Solar Eclipse Watched By Thousands In Oz

Jonathan Samuels, Australia Correspondent

Thousands of tourists, star gazers, scientists and amateur astronomers gathered in Australia to watch one of nature's biggest spectacles - a total solar eclipse.

Weather forecasters had predicted cloud, but right on cue the skies cleared as the eclipse began and there was a clear view of the sun, moon and Earth aligned.

As the last glimpse of the sun's rays disappeared, there were cheers from people who had gathered on beaches in the state of Queensland.

The tropical region was then plunged into darkness for two minutes. 

"Immediately before, I was thinking, 'Are we gonna see this?' And we just had a fantastic display - it was just beautiful," said Terry Cuttle of the Astronomical Association of Queensland, who has seen a dozen total solar eclipses over the years.

"And right after it finished, the clouds came back again. It really adds to the drama of it."

"Wow, insects and birds gone quiet," one tourist, Geoff Scott, tweeted. Another, Stuart Clark, said: "This is it. Totality now. Utterly beautiful."

Totality was at 6.38am local time (8.38pm GMT on Tuesday), with eclipse watchers donning special glasses to protect their eyes. One local man improvised, bringing a welder's helmet.

"Day into night, unbelievable, goosebumps, speechless, amazing," said Palm Cove eclipse watcher Simon Crerar.

The eclipse cast its 95-mile (150km) 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 was visible from east Indonesia, the eastern half of Australia, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea and southern parts of Chile and Argentina.

Hank Harper, 61, and his two children Harrison, 10, and Reilly, 12, flew from Los Angeles just to see the phenomenon.

The family hopped on board a hot air balloon with other eager tourists and staff from Hot Air Balloon Cairns, crossed their fingers, and were rewarded with a perfect view.

"We gambled everything - drove through the rain and didn't even know if the balloon was going to go up," he said.

Speaking by phone from the hot air balloon as they watched the sun's rays re-emerge from behind the moon while kangaroos hopped on the ground below, he added: "It was everything I could have hoped for."

On a dive boat drifting along the blue waters of the Great Barrier Reef, a cheer of relief erupted as the clouds moved away at the moment of total eclipse, followed by a hush as darkness fell across the water.

One scuba diver floated on his back in the sea, watching it unfold as he bobbed in the waves.

Scientists were studying how animals respond to the eclipse, with underwater cameras capturing the effects of sudden darkness on the creatures of the Reef.

Some Queensland hotels have been booked up for more than three years and more than 50,000 people flooded into the region to watch the spectacle, according to local tourism authorities.

The next total eclipse will not be until March 2015, and even then will only be visible from a few remote locations in the North Atlantic.