Nov. 13, 2012 at 6:50 PM ET
The dolphins didn't come out for today's total solar eclipse in the Coral Sea, but hundreds of tourists were on deck to catch our cruise ship's biggest show. And most importantly, the sun came out as well.
That was the whole point behind seeing the eclipse from the Dawn Princess, which has been making stops along Australia's northeast coast for the past week. It may not be the steadiest viewing platform, but an expert navigator can sail to a spot in the narrow track of totality where clouds won't spoil the view.
"This is the real advantage of being on a ship," Patricia Reiff, director of Rice University's Space Institute, told me during today's eclipse extravaganza.
Solar eclipses occur when the moon passes in front of the sun, and the partial phase of today's event could be seen from a wide swath of the Pacific. But the total phase — during which the moon's disk blots out the entire solar disk — is visible only from a strip of Earth's surface measuring thousands of miles in length and less than 100 miles in width. The Dawn Princess' southeast course from Australia's Port Douglas to Sydney was plotted out to put the ship and its nearly 2,000 passengers right in the middle of that track at eclipse time, which was 6:39 a.m. local time on Wednesday (on the Western Pacific side of the International Date Line).
By 4:30 a.m., Reiff and her group from EclipseTours.com staked out a prime spot on the port side of the ship's top deck, near at the stern. This was Reiff's 13th solar eclipse, but it was the first brush with totality for Andrea Pond, one of the tourists in the group. She was sailing on the Dawn Princess along with her husband, Stan, who was an eclipse-chaser long before he married Andrea.
"It's not everyone who wakes up at 4 in the morning to see a two-minute happening," Andrea said.
I was on the cruise with my wife, two of my brothers, my sister and a few friends, but Reiff let me tag along with her group as well. So I was with the other eclipse-chasers at about 5:45 a.m., just after sunrise, when German astronomer Joachim Biefang peered through his solar telescope and cried out "First contact!"
First contact was when the moon's disk began passing over the sun's disk. We had to wear freaky-looking solar-filter glasses to watch the moon slowly chew away at the sun.
The ship's course was nearly perfect: Once the sun climbed above a bank of clouds on the horizon, we had a wide-sky view. "Let's have a little gratitude, everybody," Reiff told her group, which had swelled to a couple of dozen of people in one of the ship's sweetest viewing spots.
Hundreds more staked out their own positions around the top deck. My family was along the rail, near the halfway point on the port side. My brother Steve and his wife, Joan, recalled how a troop of dolphins popped up on the surface during their 1998 eclipse cruise in the Caribbean — and they hoped it would happen this time as well. They speculated that the marine mammals would want to find out the reason for the darkening sea.
We kept looking back behind the ship in case the sea erupted with dolphins, but the sun was the center of attention. As we counted down to totality, we folded our fingers together and held them up to project crescent-shaped images onto the deck. Soon the sun's light faded to an eerie golden shade. "It's like a storm is coming," my sister Donna said.
In the moment before totality, the sun's crescent was transformed into a glowing circlet with a bright flash — the famous "diamond-ring effect." That's when the crowd erupted in a cheer, which was followed by oohs and ahhs as the diamond ring turned into a ghostly coronal ring around the totally blacked-out sun. The sky took on a velvety shade of dark violet, with Venus and the southern stars glittering above us.
I oohed and ahhed along with everyone else, and snapped a couple of fuzzy photographs. But mostly, I just marveled at the eerie sight. I imagined how freaked out ancient observers must have been when the sun disappeared, and how relieved they must have been when it returned.
Before we knew it, another diamond ring flashed, the sea and sky brightened again, and my fellow travelers basked in the afterglow.
"It was perfect," one tourist gushed. "I can die now."
"Let's turn the ship around and do it again," Biefang joked.
"If I were a smoker, I'd have a cigarette," Reiff said with a smile of satisfaction.
"Want to look for dolphins?" my wife, Tonia, asked me.
When we went back to the ship's stern, we didn't find any dolphins. But we did find Brian Verkaart, who had just gotten engaged to his girlfriend, Sue Yee Duong.
"Five years, seven months and 12 days ago we met," Verkaart said. "I caught her checking out my butt."
Verkaart, who now has three solar eclipses under his belt, decided that the 14th of November was the perfect day to propose. He explained that he and Duong often exchange text messages that read "143," which is shorthand for "I love you." After the eclipse's second diamond ring, Verkaart turned to her and said something like, "Gee, this is the 14th. It'd be great if there were three diamond rings — and here's that third diamond ring."
That's when he got on his knees, offered her the engagement ring and proposed. Duong was totally surprised, but she said yes. ("At least he had the common sense not to pop the question during totality," my brother Steve said when he heard the story.)
Now my family and most of the other passengers on the Dawn Princess have gotten back into the cruise routine. Reiff and her fellow eclipse-chasers are swapping photos and planning their next cruise to totality. Verkaart is faced with the challenge of figuring out how to top his diamond-ring surprise.
And the dolphins?
If they had feet, they'd be kicking themselves right now. They missed a heck of a show.
More about the eclipse:
My cruise on the Dawn Princess continues for a few more days, and then I'll be vacationing in New Zealand for another week. I might have a chance to write a postcard or two while I'm in Middle Earth, but regular postings to Cosmic Log won't resume until Nov. 27.
Alan Boyle is NBCNews.com's science editor. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the log's Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter and adding the Cosmic Log page to your Google+ presence. To keep up with Cosmic Log as well as NBCNews.com's other stories about science and space, sign up for the Tech & Science newsletter, delivered to your email in-box every weekday. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for new worlds.