Central Floridians eagerly await eclipse

Luther Davis has been looking forward to Monday for more than 32 years.

As a 12-year-old in Texas in 1985, the astronomy enthusiast discovered in his almanac that the next time the U.S. would experience a total solar eclipse would be 2017. It served as one of the first scientific sparks for Davis, now an astronomy teacher at Lake Mary High School.

To mark Monday’s event, he will head to South Carolina for the best view. He plans to livestream the event on social media so his students can watch along with him.

The eclipse’s “path of totality” cuts generally southeast through the U.S. from Salem, Ore., to Charleston, S.C.

In Central Florida, eager eclipse watchers will see about 85 percent to 88 percent of the sun blotted out when the eclipse reaches its peak. In Orlando, that’s at about 2:51 p.m.; the moon will start to pass in front of the sun at about 1:19 p.m., with the eclipse lasting until 4:14 p.m.

But don’t look up without taking precautions — be sure to wear special glasses or make certain that filters are on telescopes or binoculars. Otherwise, severe retinal damage will be likely, said Dr. Celeste Philip, Florida State Surgeon General and Secretary, in a release this week.

Where to watch the eclipse in Orlando & Central Florida »

Finding proper glasses has become a chore. Local and online retailers are selling out of them. And Amazon had to issue a recall for a model it had been selling.

But many viewing sites, including Orlando Public Library and Orlando Science Center locations, will hand them out Monday.

“Normally, there is no reason to look at the sun,” NASA’s Mark Femminineo said. “Some get the false impression that because it’s covered, it’s not as dangerous.”

Still, he says those in the direct path of the eclipse will have a lasting memory.

“They are in store for one of the most impressive things in nature,” he said. “It’s a display that is hard to beat.”

The Orlando Science Center will set up multiple sites to view the eclipse, including a telescope downtown at Seneff Arts Plaza at the Dr. Phillips Performing Arts Center. Paying customers at the main site can watch the eclipse and themed programs 1-4 p.m.

The eclipse can help put perspective on lessons that are usually abstract, including science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

“Science is what’s happening today,” said Brandan Lanman, astronomy subject matter expert for the science center. “These kinds of things give you the opportunity to explore the world around you.

“Everybody is going to experience this together,” he said. “It definitely helps in the role of STEM educator when everyone can be connected to a STEM moment.”

Schools across Central Florida have been preparing for the big event.

Seminole County Public Schools sent an advisory to parents saying they could sign students out of classes starting at 12:30 p.m. Monday or sign a waiver authorizing their children to view the eclipse, if parents provide NASA-approved glasses.

“Please leave the glasses in their packaging so we may also verify before allowing your child outside,” the advisory read.

Lake and Orange county schools will move all outdoor activities indoors during the eclipse for safety reasons. Both counties will allow teachers to provide principal-approved lessons during the eclipse if they hand out special glasses.

The last time a total eclipse happened across such a large area of the country was 1918. Smaller regions of the U.S. have seen recent total eclipses, with the last being in 1979, when the far upper Northwest could see it.

Smaller annular eclipses — in which the moon is closer to the sun so the lunar body does not blot it out completely — have also occurred, with the most recent being in 2012.

University of Central Florida physics and astronomy professor Humberto Campins traveled to Curacao in 1998 and Costa Rica in 1991 to view total eclipses. Monday, however, he’ll stick around to help organize events at the school, he said. UCF’s Astronomical Society will hold a viewing party from 2 p.m. to 3:30 p.m., and the school will provide telescopes for viewings at the reflection pond near Millican Hall.

“It’s a very rare event,” he said. “You’re likely to see maybe a couple of these in a lifetime. People don’t often look up and, it turns out, there are all kinds of interesting things up there.”

Davis, the Lake Mary teacher, said it was not easy to leave the classroom to fulfill his longtime goal of seeing a total eclipse in person.

“I love my students and I love my astronomy, so we had a bit of a conundrum,” he said. “I didn’t think the principal would approve of 500 students going to South Carolina.”

Davis used money from the school’s physics and astronomy budget months ago to buy 500 pairs of special glasses for students. He spent part of his day Friday showing students how to use them.

He will share lessons on his @LakeMaryPhysics Twitter and Periscope accounts. He also expects the trip to provide him with anecdotes for future lessons.

He and his traveling companions, nine friends and family members, also plan to have a little bit of fun on the trip: They will wear shirts with nine different stages of the solar eclipse as they travel.

“I was a boy with a telescope who liked looking at the stars,” Davis said. “At that time, I knew what a total eclipse was. I said, ‘I’m going to be on that line.’ I made it a mission that this is what was going to happen.”

Got a news tip? msantana@orlandosentinel.com or 407-420-5256; Twitter, @marcosantana

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