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The beach at Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge goes dark mid afternoon during the solar eclipse.
Information icon Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuges goes dark during the total solar eclipse. Photo by Kristen Peters, USFWS.

Dark delight

Eclipse leaves America at wildlife refuge

About a dozen refuge visitors look to the sky wearing protective glasses.
A contingent of state and federal employees were on hand to watch the eclipse make its last North American appearance at Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge. Photo by Mark Davis, USFWS.

Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge, South Carolina – The solar eclipse of 2017 seemed to approach slowly. In truth, it came hurtling toward the eastern edge of America at more than 1,000 mph, a 70-mile-wide swath of temporary nightfall that stopped traffic and quickened hearts.

The Aug. 21 eclipse came ashore on the West Coast, sending birds to roost early as it rolled across the heart of the United States. The eclipse concluded its three-hour sprint here, at a stretch of sand and dead trees where North America ends.

It crept up on Cape Romain – just a tiny little nibble out of a sun that had dodged clouds all day. But the nibble turned into a larger bite; the bite, into a dark disc that moved ever eastward.

And then, suddenly, the beach went dark. In the sky was a black ball, ringed by fire – the eclipse’s corona. It looked as if God had put a thumb across the sun, holding it there until the heat got to be too much.

Light from the sun extends around the sides of the moon during an eclipse.
Eclipse corona. Photo by Geoff Livingston, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

There it remained for more than two minutes, creating memories that will last a lifetime.

The refuge, managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service), hosted almost 3,000 of visitors who wanted to see the sky go dark; on an average day, perhaps 250 people enter the refuge. A few hundred eclipse enthusiasts were lucky enough to get tickets for a boat ride to Bulls Island, on the refuge’s tip.

Refuges across the nation reported record numbers of visitors, too.

Some came from neighborhoods just down the street; others needed passports to get here.

A man wearing a hat and a blue USFWS polo shirt on the beach.
Greg Sheehan, the Service’s principal deputy director. Photo by Mark Davis.

It was a moment worth the travel and August heat, said Greg Sheehan, the Service’s principal deputy director. New to the Service –he joined less than three months ago – Sheehan visited Cape Romain in a trip that included stops at refuges in both Carolinas.

“It was cooler than I thought it would be,” Sheehan said moments after the eclipse plunged the coast into darkness. “I thought [coming to watch] would be kind of corny.”

Sheehan shook his head. “It wasn’t.”

As the 66,000-acre refuge went dark, birds stopped singing. Crickets fell silent. Dragonflies that had flitted from one bush to the next went to earth.

Everywhere, people stood and cheered.

One of the loudest: U.S. Rep. Michael Turner. The Ohio Republican drove from Washington, D.C., to coastal South Carolina to stand in the sand as the land went dark. He hardly moved as the corona flared in the sky, fading after less than three minutes.

A man wearing a protective glasses looks towards the sky.
U.S. Rep. Michael Turner, Republican from Ohio, is agape as the moon moves across the sun. Photo by Mark Davis.

“Everything today,” he said, “has been fantastic.”

‘Dark side of the moon’

The eclipse came with rain storms that hammered communities south of the refuge. It showed up with lightning in the west. It arrived on the faded edges of a rainbow. Venus and Mars, usually invisible during daylight hours, popped out of the short-lived night to put on a twinkling show.

Eclipses are fantastic things, said Bob Dukes, a professor emeritus at the College of Charleston’s school of arts and sciences. He has been studying the skies for decades, had been anticipating the 2017 eclipse for years. On eclipse day, he wore a T-shirt showing the moon’s progress as it blocked the sun.

Staring at the sun before full eclipse can be disastrous for your eyes, he said. The only time to remove special eclipse glasses? When the corona appears.

On eclipse day, he watched through his camera as lunar and solar paths converged.

For nearly three minutes, “you were looking at the dark side of the moon, basically.”

And then it was gone. The sky got lighter by degrees, just as it had slowly darkened. In the trees, and on spits of sand, shore birds stirred. Coastal forests that had fallen silent echoed again with the calls of its inhabitants.

'Eclipse 2017' written in the sand next to a dead tree on the beach.
A simple inscription in the sand said it all. Photo by Kristen Peters.

That signaled the exodus of refuge visitors. Several hundred who had scored tickets for a boat ride to Bulls Island returned to docks to await trips to the mainland. They’d soon join traffic that stretched for miles along U.S. 17.

Among them were Sonia and Ken Fisher, two Pittsburgh transplants who recently moved to Surfside, South Carolina. With a couple of friends who still live in Pittsburgh, the Fishers came to the refuge hours before daylight to make sure they got a good parking place. When refuge employees opened the gates at 8 a.m., their car was near the front of a quarter-mile-long line of waiting vehicles.

The wait was worth it, they agreed. “It exceeded our expectations,” said Ken Fisher, a retired newspaper editor.

His wife nodded. “It was great,” she said. “It was worth all the mosquito bites.”

She has seven years to ready for another. The next solar eclipse is scheduled to roll across America on April 8, 2024.

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