As expected, thousands of tourists have flocked to Easter Island for a rare, full solar eclipse, putting substantial strains on the most remote inhabited island on Earth, which already struggles to cope with water pollution, overcrowding and deforestation. An estimated 4,000 tourists, scientists, photographers, filmmakers and journalists flocked to the tiny island temporarily doubling its population.
Sunday’s solar spectacle began its 11,000km arc over the Pacific at sunrise, some 1,900 km northeast of New Zealand, plunging remote islands into darkness. The moon’s shadow then swept across the South Pacific, darkening skies over the Cook Islands before cloaking Easter Island, or Rapa Nui to give it its proper Polynesian name, at around 2:11pm (GMT -5) where crowds broke into applause.
With thousands of visitors descending on the island, authorities had increased security for the eclipse, especially around key heritage sites including the territory’s famous World Heritage-listed stone statues, or moai, believed to be around 3,000-years-old.
A French and a Japanese tourist were both arrested on Sunday for mounting “platforms where they are not allowed to touch and climb the statues,” said police chief Cristian Gonzalez.
Every single hotel room and tent pitch has been booked up and many arrived on the island with nowhere arranged to sleep. And while many of the locals fear that tourism is going to far, the island’s governor, Pedro Edmunds Paoa, insists that the 60 square mile chunk of land, which is bout half the size of the Isle of Wight, has the capacity to absorb so many tourists.
Julio Sanabria, a local who moved to Rapa Nui from Santiago over 15 years ago, doesn’t share this opinion: “There is not one traffic light on the island, we like it this way. But with more visitors will come the need for more [hire] cars and not just this; other needs too, of course. There will be more waste materials that cannot be recycled and so it goes.”
The island, located over 3,500km from mainland Chile, was deemed by astronomers the best place to witness Sunday’s eclipse generated by the alignment of sun, moon and Earth for a fleeting four minutes and 41 seconds. Although the sun is 400 times wider than the moon, it is also 400 times farther away. Because of that symmetry, the lunar umbra, or shadow, that falls on the face of the Earth is exactly wide enough to cover the face of the sun.
Chilean weather forecasters had cast doubts on how visible the seventh total eclipse of the century would be, warning of clouds after days of rain. But as the moment neared on Easter Island, thankfully, clouds gave way to bright sunshine.
• The awe of Easter Island