eclipse. The prize for winning the solar system's Powerball? A whole bunch of strangers on the lawn.

The farm has been in Mark Cansler's family for about a century. When he learned that the farm would be cosmic ground zero, he was unsure what to do. "We tried to make some arrangements like food vendors and insurance, but we weren't sure we wanted to do all that," he says. A share of other farmers had decided to close their property off to spectators—they have crops, and a living, to protect—but Cansler, with his farm at the epicenter, "guessed it would be a shame if people wanted to come and look at the eclipse and there was no place for them to see it." He and his family, like many other locals, set aside a viewing area and is renting spots for RVs on a few acres of fallow land.

Nobody knows if that will be enough room.

Farmland in Christian County, Kentucky
Farmland in Christian County, Kentucky
Stephen Conn, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

That uncertainty is rippling across the country right now. The eclipse will pass over five state capitals—Salem, Lincoln, Jefferson City, Nashville, and Columbia—cities that likely have the resources and budgets to prepare for a tidal wave of visitors. It's a different story for the small towns riding the eclipse's centerline. As Steve Kemp, a services director for the Great Smoky Mountains Association, told the Asheville Citizen-Times, the best views will be "way out in the boonies." And people are coming.

Kate Russo, the psychologist who also works as an eclipse-planning consultant, pointed out that the 2017 eclipse will pass over 1000 communities, "and most of them will be under-resourced. These small communities, they usually have one person who does multiple jobs, and they're not able to think on this scale. They just don't usually need to, because nothing this big happens."

She said, "I've been saying this repeatedly to people, the hidden story is how all of these communities are preparing for what's going on. It's an unprecedented event."

The logistical challenges involved in managing a rural town that may quintuple in size for 24 hours can be intimidating. Gas stations could run out of fuel. Grocery stores and restaurants could run out of food. ATMs could run out of cash. Roads that rarely see traffic could clog.

Hopkinsville, however, is emblematic of the Herculean efforts small towns across the country are making to ensure that none of this happens.

The town, which expects visitors from across the U.S. as well as from as far as Germany, Brazil, and Japan, has hired a full-time eclipse coordinator. They've requested 85 National Guard and a handful of state police be on hand to help control traffic on the two-lane highways lacing the countryside. They've advised locals to avoid eating out on the days before the eclipse to ease the food crunch, and they've hired at least 50 food vendors to set up shop downtown (50 more vendors will be located at different spots around the county). Officials have encouraged locals to acquire temporary health and safety licenses to hawk snacks.

If roads jam on August 21, ambulances could be marooned on country lanes, a scenario that's prompted Hopkinsville's local Red Cross and other nonprofits to certify more residents in First Aid. The town even designated extra landing zones for med-evac helicopters and established a makeshift alternative care site in the northern reaches of the county. Emergency managers from Lexington and Louisville are on speed dial in case Hopkinsville needs reinforcement choppers.

Hopkinsville's regional airport, which has space for 40 small airplanes, expects twice as many aircraft to land that weekend. It will install extra tiedowns. Aviators better have rooms booked: A night's stay for that weekend at the local Hampton Inn or Comfort Suites, according to Cook, is currently running "anywhere from $400 to $800." Pickings are slim on Airbnb too, where, as of press time, a one bedroom ranges from $170 to $4050 a night. To make more space, the town plans to transform its parks into campsites and RV lots, building communal dump sites so visitors can safely dispose of gray and black water. Some areas have already sold out.

To prevent light pollution, the city teamed up with utility companies to manually stop streetlights from flipping on during totality. It's more complicated than it sounds. "It's not like one big switch on the grid!" says Brooke Jung, Hopkinsville's eclipse coordinator. The town has also worked with shop owners to stop light-sensitive business signs from flickering when the sky blackens.

A lack of technology outside of town, however, is a bigger concern: The farmland near the point of greatest eclipse, where thousands of people are expected to gather, has no cell service. AT&T will install a MEGA-COW, a temporary cellular tower on wheels, to transform the wireless desert. In the meantime, Hopkinsville has stockpiled everything from folding lawn chairs to porta-potties. "I tell you what. If you had a share in porta-potties right now, you'd be doing well," Russo says.

You'd be cashing in if you held stock in eclipse-viewing glasses, too.

It goes without saying that, unless you want to look like a pirate for the rest of your life, staring directly at the Sun is a bad idea. Thirty seconds is all it takes to cause permanent eye damage, which often goes unnoticed because it rarely causes pain [PDF]. Injuries have plagued every solar eclipse. In Europe, in 1999, 70 people lost some vision. Four years earlier in India, 21 people suffered eye damage. Since sunglasses don't cut it, Hopkinsville ordered 100,000 pairs of eclipse-viewing glasses, which Cook sells for 50 cents a pop. (The school district also purchased a pair for each student.)

This story playing out in Hopkinsville is quietly playing out in small towns across the U.S., from Oregon to South Carolina. "That doesn't mean it won't be chaotic," Cook says. "But it will be organized chaos."

When I asked her what the people in Hopkinsville's tourism office would be doing the day after the eclipse, Cook's voice lilted with excitement: "Oh, we're gonna take the day off!"

 
 

The experience of watching an eclipse can be so intense it spurs some people to reevaluate their lives. Before Makepeace saw his first total eclipse in 1991, he had set life on cruise-control. "I liked my job in film and video. I liked girls. That was pretty much it," he says. In fact, he was chasing a woman when he traveled to Baja, Mexico, to see his first eclipse: His girlfriend was working for a travel agency promoting the event and he decided to tag along.

David Makepeace
Makepeace in Indonesia
David Makepeace

That eclipse lasted almost seven minutes—one of the century's longest—and it shook Makepeace. He spent the next few days sitting on the beach in a daze of suspended awe. "It took two days for me to say, OK, how am I actually feeling about this? And then I started digesting that. I've been digesting it for 25 years." He's chased eclipses ever since.

Kate Russo had a similar experience. Being a science enthusiast who loves to travel, she figured it'd be a fun one-time event. "I thought a total eclipse would be something I see and move on," she said. "And then when I went, I was completely overwhelmed. It blew my mind. I knew it was going to be a good experience, but I had no idea it was going to be completely overwhelming, smacked around the face, wake up and go WHOA. And straight after that, I thought, I have to do this again—I didn't even know there were eclipse chasers—I just knew that I had this full compulsion to see this again, I have to feel that again, I have to see it again. I got to do it."

When she returned home, she checked a science textbook and discovered a map depicting future eclipse paths. "I saw that and thought: This is my life."

Future eclipses
iStock // Lucy Quintanilla

Russo's eclipse-chasing has brought her to Mongolia, to the brink of deportation in Russia, and to the muddy rivers of Mozambique, where she paddled dug-out canoes with tribesmen. It's led Makepeace to visit all seven continents, fly prop planes in the Australian outback, spend 30 days on an Antarctic icebreaker, and flirt with the Iraq-Turkey no-fly zone.

All to see eclipses.

An idea from the 18th century might help explain why, for some, the experience can transfigure lives.

Today, people slap the word sublime on oversized cheesecakes and graceful tennis volleys, but in the 19th century, philosophers such as Arthur Schopenhauer had a different meaning in mind: The sublime was an overwhelming feeling of awe that overcame people when they confronted something so powerful, so incalculably grand, that it forced in his words a "turning away of the will"—that is, viewers lost themselves in pure contemplation. The sublime transcends beauty. It's paralysis by awe.

Eclipses are arguably the sublime at its most potent. "Because it is so compressed in this time, and it's so intense, nothing else comes close," Makepeace says. The Moon's shadow could basically put the country's mindfulness gurus out of work. "We're all intensely focused on the same thing, and there's nobody whose focus is elsewhere."

Easter Island
A total solar eclipse over Easter Island, Chile
Martin Bernetti/AFP/Getty Images

Such responses aren't new. For centuries, eclipses have had a reputation of causing people to remake their lives for the better. In 585 BCE, as the Lydians warred the Medes, an eclipse supposedly appeared over the battlefield and inspired the soldiers to call a truce. In 1183, the Minamoto and Taira clans of Japan were in the midst of a three-year civil war, yet, when an eclipse appeared, both sides dropped their weapons. In 1988, when the astronomer Sir Patrick Moore visited the Philippines to view an eclipse, people feared terrorists would target visitors. "But when we went there, the three terrorist groups issued a combined statement that they weren't going to shoot at us, and they didn't," he recalls in Total Addiction. "It was jolly sporting of them!"

A story McClean tells about the 2009 total solar eclipse in China sums it up well. As totality ended, another American in the crowd—an eclipse virgin—fumbled for his cell phone to call home. "Mom! Remember that time we saw that documentary about those crazy eclipse chasers?" he yelled. "Well, I'm one of them now!"

 
 

Ask anybody in Hopkinsville, and they'll tell you that August 21 is an uncanny date for an eclipse to arrive. The people of Christian County have a history of seeing otherworldly objects in the sky that day.

On August 21, 1955, a blinding light tumbled over rural Kentucky. Billy Ray Taylor, a visitor staying in a packed rural farmhouse a few miles outside of Hopkinsville, was drawing water from a well when he saw the light whisk across the horizon, leaving a contrail of "exhaust all the colors of the rainbow."

Taylor ran into the farmhouse and yammered about having witnessed a UFO. Nobody listened. As suppertime passed, and as dusk crept in, a hound outside began to bay. Taylor and a man named Lucky Sutton grabbed two guns and stepped out to investigate. Outside waited a group of creatures. One eyeballed the men from a tree branch.

It stood two and half feet tall: silver, with spindly legs, pointed ears, a large head, luminescent yellow eyes, and a long talon protruding from its hands. It could float. Sutton and Taylor shot at the creature and scrambled into the house, watching nervously from the window as night fell.

Big golden eyes glowed from the other side. The farmhouse matriarch, Glennie Lankford, shoved her youngest children under the bed as the roof rattled, the sound of claws scraping above. Gunshots rang out. The creature in the window dodged. Then the eyes peered again through the hole.

This game of peekaboo reportedly continued for hours.

Eventually, the family sprinted outside and drove eight miles to Hopkinsville's police headquarters. As the Kentucky New Era reported the next day, the family's distress appeared genuine. "We need help," one of them said. "We've been fighting them for nearly four hours."

Four city police, five state troopers, three deputy sheriffs, and some military police drove to the farm, but when they arrived, nothing was there but a hole in the window and, according to lore, a graveyard of spent shells and casings. After investigating for two hours, authorities found no signs of the creatures.

Today, the "Kelly-Hopkinsville encounter" is a favorite among UFO-philes [PDF]. Explanations range from extraterrestrials to monkeys that escaped from a traveling circus. The FBI's famed investigation into UFOs, Project Blue Book, calls the account a hoax. Paranormal investigator Joe Nickell, however, believes the family genuinely saw something: a dusk-loving critter with large yellow eyes, skinny legs, claws, talons, and the power to hover … called the great horned owl.

Avian or Alien?
Sarah Turbin

Avian or alien, the Kelly-Hopkinsville creature is cheekily celebrated by the town every August 21 with the "Little Green Men Days Festival," a celebration full of arts and crafts booths, cheesy T-shirts, bouncy castles, and excuses to eat fried dough. This year, however, the county is pulling out all the stops for the eclipse. In addition to the Little Green Men Days Festival, there will be a three-day music festival, a mini comic-con, a bluegrass bash, a bourbon mashoree, and more than 20 other events, including visits from NASA scientists and a lecture from the director of the Vatican Observatory.

The total economic boost may exceed $30 million.

For some, the coincidence of having the eclipse fall on the same date as a purported extraterrestrial encounter remains too eerie. "I like to say they came to pick up their viewing spot, they just came early," Cook says. "It just gives you the chills!"

 
 

In 2013, James McClean boarded a pondhopper in Nairobi, Kenya and flew two hours north to the town of Lodwar. He flagged down a taxi—which "cost about $2 and the time it takes to fix three flat tires"—and traveled 36 miles to the village of Kalokal, a sandy hamlet along the western shores of Lake Turkana. A park ranger sat there waiting for him, propped atop a motorcycle. McClean grabbed his backpack, hopped on, and puttered to his base camp.

For the next two weeks, he prepared for an eclipse that would last 12 seconds.

McClean shuttled between Lodwar and Kalokal to scout different viewing locations, build rapport with locals, and set up equipment. On eclipse day, it was a balmy 80 degrees with a few puffy clouds in an otherwise blue sky. McClean placed his cameras along the shore of Lake Turkana, framing a small grass hut and thousands of pink flamingos standing in the shallows.

In the mid afternoon, the Moon chewed into the Sun, right on schedule. In the distance, darkness steamed across the landscape.

This was not the Moon's shadow.

fisherman from the El Molo tribe walks back with his net at sunrise in the village of Komote
A fisherman from the El Molo tribe walks along Lake Turkana.
Carl De Souza/AFP/GettyImages

Eclipses generate shifty winds. As ground temperatures cool under the umbra, warm air may stop rising and wind can alter course. The currents had caused a sandstorm. McClean chuckled as it rolled through a camp of moneyed tourists who had just flown in. "I thought, Look! all of those people who paid $8000 for that fly-in adventure are in the middle of this epic sandstorm."

Twenty minutes later, he stopped laughing. Minutes before totality, McClean watched a small island in the middle of the lake disappear. The sandstorm barreled straight for him.

"It was a dark wall of DOOM," McClean says. "Straight from the Scorpion King!" Large shards of sand—hard, painful pieces resembling "powdered glass or candied sugar"—swirled in the air. McClean abandoned his equipment, jumped into a taxi, and found shelter among a few grass huts.

The sky darkened. McClean looked up and saw sand. Twelve seconds later, daylight returned. "We all got skunked," he says.

That's the hard truth of eclipse chasing: Mother Nature holds the steering wheel. Many people who chase the 2017 eclipse, including those in Hopkinsville, could get skunked too: All it takes is one well placed cloud. In fact, a number of diehard eclipse chasers are avoiding the point of greatest eclipse in favor of states such as Wyoming where foul weather and big crowds are less likely.

"As ironic as it is, as large and open and free to move around in as this country is, this one's gonna be really hard to find a place in the west unless you arrange something with a rancher or if you're very skilled with rock-climbing," McClean says. In other words, the bulk of casual chasers will funnel to towns like Hopkinsville that are not only close to major cities, but are also ready to put on a party regardless of the weather.

Assuming skies are clear, the number of people who could catch the eclipse-chasing bug is anybody's guess.

"People say to me, 'I wish I could chase eclipses … if only I had the time," McClean said. He leaned in and carefully weighed his words. "Look. I have given up so much in my life just to have the time. I have nothing. I have this iPad, some Nikons I need to sell—I've given it all up to see eclipses. I have my backpack and my health, thank God, and I'm starting to think if I'm not crazy."

Is it crazy to give up expectations of a normal life, to take gigantic financial risks and literally go to the ends of the Earth, to experience something that may last only 12 seconds? What if those 12 seconds make you feel incandescently alive? Is that as crazy as having a passion you neglect? As crazy as actively choosing to spend most of your waking hours staring into the bug zapperish glow of a computer screen?

Russo is a psychologist, so I had to ask: Am I—your typical city slicker desk jockey—the crazy one? She just laughed. "Everybody is passionate or obsessed about something. Maybe they haven't found it, or maybe it's not as developed as other people's may be … but when you find your thing, and it becomes a part of who you are, it becomes a way of life. That's why I call [eclipse-chasing] an addiction. It's a positive addiction though, because it doesn't take anything away from your life. It gives you something."

portrait of Kate Russo
Kate Russo
Paul McErlane

Makepeace can vouch for that. When asked if he's made sacrifices, he shook his head. "I think there have been consequences for the way I've lived, to be less stable and more spontaneous—but those are things I love about life," he says. "I generally have spent 100 grand or 150 grand traveling, that could have gone into a house, and I could have equity. But then I'd be a boring son of a bitch."

Say what you will: Eclipse chasers are finely tuned to what matters most to them.

 
 

In Hopkinsville, the total eclipse of the Sun will last two minutes and 40.1 seconds. After that, the Sun will reappear, cleanup will begin, and the umbra will bolt into Tennessee at speeds tickling Mach 2. After giving Nashville a show, it will graze the corner of Georgia and North Carolina and sail over Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Its last stop will be South Carolina, where it will, appropriately, make its curtain call by visiting a lineup of small towns—like Anderson (pop: 26,686), Saluda (pop: 3565), Kinards (pop: 810)—before tipping its hat in Charleston. At 2:49 p.m. EDT, the 2017 eclipse will charge over two lighthouses, a sandy barrier island, and disappear over the Atlantic Ocean.

Who knows what will be left in its wake.

 

Kate Russo's new book about ordinary people experiencing an eclipse for the first time, Being in the Shadow, is available now.

Also out now: David Makepeace's latest documentary about the hunt for eclipses, Still Hooked.

How Two Biologists Put A Killer Whale Back Together, Bone by Bone

It might have been the splashing of harbor seals that caught his attention.

Without making a sound, the bullet-shaped killer whale named T44 might have turned and accelerated toward the seals through the clear, cold waters of British Columbia’s Johnstone Strait, gaining speed with each thrust of his powerful tail. He wouldn’t have been alone—several female whales and their calves, also part of northern Vancouver Island’s T pod, swam alongside him, and when they reached the group of plump harbor seals, they struck.

T44's black-and-white head would have shot out of the sea, veered in a half-turn to catch the flipper of the panicked seal in its teeth, and dragged it down below the surface. Using his paddle-shaped flippers like rudders, the orca might have breached again with the seal still in his jaws, arcing clear of the water before falling back.

We don’t know for sure—no one witnessed T44’s final hunt. But we do know that at some point, T44 swallowed the 100-pound seal, claws and all. He had chased down about 15 harbor seals in the week before this catch.

But this one, in March 2009, would be T44's last.

Not long after, fishermen found T44’s body floating in the strait, a narrow channel separating the rocky coasts of northeastern Vancouver Island and mainland British Columbia. The whale had been born there about 30 years earlier, and had never left the area.

T44's story wasn’t over, though. Its huge body would be salvaged and its bones stripped of flesh and oil. Mike DeRoos and Michi Main, two of the world's top skeleton articulators—people who rebuild an animal's bones into a scientifically accurate skeleton—would reassemble the cleaned bones in their workshop. From an inert puzzle of bone and steel, the couple would resurrect T44 in a true-to-nature pose for a local museum, giving the killer whale a second life.

 

Humans have been fascinated by killer whales’ savage intelligence for centuries. The Roman historian Pliny the Elder wrote that “their Likeness cannot be represented by any other Figure than that of a mighty Lump of Flesh, armed with terrible Teeth.” As the sea’s apex predators, orcas inspired legends among Pacific Northwest whaling peoples like the Makah and Nuu-Chah-Nulth. In the 18th century, naturalist Carl Linnaeus named them Delphinus orca, or “demon dolphin.” Their current scientific name, Orcinus orca, translates to “demon from hell.”

Telegraph Cove British Columbia
Telegraph Cove on Vancouver Island, British Columbia
David Stanley, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Modern scientists are just beginning to study and understand the animals' culture. The northern Pacific Ocean is home to three killer whale ecotypes—populations that are genetically, behaviorally, and geographically distinct from one another. Endangered resident killer whales mainly eat salmon, while little is known about offshore killer whales, which prowl the edge of the continental shelf.

T44 was a transient killer whale, the ecotype that specializes in hunting marine mammals. (In the 1970s, marine biologist Michael Bigg noted they had taller dorsal fins and didn’t interact with the residents, leading him to conclude that they were just passing through—transients, in other words. They're also called "Bigg’s killer whales.") They roam the coastal waters of British Columbia, where the channels and bays of the Inside Passage brim with seals, sea lions, porpoises, dolphins, and baleen whales. Groups of transients are known to take on gray whale calves and minke whales. Humpback whales, twice as long and five times heavier than a fully grown orca, have been seen with rake marks on their flukes and flippers from the transients’ teeth.

T44 killer whale at Telegraph Cove, British Columbia in 2007
T44, identified by his distinctive dorsal fin shape, swims by Telegraph Cove in 2007.
Jared Towers

When hunting, transients rely on stealth. Traveling in small groups of four or five, they passively listen for the splash of a seal, the whoosh of a minke surfacing to exhale, or the call of a mother gray whale to her calf. One transient group may signal other transients with quiet clicks at specific intervals, inviting them to join the hunting party; biologists believe transients share a limited vocabulary to aid communication between unrelated groups. Then, the killers attack with shocking ferocity. They seem to like playing with their prey before tearing it to pieces. “If people see them hunting, there’s often red blood in the water, and it can be kind of gruesome,” DeRoos, the skeleton articulator, tells Mental Floss. A soft-voiced biologist who speaks thoughtfully about cetacean murder, DeRoos has been studying orcas and rebuilding their bones for more than 15 years. “They’re the real killer whale,” he adds.

Born in 1978, T44 was the 44th identified whale in the transient population around the northern end of Vancouver Island. He spent almost all of his life in the waters around Telegraph Cove, a tiny settlement on the island’s east coast. Crowded by dense cedar forest on one side and Johnstone Strait on the other, the former fishing and cannery village is now a seasonal hub for eco-tourism. Between May and October, thousands of visitors come to see the strait’s humpback whales blow prismatic jets of vapor and Steller sea lions pose on the rocks. Most tourists hope to glimpse the orcas as they chase 30-pound Chinooks or punt hapless dolphins into the air.

Killer whale T44 towed to Telegraph Cove harbor in British Columbia
Jim Borrowman and Graeme Ellis tow the body of T44 to Telegraph Cove so biologists can perform a necropsy on the killer whale.
Courtesy of Mary Borrowman

Jim Borrowman, one of about 12 year-round residents of Telegraph Cove, opened the village’s Whale Interpretive Centre in 2002 after co-founding British Columbia’s first whale watching company in 1980. The center exhibits skeletons of cetaceans common to local waters, including a 60-foot fin whale and a gray whale, whose carcasses were found floating near Telegraph Cove.

It was Borrowman who received the phone call on March 31, 2009, about a dead killer whale in Johnstone Strait. The Canadian Coast Guard had identified it as an orca and called Graeme Ellis, a local killer whale researcher and Borrowman's friend. “Graeme called me up and said, ‘We’ve got this dead killer whale. The [Coast Guard] ship tied it up in a bay on the north end of the island,’” Borrowman, a garrulous old salt, tells Mental Floss. “Graeme said he wanted to try and figure out if we could identify it still—once these whales die, they lose their skin quite quickly and all their identifying marks. But he definitely wanted to do a necropsy [to find the cause of death]. These are very rare finds and very important finds.”

“I really wanted a bigger killer whale for the museum; I have a juvenile already,” Borrowman adds. “Graeme said, ‘If you can tow it down, you can have it.’ I said, ‘Hurry and get here!’”

From Telegraph Cove, the two men drove Borrowman’s whale-watching boat to where the Coast Guard ship had secured the orca. Major decomposition had yet to set in, and Ellis recognized it right away. “We knew it was a Bigg’s type. T44 had a big nick on the back edge of the dorsal fin. And there were a few scratches left on the saddle patch area, some marks there, so Graeme could positively identify it,” Borrowman says.

They worked quickly to tie a thick nylon line around the whale’s flukes as gale-force winds whipped up. As they towed T44 behind the boat toward Telegraph Cove, the 7-ton whale snapped the tow line, but Borrowman managed to rehook it. They waited out the storm overnight on shore. A light snow was falling the following morning when they arrived in Telegraph Cove, where 18 scientists were waiting with flensing knives in hand.

 

The first step in preparing T44 for his second life took days. First, the scientists, who came from the island's Pacific Biological Station, "spent all day cutting all the bones completely apart and trimmed as much of the meat off as we could. During this time, [biologist] Steven Rafferty took measurements and collected all the samples he needed,” Borrowman says.

Killer whale skull and vertebrae in skeleton articulation workshop
T44's skull rests on a workbench while the vertebrae are mounted on the steel bar.
Mike DeRoos

T44 appeared to be a healthy, mature 31-year-old male, about 25.5 feet long and roughly 15,000 pounds, with no bruising or obvious signs of a ship strike. (The average lifespan of a male orca is about 30 years, while females live for an average of 50 years, and some much longer.) There were more than 300 seal claws in T44’s stomach, indicating that he ate roughly 15 to 20 harbor seals in his final week, along with two yellow plastic flipper tags from juvenile elephant seals. Researchers were unable, however, to point to a cause of death based on tissue samples. “It could simply be that he lived and died a fairly normal life,” Borrowman says.

When the necropsy was complete, the biologists turned the carcass over to Borrowman. He and a few others continued cutting the skeleton apart for several more days. Now, the months-long process of cleaning and degreasing T44’s skeleton for display in the Whale Interpretive Centre began. Every morsel of rotting muscle and blubber, every cartilaginous tendon and bit of skin, would need to be removed from the exterior of the bones. Every pint of oil, which helps keep live whales buoyant, would have to be drained from their porous tissue.

From his earlier experience denuding the 60-foot, 60-ton fin whale, Borrowman had determined that sea scavengers—fish, crabs, shrimp, and microbes—are the best cleaners for the job. The fish and crustaceans pick off the flesh, while marine bacteria burrow into the bone. In the cold waters of Johnstone Strait, the oil would solidify into a wax for them to devour.

The crew put T44’s skull in netting to hang it from a dock, while the mandibles, including the teeth, went into large apple juice barrels with holes punched in the lids. Pectoral fins—which were so heavy it took four men to lift them—were secured in large fish totes and weighted down. They tied all of the loose ribs together in bundles and strung about three dozen star-shaped vertebrae on lines. Then, they heaved everything into Telegraph Cove harbor.

“The meat goes quickly,” Borrowman says. “The problem is that every species, and every age of every species, has a different amount of oil in it and time period that it takes to get it out. And there’s no book on that.” Any oil that remains in the bones will ooze out, drop by drop, sometimes for decades.

T44’s bones remained underwater for a year. In the spring of 2010, Borrowman brought up the bundles and barrels, encrusted with barnacles and anemones, and pried off the lids. He spread the cleaned bones on Telegraph Cove’s dock so the sun’s heat could liquify most of the remaining oil, which took several months to drain out. Later, he put some of the individual bones on display in the Whale Interpretive Centre for a few years.

Then, he hired Mike DeRoos and Michi Main to put T44 back together.

 

DeRoos and Main, a husband-and-wife skeleton articulating team, operate from their home and workshop on Salt Spring Island, just down the main highway from Telegraph Cove. Both are trained as biologists; DeRoos learned the art of putting skeletons together as one of the first student workers hired at the Whale Interpretive Centre in 2002. “I grew up working with my dad, building things. I’ve always loved working with my hands and figuring out how to put things together. Building skeletons just seemed like the extension of that,” DeRoos says. “If I hadn’t become a biologist, I probably would have gone into engineering.”

Killer whale skull, vertebrae, and ribs mounted on steel supports
T44's skull and ribs are mounted on to the backbone.
Mike DeRoos

In September 2017, Borrowman delivered T44 to the workshop. The bones would need no further degreasing, but that hasn’t been the case with every project DeRoos and Main have worked on. After the marine scavengers and the sun’s rays do their jobs, DeRoos will often bury skeletons in big piles of horse manure for up to six months. The heat of the composting process transforms the oil from a viscous, coconut-oil consistency to a flowing liquid, and microbes in the manure will consume most of it. To get bones completely oil-free, DeRoos will employ an industrial-strength vapor degreaser—a type of machine originally used in aerospace manufacturing facilities to clean out aircraft engines. The degreaser uses solvents to dissolve any remaining oil in the bones in a few hours.

Cleaning the bones of every speck of oil and tissue is essential, because whale guts in any stage of decomposition are not pleasant. “It can have a really rancid, fishy, rotting flesh smell—or, if it’s really fresh, it just has sort of a warm, semi-sweet, bloody fish smell,” DeRoos says. “If you get the tiniest little bit of rotten whale guts on your clothing or on your body, the smell will really follow you. The worst thing, the very worst thing, is when it’s late at night, after you’ve cleaned up from working, it follows you into your house, into places where it shouldn’t be.”

“Some people naturally have a stronger stomach than others,” he adds. “Mine is able to handle a lot of pretty bad stuff.”

By early 2018, the fully degreased, cream-colored pieces of T44 lay in piles around DeRoos’s workshop. The tusk-like ribs spooned on a tarp. The whale’s massive skull was propped on a workbench, seeming to watch DeRoos and Main as they planned T44’s next phase.

Long before the couple begins articulating an animal’s skeleton, they conduct hours of research to learn as much as they can about the species’ natural history. As biologists, they have spent the summer months out on boats in the glacier-hewn channels and straits of British Columbia, monitoring marine mammals and watching how they behave. They’ll consult other scientists and browse their photos of the species from the field. And they'll also watch videos of the animals underwater to understand the nuances of their movement—"to put our own minds into the body of the animal we’re working on," DeRoos says. “Seeing live animals really inspires what I do with the dead ones.”

Mike DeRoos works on the killer whale rib cage
Mike DeRoos works on the killer whale's rib cage.

With a particular set of bones to be articulated, DeRoos and Main will consider the animal’s age, sex, and geographical origin, and look for imperfections that could serve as clues to the animal’s life. “I look at every bone of the skeleton and pick out the abnormalities, like if the animal had a broken rib or a disease in one place that has altered the bones,” he says. “That gives you an intimate, first-hand story about how the animal really lived.”

The details help shape the final narrative of the skeleton, which DeRoos and Main evoke through its posture and the setting where it will eventually be installed. For an earlier killer whale skeleton that is now exhibited at the Noyo Center for Marine Science in Fort Bragg, California, they worked from the contents of its stomach—six harbor seals—to design a posture highlighting “the ferocity, efficiency, and amazing characteristics of this hunter in the ocean,” Main says. “When people come in and experience an exhibit, they have the opportunity to really interact with a killer whale’s jaws, those big teeth. That can really be a good hook to draw people in. We decided [on] this really dynamic rolling, diving hunting posture with its jaws wide open—so when people walk into that exhibit, they walk right into the mouth of this killer whale. You can almost imagine yourself as the prey.”

Skeleton articulator Michi Main and an assistant assemble killer whale flipper bones
Michi Main (left) assembles the flipper bones on the steel support bars. Baby Kaito and assistant Nikoya Catry-Bauer help out.
Mike DeRoos

DeRoos and Main also looked at the space in the Whale Interpretive Centre where T44 would eventually reside. After talking with Borrowman about how he wanted to fit the skeleton into the museum, they decided on positioning the whale in a sharp, banking right turn, diving down as though he were chasing escaping prey. “I started imagining T44 among a group of killer whales, attacking a sea lion, ramming it with their heads, attacking it again, making tight maneuvers around the kill,” DeRoos says. “That’s a dynamic story to tell.”

Back in their workshop, DeRoos and Main faced the challenge of correctly assembling T44 as he was in life. There is no standard manual for orca anatomy, and scientists still aren't sure how many bones an orca is supposed to have. Most killer whales have about 180 bones; within that number are between 53 and 58 vertebrae, 11 to 12 pairs of ribs, and a widely varying number of flipper bones, plus the skull, jaws, and teeth. The bone totals vary among individual whales even within the same species.

That makes articulation based on previous models and skeletons a guessing game. They’ve consulted old Russian whaling texts, which contained the earliest reliable records of killer whale anatomy, for clues. They also examine 3D scans of skeletons they’ve worked on previously, which gives them a framework for conceptualizing the right number and position of bones in their current project.

Replica teeth to be placed in a killer whale skull
The 3D-printed teeth wait to be placed in T44's jaws.
Mike DeRoos

For T44, DeRoos and Main drew scaled-down sketches to make sure their vision for the skeleton was actually something a living whale could do. Using the drawings and DeRoss’s engineering skills, they fashioned the sections of strong but lightweight steel armature that would underlie the entire finished skeleton.

First, they created the steel beams to hold the heaviest pieces—the 110-pound skull and jawbones—in place. Then, they used a hydraulic pipe bender on a huge steel bar that would support the hefty spine and ribs. The big vertebrae were the literal backbone of the entire project; once the steel pipe was bent into the final position evoking a diving orca, the vertebrae were mounted on the support with steel pins. DeRoos and Main had to get these pieces in perfect position before moving on. “The key to all this is having spent time in the field with living whales,” he says. “You have to have a good plan, because you can’t go back once the bones are on.”

From there, the ribs were attached with steel cables onto another steel support, which presents a challenge. “The ribs are finicky," DeRoos says. "If they’re misaligned, it makes the whole thing look bad, because in a living animal they work together seamlessly.” He also mounted the amazing number of flipper bones—imagine the skeletons of two huge human hands, with five to seven joints in each finger—along thin steel rods. Most of the body's supports are hidden behind the larger bones, while flipper mounts blend in between the smaller pieces. He finished off the mess of cables and steel bars with permanent epoxy glues, then removed the temporary supports.

“This elegant mount has no visible external structure, and that really allows people to see what is out in nature. It helps to convey the story in a big way,” Main says.

Killer whale rib cage and vertebrae in the back of a pickup truck
T44's ribs and vertebrae are packed in the pickup for their journey to the Whale Interpretive Centre.

But then, they ran into a problem. Some of the bones were missing—likely lost while they lay in Telegraph Cover harbor, scattered by currents or accidentally cut loose by a passing boat's propeller. “The last 5 feet of tail—about 14 vertebrae—and the entire sternum, plus a couple of sternum ribs, were missing,” DeRoos says. “And we had only about two-thirds of the chevron bones, which fit underneath the tail vertebrae and protect the major blood vessel running back there. There should be about 14 and we had, like, six.”

He turned to 3D printing, comparing T44’s existing bones to those of five other killer whale skeletons in their workshop to find one that most closely matched T44’s dimensions. A slightly older male northern resident killer whale named I46, a salmon-eater from British Columbia, filled in. “We measured [I46] in three or four different ways to come up with a scaling factor for width and height. We scanned I46’s bones and applied the scaling factor to basically blow them up a bit in size to match what was missing from T44, and that’s what we had printed,” he says. “Once we get these bones mounted and painted and on the skeleton, I don’t think anyone would be able to distinguish them as replicas.”

As a finishing touch, T44 got a set of false teeth—not because he had had poor dental hygiene, but because an orca’s solid ivory teeth, each weighing a quarter-pound, can be irresistible souvenirs. “People will walk off with them or try to pull them out of the skeleton,” DeRoos says, sighing. As a solution, he cast each tooth in plastic resin, and a team of volunteers hand-painted the set, which will be bolted to the jaw. “They took each original tooth and matched the paint color, the details, and the stains using artists’ acrylics. They put a matte gloss on the tooth itself and a shiny gloss on the tips,” he says. “They’re virtually indistinguishable from the originals.”

 

Finally, in May 2018, the couple readied T44 for his new life. DeRoos and Main, their three kids, DeRoos’s parents, and several friends drove up to Telegraph Cove in a parade of pickups, the skeleton in five large articulated sections lashed onto trailers. The Whale Interpretive Centre had been prepared for their arrival; the staff had moved the fin whale and smaller orca skeletons out of the way and exhibits had been temporarily pushed to the side. The team planned to assemble the sections on the floor of the hangar-like space—a difficult task when you’re trying to connect several hundred pounds of backbone and ribs to another hundred pounds of backbone by aligning screw-hole to screw-hole. But T44 slid together without a hitch.

Killer whale skeleton mounted in a museum
Now fully assembled, T44 is mounted from the ceiling at the Whale Interpretive Centre.
Mike DeRoos

The team then rigged the completed skeleton with strong ropes, attached to a system of chain hoists, and raised it toward the ceiling, inch by inch. DeRoos checked its position; T44’s big ribcage and string of vertebrae came pretty close to the building’s interior posts. “I wasn’t sure how we’d be able to position his flippers, but we managed to fit everything,” he says. “The really fun part was when we put his lower jaws on. The big, impressive teeth were a hit with everyone.”

Now, T44 hovers overhead like the apex predator he was, menacing an imaginary sea lion in the cold, clear waters of Johnstone Strait. DeRoos pictures him diving down among the kelp, circling his frantic prey, beating it to a pulp exactly as he had when he was alive.

After nine years and thousands of hours of labor, T44 was back home.

Select photography courtesy of Taylor Roades. This story was made possible in part by the Institute for Journalism and Natural Resources.

The Reason Newborn Babies Don't Produce Tears

leungchopan/iStock via Getty Images
leungchopan/iStock via Getty Images

As anyone who has spent time with a newborn knows, babies are swaddled and be-diapered packages consisting of mucus, spittle, hiccups, and poop. With their ability to discharge seemingly any kind of liquid, it’s curious that they don’t actually produce tears when they cry.

According to Live Science, newborns can fuss and wail without making tears. To understand why, it helps to know why we make tears in the first place. Watery eye discharge appears when sadness, happiness, or other strong emotions provoke a fight-or-flight response, prompting our eyes to well up to better protect them from perceived harm. Tears also help us alleviate stress.

Infants' tear ducts are not fully operational at birth, however. They can cry and their eyes will get moist, but not enough tears are produced to result in noticeable dribbling. It’s not until three to four weeks after birth that babies are able to have full-fledged bawling sessions. In some babies, it can take up to two months.

You won’t be able to squeeze much sweat out of newborns, either. Eccrine glands that produce sweat on the body don’t gear up until shortly after birth, and for a period of time babies will produce sweat only on their foreheads.

Of course, babies can’t walk, talk, or digest solid foods, either. Getting them up to speed on human functions takes time. The only thing that seems fully operational from day one are their vocal cords.

[h/t Live Science]

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