Total solar eclipse, a breathtaking sight
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By London-based Flight Attendant Rebecca Robbins
As the U.S. prepared for the Great American Eclipse on Aug. 21, I, too, planned my own trip to witness what was surely one of the most awe-inspiring spectacles in Mother Nature's extensive repertoire.
I can directly attribute my excitement for total solar eclipses to my job as a flight attendant: I vividly remember in late 1994 - just 18 months after I began my flying career with United - encountering a group of very excited passengers boarding a flight I was working. Having an inquisitive nature, I asked them, "Where are you going? What is all the equipment for?" They replied, "We're going to see the total solar eclipse in Chile!" With those words, a seed was sown deeply and irretrievably in my consciousness, a seed that in future years would take on a life of its own when I would myself become an occasional eclipse chaser.
There is no other way of describing it: To witness a total solar eclipse is breathtaking and humbling. Here is my story of the total solar eclipse I was so fortunate to see in 2015.
It was March 20, 2015, and we were bobbing around in the Norwegian Sea somewhere east of Iceland and north of the Faroe Islands.
Why there and why then? Every so often it happens that in the normal course of their current orbit, the earth and moon align with the sun to create the perfect conditions for something very, very special: a total solar eclipse. On this particular occasion, it coincided with both a supermoon and the spring equinox.
So it was that, in 2015 after negotiating hurricane force 12 winds on our way to reach the area closest to the greatest eclipse and greatest duration, now that the big day had finally arrived, I drew back the curtains at 6 a.m. in great anticipation and ventured excitedly outside.
My heart sank to find leaden, heavily overcast skies where we were hoping for cloudless blue. Instead, we had snow. With little under two-and-a-half hours to go before "first contact," the very special moment when the moon begins its passage over the face of the sun, all we could do was hope that we might be lucky and that something miraculous would happen. I asked the clouds to kindly go away and retreated inside for a cup of steaming hot coffee as I wished for the skies to clear, deciding that a positive mindset was the only order of the day: I truly believed it was possible.
An hour later, it became apparent that dreams really can come true. I could see a slight thinning of the clouds -- things were definitely looking up!
Sure enough, as the first moment of "contact" between moon and sun arrived, the clouds had thinned sufficiently for us to see this long-awaited, momentous event. There it was: a small crescent of the mighty sun disappearing as the relatively tiny moon arrived right on time to begin blotting out its fiery counterpart, seemingly nibbling away at the sun's surface second by second, almost imperceptibly.
As the eclipse progressed over the course of the next hour, we were overjoyed to see the clouds becoming ever thinner. Noticing a large patch of blue sky a little way off, I felt curiously confident that, with gentle winds now blowing in the right direction, this cloud-free spot could actually coincide with the moment we were waiting for... and indeed it did. With the moon moving farther and farther over the face of the sun, the temperature started to fall. By now, the penumbra (the dimmer shadow of the moon cast by the many points of the sun) was very apparent. The penumbra is experienced to some degree in all places that see the partial eclipse. It was as if twilight was falling at 9:30 a.m. Magical.
Those leaden skies of the early morning had almost gone, and the last sliver of sun was clearly visible, a tiny crescent of light: an amazing vision in itself, but what came next was just breathtaking.
I could hardly believe it: The eclipsing sun was now seen in a patch of clear, blue sky. After earlier fears that this marvel of astronomy - so anticipated for many, many months, even years - would be hidden by thick clouds, we watched almost with our breath held as the moon made its final progression over the face of the sun. First, the beautiful "diamond ring" as the last visible rays of sun shone between the deep ridges and valleys of the moon's surface (Baily's beads), then ... totality! The moon eclipsed the sun completely. The only sound was a spontaneous, collective gasp of wonder from everyone gathered there.
In an instant, we were plunged into nighttime as the moon's actual shadow, the umbra, passed directly overhead and all light from the sun was obscured. Now it was possible to take off the protective glasses needed during the partial eclipse and observe features of the sun it is not possible to see with the naked eye.
Around the circumference of the moon, the sun's searing chromosphere could be seen, blazing prominences firing from its surface. Totally lost in the moment, this sight was so magnificent, I felt entirely overwhelmed by its beauty and tears of joy flowed uncontrollably down my face.
The sun's corona could be seen streaming away from the surface of the sun (as seen in my photo) extending thousands of miles above the surface of the star. It's been determined that the corona can reach super-heated temperatures greater than 1,000,000°C (1,800,000°F).
In the darkness of daytime, stars and planets appeared, the temperature plummeted and it was impossible not to feel deeply thankful at that moment for the light and warmth that the sun provides us day in and day out with no expectation of gratitude. For a while, time seemed to stand still as we stared in wonder at the incredible scene playing out before us. Sadly, after a glorious two minutes and 46 seconds, it was time for the planet to move on.
For a while, it was possible to observe the moon progressing away. Seeing the planet quietly moving on was a little like waving off an old friend after a long-anticipated, particularly joyful reunion, and I couldn't help but feel rather sad that the moment was now over.
Curiously at this point the clouds returned and began in wisps to hide the diminishing eclipse from view. Before long, they had covered it and we were left with only thoughts and memories of a most majestic and unforgettable event.
From the sublime to the ridiculous, with nothing else to see, I headed off to get a celebratory and warming cup of mulled wine and a couple of sausage and bacon sandwiches. But then, whilst most people headed off to the warmth of the bar or to their cabin to grab a sneaky, mid-morning snooze before lunch, I felt unable to allow the moon to finish its eclipse without an audience. Just as I will sit in the cinema at the end of a film to watch the entire credits roll, I wanted to see this show through to the very end in gratitude to the moon for an awe-inspiring performance. Seemingly taking pity on my terrestrial pathos, the clouds offered me a parting gift and drew back to reveal the final moments of the eclipse as if in a final ovation. Back out on deck, leaning on the ship's rail, with the sea foaming noisily below as we headed toward our next destination and with the sun now gently warming my face, I stared up at those two celestial bodies - still partially aligned - for several minutes more until thick, grey clouds literally brought the curtain down on this wondrous show, and for the second time that day it began to snow. The chilly wind sent me scurrying back inside to contemplate the immensity of what I had witnessed. I wondered where the little moon was heading all alone. Two nights later I found out and I will share that with you soon.
This most stunning spectacle left me in a state of disbelief, and for the remainder of the day I drifted around in a daze, unable to stop reflecting on what we had seen and our extreme good fortune that the weather had been so very favorable. This was due in no small part to the navigational expertise of our ship's captain under the guidance of our brilliant astronomer on board, Pete Lawrence, who had spent many evenings poring over weather projections for a small, remote zone close to the area of maximum totality/maximum duration where the weather was, naturally, largely unpredictable. Fortunately we had the advantage of being aboard a very powerful ship, so we were able to change our position overnight. Eclipse chasers, literally. It could easily have become an unsuccessful game of cat and mouse, but Pete's brilliant foresight took us to exactly where we needed to be and we are all indebted to his tireless efforts on our behalf.
Long after the event, I still find myself pondering on it. I had never imagined that I would be there in that remote place, at that time, to see the remarkable sight. How fortunate indeed I was. On a much greater scale, the knowledge that in years to come this simply won't be possible makes me very philosophical. We do not notice it, but the moon is actually moving away from earth at a rate of almost four centimeters per year, meaning that at some time in the future, total solar eclipses as seen from our earth will cease to be. The perfect alignment of planet and star will still occur, but the relative size of the moon will be too small when seen from the earth to cover the face of the sun in its entirety and only an annular eclipse will be seen, a ring of light around the moon. But don't worry, you still have plenty of opportunity to seek out a total solar eclipse, as this won't happen for approximately 563 million years from now.
We live in times that are more fortunate than we know. Above us, the planets' infinite orbital course continues uninterrupted. The sun and the moon don't even know how special they are, they just do what they have always done. After the glorious eclipse of March 2015, I returned to terra firma, literally and metaphorically (well, almost). Back home, the usual routine resumed for me, too, but I found myself somehow changed by the experience. For whilst the timing and occurrence of the eclipse was a certainty, having traveled to the middle of the ocean and with the best will in the world, there was no guarantee that we would actually see it. But see it we did, and it was (believe it or not, in spite of my ramblings) beautiful beyond words and something I would recommend anyone to try to see once in a lifetime.
Just as I put all my trust in the simple belief that it could indeed be possible for this eclipse to manifest itself to me, I approach the future with the same optimism. If I dare to venture into those places to which my mind guides and tempts me, be they actual locations or ideas in my imagination, why should I not believe that wonderful things can happen there? I just need to go, see, do and believe. With that in mind, I'll share with you a passage by W.H.Murray from "The Scottish Himalayan Expedition, 1951" that sums up precisely how I am left feeling by this moment:
"We had definitely committed ourselves and were halfway out of our ruts. We had put down our passage money, booked a sailing to Bombay. This may sound too simple, but is great in consequence. Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back, always ineffectiveness.
"Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation) there is one elementary truth the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then providence moves too. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one's favour all manner of unforeseen incidents, meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamt would have come his way." In common, contemporary parlance, "Just do it."
I feel so very fortunate that my chosen career with United affords me endless opportunity for discovery and a constant wellspring of inspiration in the form of the people I meet in the course of my everyday work, both colleagues and customers. It has been almost a quarter of a century since I began flying, and in that time I have been taken to adventures I never imagined. My life changed forever that day I first put on my uniform, and whilst I am no longer able to physically fit into it, I carry with me always the magic it bestowed on me, opening my eyes to potential far beyond my view. All I have to do is reach out my arms and take flight.
Canada's largest city spreads out along the northwestern shore of Lake Ontario, and it's a dynamic, multicultural and inclusive experience like almost no other place on earth. Not only is Toronto a thriving living city,it's also become one of the world's truly must-visit destinations. Regularly ranked as one of the greatest places to live, Toronto is the cultural center of the country and home to the biggest events, the most pro sports and the greatest concentration of theaters and restaurants.
Recent decades have seen regular multi-million-dollar upgrades to the city's public spaces, with a slew of great museums, iconic architecture and the redevelopment of the now glittering lakefront adding to the city's appeal.
Add in an ever-growing number of world-class hotels, upbeat nightlife that runs from dusk until dawn and a vibrant and diverse culinary scene influenced by the eclectic makeup of the city's people. Bright and bustling, cosmopolitan and cultured, unpredictable and energetic, Toronto has become one of the greatest cities on earth.
What you see and where you go will depend on the length of your stay. A week is good, longer is better. But even a long weekend will give you a taste of 'The Six' — one of the city's many nicknames, reworked recently as 'The 6ix' by one of its most famous sons, Drake.
However long you stay, you can't hope to see it all. So, consider what follows a starting point for your first visit…
City Hall, Toronto
The checklist sites
No visit to The Six can be considered complete without ticking off several of Toronto's true heavyweight sights. All of the following are in or within easy reach of the city's compact, walk-able and very vibrant center.
The CN Tower is unmissable in every sense, a vast freestanding spire that looks down upon the city and takes its place as one of the 'Seven Wonders of the Modern World'. Head up for the city's best 360-degree views, or get your heart racing on the EdgeWalk — a journey around the circumference of the tower's main pod, 116 stories high and tethered by a harness.
Back on solid ground, Ripley's Aquarium is almost right next door to the CN Tower and is home to 16,000 aquatic animals and the Dangerous Lagoon. A moving sidewalk that whisks you through a long tunnel surrounded by sharks and stingrays is guaranteed to make your heart race all over again.
Also close to the CN Tower is the Rogers Center, home to Canada's only baseball team, the Toronto Blue Jays. Visit on game day for the full experience, or take the stadium tour to go behind the scenes and through closed doors.
In a city of so many museums and galleries, the Royal Ontario Museum stands out. Not just because it's home to a world-class collection of 13 million artworks, cultural objects and natural history specimens, but as much because it hosts exciting Friday night events that include dance, drink and top DJs.
Two other must ticks include the Art Gallery of Ontario, which houses 95,000 works of art and is free for visitors under 25, and the Hockey Hall of Fame, which taps into Canada's national obsession in stunning depth.
Art Gallery of Ontario
Casa Loma is a must-visit Gothic castle in the heart of the city. North America's only castle is filled with artworks and treasures from Canada and beyond, but its big pull is the network of hidden tunnels to explore as they stretch out beneath the city.
Toronto's multi-cultural makeup is visible all across the city but reflected best in its remarkable culinary scene (see Where to eat and drink). The city's 'fresh and local' mantra is perfectly showcased at St. Lawrence Market, one of the world's greatest food experiences. Pay it a visit and grab a peameal bacon sandwich — a Canadian staple invented in Toronto and now considered the city's signature dish.
St. Lawrence Market
Afterwards, walk off the calories by wandering the historic cobblestone and car-free Distillery District. Once a vast whiskey distillery and an important spot during prohibition, historians mention that even Al Capone would visit the Distillery to load alcohol destined for the States . This iconic landmark now distils creativity within the 19th century buildings now home to hip restaurants, bars, independent boutique stores, galleries and theaters. Visit in December for the Toronto Christmas Market.
Finally, don't even think about returning home without having had a picture taken with your head poking through an 'O' of the multicolored, 3D Toronto sign at City Hall — the most Insta-worthy location in a city of so many. You'll need to head there early in the morning to avoid the crowds.
If you stay long enough, take a ferry and hop across to Toronto Islands, a chain of 15 small islands in Lake Ontario just south of the mainland. They're home to beaches, a theme park and a breathtaking view of the city's skyline and will very happily fill a full day of your stay.
The bucket list
You absolutely cannot leave Toronto without having witnessed the power of the Niagara Falls and its hypnotic mist up close. Trying to visit the Falls from the States is a trip on its own, but it's almost non-optional when you're less than two hours away in Toronto. Take the trip, buy the T-shirt and tick off one of the world's must-see sights.
Explore like a local
Away from the sleek, gleaming towers of downtown lie many of Toronto's less obvious but no less essential attractions. West Queen West is Toronto's hippest neighborhood and artistic heart, a one-mile strip of very chic galleries, stores, restaurants and boutique hotels. Kensington Market is a fantastically chaotic neighborhood and perhaps the best example of the city's famous multiculturalism. It's not a market as the name implies, but a collection of independent shops, vintage boutiques, art spaces, cafés, bars and restaurants from every corner of the globe.
The Bata Shoe Museum is one of the city's quirkiest collections, an unexpectedly fascinating exhibit that retraces the 4,500-year history of footwear. And as you wander the city, you can't fail to notice that Toronto's walls are alive with graffiti. Take a free 90-minute walking tour through the back alleys of Queen Street West and down Graffiti Alley to gain a better understanding of the city's street art scene. If you visit during the sunnier months, escape the hustle by heading just east of the center to High Park, the green heart of the city where forests, walking trails, picnic spots and even a zoo await you. Ideal to unwind after a long day of urban adventures.
When to go With the sun shining, May through October is a great time to visit, but the city is alive through all four seasons. The Spring and Autumn months are ideal as the humidity and visitor numbers are lighter, while Toronto comes alive through the colder months through a wide array of winter celebrations. One of the most spectacular is the Aurora Winter Festival, a six-week celebration that sees the Ontario Place, West Island transformed into four mystical worlds. Whichever season you choose, plan to stay for at least five nights to get a true flavor of the city.
Toronto skyline view
Where to stay To be at the heart of most of the attractions you'll want to see, aim for downtown. One of the best options is the Marriott City Center, not only because it's located right next to the CN Tower but also because it's attached to the iconic Rogers Center where the Toronto Blue Jays play and countless concerts and popular events are held.
Toronto Blue Jay stadium
Opt for a Stadium room and you'll look out onto the field. If you want to experience Toronto's non-stop nightlife, the Entertainment District is the place to be. If you're looking for a luxury experience, discover Canada's first St. Regis hotel in the heart of downtown.
Where to eat and drink Nowhere is Toronto's incredible diversity more evident than in its food scene — taste Toronto and you're tasting the world. The city is brimming with restaurants and cafés serving everything from high-end fine dining to comfort food from an informal neighborhood joint — plus every option imaginable in between.
For fine dining, consider Alo, Canis and Edulis. Book a table at Canoe, Lavelle, The One Eighty or 360 at the CN Tower and you're guaranteeing a view as spectacular as the food. Or experience the city's remarkable fusion food at DaiLo (French-Cantonese), El Catrin (Mexican-French) and the unexpected mashup of Rasta Pasta (Jamaican-Italian).
The above suggestions don't even scratch the surface of a food scene to rival any city on earth, with options to suit every taste and any budget.
How to get around Toronto is perfect to explore on foot or via a growing network of cycle routes. For a quicker journey, buy a Presto card to use the TTC, Toronto's subway, streetcar and bus system.
How to get there Fly into Toronto Pearson International Airport (YYZ) with United and you're around 15 miles west of the city center. The most comfortable route in is via the Union Pearson Express, which runs every 15 minutes and gets you downtown in 25 minutes ($13).The TTC is a cheaper option at under $5, but it can take an hour and a half and involves a number of transfers, while a taxi will take around 30 minutes and cost $45.
United flies to Toronto from numerous U.S. cities including our Hub city locations. Book your trip via united.com or by downloading the United app.
Around the web
Following the devastating wildfires in Australia and powerful earthquakes that shook Puerto Rico last week, we're taking action to make a global impact through our international partnerships as well as nonprofit organizations Afya Foundation and ADRA (Adventist Development and Relief Agency).
Helping Puerto Rico recover from earthquakes
Last week, Puerto Rico was hit with a 5.2 magnitude earthquake, following a 6.4 magnitude earthquake it experienced just days before. The island has been experiencing hundreds of smaller quakes during the past few weeks.
These earthquakes destroyed crucial infrastructure and left 4,000 people sleeping outside or in shelters after losing their homes. We've donated $50,000 to our partner charity organization Airlink and through them, we've helped transport disaster relief experts and medical supplies for residents, as well as tents and blankets for those who have lost their homes. Funding will go towards organizations within Airlink's partner network, which includes Habitat for Humanity, Mercy Corps and Americares, to help with relief efforts and long-term recovery.
Australian wildfire relief efforts
Our efforts to help Australia have inspired others to make their own positive impact. In addition to teaming up with Ellen DeGeneres to donate $250,000 and launching a fundraising campaign with GlobalGiving to benefit those impacted by the devastating wildfires in the country known for its open spaces and wildlife, our cargo team is helping to send more than 600 pounds of medical supplies to treat injured animals in the region.
Helping us send these supplies is the Afya Foundation, a New York-based nonprofit that seeks to improve global health by collecting surplus medical supplies and delivering them to parts of the world where they are most needed. Through Airlink, the Afya Foundation will send more than $18,000 worth of materials that will be used to treat animals injured in the Australian fires.
These medical supplies will fly to Melbourne (MEL) and delivered to The Rescue Collective. This Australian organization is currently focused on treating the massive population of wildlife, such as koalas, kangaroos, and birds, that have had their habitats destroyed by the recent wildfires. The supplies being sent include wound dressings, gloves, catheters, syringes and other items that are unused but would otherwise be disposed of.
By working together, we can continue to make a global impact and help those affected by natural disasters to rebuild and restore their lives
Australia needs our help as wildfires continue to devastate the continent that's beloved by locals and travelers alike. In times like these, the world gets a little smaller and we all have a responsibility to do what we can.
On Monday, The Ellen DeGeneres Show announced a campaign to raise $5 million to aid in relief efforts. When we heard about Ellen's effort, we immediately reached out to see how we could help.
Today, we're committing $250,000 toward Ellen's campaign so we can offer support now and help with rebuilding. For more on The Ellen DeGeneres Show efforts and to donate yourself, you can visit www.gofundme.com/f/ellenaustraliafund
We're also matching donations made to the Australian Wildfire Relief Fund, created by GlobalGiving's Disaster Recovery Network. This fund will support immediate relief efforts for people impacted by the fires in the form of emergency supplies like food, water and medicine. Funds will also go toward long-term recovery assistance, helping residents recover and rebuild. United will match up to $50,000 USD in donations, and MileagePlus® members who donate $50 or more will receive up to 1,000 award miles from United. Donate to GlobalGiving.
Please note: Donations made toward GlobalGiving's fund are only eligible for the MileagePlus miles match.
In addition to helping with fundraising, we're staying in touch with our employees and customers in Australia. Together, we'll help keep Australia a beautiful place to live and visit in the years to come.