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Eclipse: Bakunawa eats the sun behind a curtain of clouds

January 15, 2010 9:53pm
A native myth tells of Bakunawa, a dragon-like snake that rises from the sea once or twice in a man’s lifetime, and reaches up to the sky to brazenly eat the sun or the moon. But this time – at least for viewers in suburban Quezon City – Bakunawa chose to consume the sun while hiding behind a curtain of clouds.

Notwithstanding the pesky cloud formations that obstructed the view, the throng of people who trooped to the Astronomical Observatory at the University of the Philippines (UP) in Diliman got several good glimpses of the longest solar eclipse the country has seen in recent history.

The spectacular astronomical event of the moon moving across the solar disk – which started at 3:49 p.m. Friday in Metro Manila – drew a crowd of about 50 astronomy enthusiasts including students in school uniform, employees from nearby offices, community residents, and kids as young as seven years old. [See: Cosmic Kid: Gabo’s fascination with the cosmos]

The eclipse, which lasted until 5:51 p.m. in Metro Manila, is the longest since 1992, according to the Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical and Astronomical Services Administration (Pagasa). It added that the eclipse was visible in various parts of the world, in a wide swath that goes across central Africa, the Indian Ocean and eastern Asia.

Annular sa ibang bansa pero as observed sa Pilipinas, partial lang ito (It's an annular eclipse for the other countries, but as observed here in the Philippines, it's just a partial eclipse)," said Renato de Leon, Pagasa specialist.

In an annular eclipse, the sun appears as a bright ring when directly in line with the moon, which in turn appears to the viewer on earth as a smaller dark disk.

Obstructive clouds

At exactly 4 p.m., however, dark clouds coming from the south of Metro Manila started to cover the sun, which by then had manifested a barely noticeable outline of the moon’s edge.

The obstructive clouds elicited a collective gasp from the expectant crowd. “Wala na (It's all over)," some of the viewers remarked.

Around 4:15 p.m., the clouds started to diffuse to show a partial view of the sun, which by then was already covered by the moon by 15 percent, according to de Leon's assessment.

The crescent sun peeks through the clouds during the partial solar eclipse on January 15, 2010. Elaine Fritzie M. Malolos via GMANews.TV's Flickr page

For the most part after that, the relentless clouds proved to be a spoiler for the highly anticipated event. As if they had a will of their own, thumbing their nose at the throng of eclipse watchers, the clouds continually moved across the sun, blocking its visibility several times.

According to de Leon, the clouds' movement was due to the prevailing weather condition of a northeast monsoon wind or amihan. “Mukhang wala nang pag-asa (Seems hopeless)," he said at one point.

Even so, the crowd lingered at the Pagasa facility's rooftop as well as on the Observatory's front yard, tinkering with their own telescopes, cameras and the simple filters distributed by the agency's personnel.

Eclipse maximum

The eclipse's maximum finally came at 4:53 p.m. and the clouds started to part, if only slightly, and allow just a few minutes of seeing the moon covering about a quarter of the sun.

The crowd gathered around the two telescopes set up by the Observatory, hoping to catch a direct and projected view of the eclipse. The children started chanting, “Ayan na! Nakikita ko na! (There it is! I see it already!)"

The partially-blocked sun is reflected through this 6-inch telescope. Piya Constantino via GMANews.TV's Flickr page

The eclipse neared its end at 5:51 p.m. just as the sun was sinking below the horizon. The crowd started thinning out.

Ok naman siya, panira lang ang clouds. Bihira lang kasi tayong makakita ng sun na lumulubog bilang crescent (The eclipse was okay, but the clouds were a spoiler. It’s just that we seldom see the sun setting as crescent-shaped)," said Edward Bornilla Jr., a member of the UP Astronomical Society, a student organization.

Two Observatory telescopes

To prepare for the event and the anticipated influx of visitors wanting to view the celestial event, the Observatory set up two telescopes: one on its rooftop and another on its front yard.

The one at the rooftop, a refracting telescope with a 6-inch lens, projected the view of the eclipse on a calibrated paper for indirect view. The other, a reflecting telescope with a 7-inch lens set on the front yard, provided a wider view, where visitors can look directly at the sun through a filter fitted on the eyepiece.

The Observatory has two other telescopes which are used for data-gathering, according to de Leon.

When there are astronomy-related events such as an eclipse, the Observatory is opened to the public for free, he added. During regular days, however, a minimal fee of P25 is charged for the use of the telescopes.

Seven-year-old Gabriele 'Gabo' Talub eagerly awaits his turn at the telescope. Piya Constantino via GMANews.TV's Flickr page

Four Observatory specialists assisted the viewers for the duration of the eclipse. A technician was also nearby to document the eclipse using a digital camera attached to a telescope.

Myth and superstition

Apart from drawing in the sky-watching enthusiasts or simply curious viewers, eclipses are also known to pique the Filipino's penchant for superstitious beliefs.

Revelinda Talub, a resident of Meycauayan, Bulacan who traveled to the Observatory with her family including her seven-year-old grandson, said she has heard of stories linking eclipses to disastrous events.

Ang alam ko lang, nagti-trigger daw 'yan ng earthquake (What I’ve heard is that it triggers earthquakes," she said.

Louise Vincent Amante, a Humanities professor who came to watch the event, also said eclipses are believed to be harbingers of negative events, such as wars and pestilence.

“A year before the Second World War, a total solar eclipse put Europe in total darkness, and people eventually connected the eclipse with the most devastating war in world history," he said.

Amante also recounted a variation of a story in Philippine mythology, originating from the Visayan region, which told of a serpent-like creature springing from the seas to eat the sun and the moon.

The creature, named Bakunawa, is described as part-dragon and part-snake with such features as scales, claws and fangs.

“The people would then have to make noise to distract the Bakunawa and make it spit out the sun," Amante said.

This time around, at least for viewers of the eclipse along the famous Manila Bay, Bakunawa slowly went down into the sea with its solar prey still partly in its mouth. A most spectacular sight indeed. – JV, GMANews.TV
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