SYDNEY - From boats bobbing on the Great Barrier Reef, to hot air balloons hovering over the rainforest, and the hilltops and beaches in between, tens of thousands of scientists, tourists and amateur astronomers watched Wednesday as the sun, moon and Earth aligned and plunged northern Australia into darkness during a total solar eclipse.
Stubborn clouds that many feared would ruin the view parted — at least partly — in some areas of north Queensland, defying forecasts of a total eclipse-viewing bust and relieving spectators who had fanned out across the region to catch a rare glimpse of the celestial phenomenon.
"Total eclipses are one of the most dramatic sites that you can ever see," said Terry Cuttle of the Astronomical Association of Queensland, who has seen a dozen of them over the years. "I reckon everybody owes it to themselves to see at least one total eclipse in their life."
Spectators whooped and clapped with delight as the moon passed between the sun and Earth, leaving a slice of the continent's northeast in sudden darkness.
Starting just after dawn, the eclipse cast its 150-kilometre (95-mile) shadow in Australia's Northern Territory, crossed the northeast tip of the country and was swooping east across the South Pacific, where no islands are in its direct path. A partial eclipse will be visible from east Indonesia, the eastern half of Australia, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea and southern parts of Chile and Argentina. Totality — the darkness that happens at the peak of the eclipse — lasted just over two minutes in Australia.
Northern Australia is the only place where the total eclipse will be visible from land, said Geoff Wyatt, an astronomer with Sydney Observatory. The rest of its path crosses over the largely uninhabited South Pacific.
Gloomy weather across the northeast had left many scientists and eclipse-chasers who had travelled to Australia from across the globe anxious that they wouldn't be able to see a thing. But the clouds moved out of the way in time for many to watch as the moon blotted out the sun's rays and cast a shadow over the tropical landscape.
Some Queensland hotels have been booked up for more than three years and more than 50,000 people have flooded into the region to watch the solar spectacle, said Jeff Gillies, regional director of Queensland Tourism.
Skygazers crowded beaches, boats, fields and hot air balloons to watch the event. Fitness fanatics gathered for the Solar Eclipse Marathon, where the first rays of the sun re-emerging from behind the moon served as the starting gun. Some began partying days ago at a weeklong eclipse festival.
Scientists were studying how animals respond to the eclipse, with underwater cameras capturing the effects of sudden darkness on the creatures of the Great Barrier Reef.
The next total solar eclipse won't happen until March 2015.