CATCH THEM WHILE YOU CAN Ephemeral sights
Transit of Venus
All of the U.S. (and most of the world)
In 1716 the astronomer Edmond Halley, of comet fame, had a brilliant idea: Observations of the transit of Venus, a rare event in which our sister planet crosses between Earth and the sun, could be used to calculate the distance between us and our star. That epic experiment, conducted during the next two transits half a century later, sent dozens of observers to far-flung corners of the world. Their remarkable stories include that of French astronomer Guillaume le Gentil, who was driven to the brink of insanity after being foiled—twice—in his attempts to witness the event in India.
If you want to try observing the famous transit yourself, clear your calendar for June 5: Your next chance won’t come around until 2117. In the continental U.S., anyone with a clear, cloudless view of the horizon should be able to see the black dot of Venus late in the day as it begins to move over the solar disk.
The in-progress transit will make for a spectacular sunset, but to view the entire event, you’ll need to head farther west. The full transit will be visible from just east of Hawaii to just west of Hong Kong. Several travel companies are running educational island trips and cruises in Hawaii and the South Pacific. Our sister Kalmbach publication, Astronomy, is offering a tour to see the transit from Hawaii’s Big Island.
True transit die-hards may want to follow Louisiana State University astronomer Brad Schaefer’s lead and set out for the
Australian outback, where the risk of inclement weather is slim. Of course, wherever you are, never stare directly into the sun. Bring viewing equipment, like a sheet of number 14 welder’s glass, or project an image with a telescope.
Montserrat, Lesser Antilles
The eruption of Mount Vesuvius in A.D. 79 buried the city of Pompeii in a single day. By comparison, the Soufrière Hills volcano on Montserrat, a 60-square-mile island in the Caribbean, has been erupting sporadically since 1995, slowly entombing the lower two-thirds of the island in ash. Visitors can look down on the destroyed capital city of Plymouth from the Montserrat Volcano Observatory, where scientists monitor the volcano’s rumblings and issue hazard warnings to the island’s depleted population. Ferries from nearby Antigua can take you to the island or around it, depending on your appetite for risk.
Near New Orleans, Louisiana
The delicate Mississippi River delta ecosystems have been taking a beating from pollution, stream diversion, and other human activities upstream. But there is, for now, still some intact marsh to see, including the 35,000 protected acres of the Honey Island Swamp, 30 miles northeast of New Orleans. To admire the moss-hung Seussian cypress trees and deceptively lethargic alligators from a dry, safe distance, sign up for one of the flat-bottomed boat tours in the area. Tours run year-round, but local guide Paul Wagner says that spring, which brings a wealth of wildflowers and migratory birds to the swamp, is particularly magical. No word on which season is best for spotting the Honey Island Swamp Monster, a hairy, Bigfoot-like creature fabled to live in the wetland.