Tens of thousands of eclipse chasers who traveled to Columbia Monday were rewarded with more than two minutes of mid-afternoon darkness, a noticeable temperature drop, and a spectacular white halo where the sun had burned brightly just moments before.
“Midnight in the middle of the afternoon,” said Cindy Wall of Savannah, Ga., who watched the 2:41 p.m. total solar eclipse from the Lake Murray Dam. “It’s the coolest thing. It was unreal, amazing.”
The celestial event brought observers from near and far to the dam, the Riverbanks Zoo, State Fairgrounds, S.C. State House, the University of South Carolina and other eclipse viewing hot spots in the Palmetto State’s capital city.
Crowds hooped and hollered when the sky went dark, as confused crickets and cicadas began chirping and street lights flickered on.
Clouds blocked the celestial event for some Columbia observers. But many got to watch the sun disappear behind the moon for two minutes and 30 seconds.
“How can you say it was more than awesome?” said Dennis Baker, a Tampa resident who flew his private plane into Columbia for the eclipse and watched it alongside thousands of observers at the State House. “Ultra, extremely awesome.”
His wife, Debbie, agreed, adding she could understand how people become addicted to chasing solar eclipses.
George Crouch, who watched the eclipse from the S.C. Emergency Management Division headquarters in Pine Ridge, described the gradually darkening sky as unusual, unlike the twilight typically seen at sunset.
“It was a weird, eerie feeling, then all of a sudden, the sky goes dark,” he said.
At the zoo
Chris Warakois, who traveled to Riverbanks Zoo from Charlotte for the eclipse, described the experience as “once in a lifetime.”
The Siamang gibbons primates on Ape Island were mostly inactive during the hot August day, only to begin calling and swinging from trees as darkness fell.
“The tiger over here started roaring, the monkeys started howling, the birds were going nuts. Some people were going nuts,” Warakois said.
Adam Hartstone-Rose, the zoo’s adjunct scientist who had students studying the animals’ reactions to the eclipse, said that reaction may have been unprecedented for the Siamangs.
“They were hooting and hollering right up to totality, and then went dead silent. I don’t think they’ve called since,” he said. “I’ve never heard of that before, and it may be entirely undocumented.”
Other animals had strong reactions to the eclipse as well.
A Komodo dragon that Hartstone-Rose said may have moved “two or three feet all day” suddenly ran the length of its enslosure and back into its habitat at the moment of totality. Flamingos began to cluster together and “chatter” during the eclipse, then at totality began to flap their clipped wings as if trying to fly away. Birds flew back and forth across their cages. And the zoo’s baboons became agitated.
“The dominant male in that enclosure went up on the bridge structure in there and began to turn in circles,” Hartstone-Rose said.
He said the animals may have been reacting to the large crowds around their enclosures. Most zoo visitors cheered when darkness fell at totality at 2:41 p.m., then stood with their eyes or phone fixed on the covered sun. But Hartstone-Rose said most zoo animals are used to being around people.
“I honestly thought we might see nothing,” he said.
Near Lake Murray
Several hundred people gathered at the boat landing and beach beside the Lake Murray dam for the celestial event, though authorities made no estimate on attendance numbers.
“It was spectacular,” Bill Shapo of Herndon, Va., said after photographing the eclipse at a boat landing beside the Lake Murray dam.
“It was as powerful as I thought it would be,” said Michael Mizrahi of Appleton, Wisc., another photographer there.
Along a typically busy stretch of Interstate 26 between Piney Grove Road and Harbison Boulevard, vehicles had their headlights on in midafternoon.
A truckload of welders stopped at a Waffle House and donned welders’ masks to gaze at the phenomena.
People gathered in nearby yards for impromptu viewing parties. Within minutes, life was readjusting to a normal August afternoon.
With the eclipse over, EMD spokesman Derrec Becker urged people not to try and leave their vantage points in South Carolina all at the same time. Staggering their departure would help prevent traffic clogs, he said.
“We hope people stay at their locations; not leave all at the same time,’’ Becker said. “Get a sense of how traffic is moving and make adjustments accordingly.
At Blythewood’s Doko Meadows Park, thousands of people soaked in the sun, relaxed under tents or umbrellas or danced to the live bands that played throughout the day.
Younger eclipse viewers crunched on snow cones, while older ones drowned cold beers.
George Zanetakos, a 71-year-old resident of Clarksburg, N.J., said he had waited for the eclipse his whole life.
“I’ve been an amateur astronomer since I was 10 years old, and this is the first solar eclipse I’ve ever seen,” he said. “I kind of knew what it was gonna be like, but when you see it in person, it’s just awe-inspiring.”
Oscar Arauz, 57, came from Greensboro, N.C., with his wife, Sandy, to catch the eclipse in Blythewood. Passersby stopped to ask Arauz about the binoculars he had attached to a tripod that projected the eclipse onto a piece of Masonite and paper.
“It is one of the safest ways of observing an eclipse,” he said. “You see more details.”
While much of Columbia was clear enough for people to see the eclipse, rain blocked out the sun and moon in a few areas.
At Fort Jackson’s Hilton Field, showers and clouds kept school children from seeing the eclipse.
The same was true in parts of northeast Columbia. The Parklane and Farrow road areas had showers at the time of the eclipse, according to the S.C. Emergency Management Division.
Sarah Ellis, Cassie Cope, Bristow Marchant, Teddy Kulmala, Sammy Fretwell, Tim Flach and Clif LeBlanc contributed to this story.