A passion is something that drives you; that propels you forward toward action and, sometimes, travel. For married couple Michael Zeiler and Polly White, their love of Total Solar Eclipses has not only strengthened their relationship and guided their online business, Great American Eclipse, but also pushed them to see the world through the sky. I caught up with Polly to learn more about creating a location independent business that allows her to travel, the power of passion and how astronomy has changed her life (and can change yours, too!).
1. How was your passion for solar eclipses as a vehicle for travel sparked?Michael has been interested in Astronomy his whole life and saw his first Total Solar Eclipse in Baja, California in 1991. He was hooked! ‘It is the most beautiful sight you can see in nature!’ he says.
2. You run a website and store with your husband, Great American Eclipse. How did your dream of owning your own business come to fruition?I also have always been interested in Astronomy. When we met in 2006, Michael encouraged my interest in eclipses, as well. We saw our first Total Solar Eclipse together in 2009, on a cruise in the Pacific. The point of greatest totality and longest duration was a point out past Iwo Jima! It was a long eclipse, too — 6 minutes and 38 seconds! It was spectacular! Watching the solar system in action, and seeing the beauty of the corona of the sun pop out (the aura of plasma that surrounds celestial bodies) – breathtaking! It is beyond imagination – until you actually see it for yourself. There are hardly words in the English language to describe it. So, we wanted to share our enthusiasm for Total Solar Eclipses with our fellow Americans, knowing that there would be one in the US in 2017.
3. What skills do you each possess that allowed you to successfully start your business?Michael is a GIS (Geographic Information Systems) specialist – meaning cartographer and map-maker. So he combined his skill of cartography with his passion for eclipses to create Great American Eclipse. My background is in business and marketing, so I created a line of products to go with his exquisite maps on our online store. This serves to share our passion and fund the travel. Eclipses happen all over the planet.
4. What would you tell someone working a 9-to-5 job who doesn’t think traveling the world and working for themselves is a possibility?Of course it’s a possibility! A common misconception is that if you work for yourself, then you’re not working much or making much money. The opposite is true. When you are passionate about your project, you work a lot; however, this gives you the freedom to create your schedule and travel. Travel reinforces so many things, and has taught us so much, which we bring right back to support our business. Seeing how others travel, how other peoples and cultures experience the natural world – has given us so much. We have seen Total Solar Eclipses together in the Pacific, in Australia (Far North Queensland), and Africa (A National Park in Gabon West Africa). Michael also went to Svalbard — almost to the North Pole — last March. And we will be on another eclipse cruise in Indonesia this March. We are able to make the time for these travels because we work hard at creating the kind of business that allows it. And since the travel is business related, and we sell eclipse items, many of the costs are legitimate business expenses. True bonus!
5. What is one surprising fact about astronomy-focused travel people may not realize?It is mind blowing. Even life changing. It has truly altered my perspective on the world and on other cultures. There are other astronomy related travel options as well, like Northern Lights trips, and dark sky telescope astronomy trips. Most National Parks have dark night sky astronomy programs for the public that can be awe-inspiring. I have had many people tell me that these experiences have made them much more environmentally conscious, and aware of protecting our planet, our dark skies, our air quality and more.
6. What advice would you give someone wanting to get more into astronomy-focused travel?If they are in the US, make an effort to see the Great American Eclipse on August 21, 2017! Tens of millions of people will be within a day’s drive of the path of totality. There is a HUGE difference between seeing the TOTAL solar eclipse and seeing a partial (as you can see in the photos above and below). There is an opportunity here also to encourage children and youth to explore astronomy, science and environmental education. If they have a particular interest in comets and other dark sky or deep space objects, I would encourage them to look at travel opportunities with Sky & Telescope Magazine, Astronomy Magazine and TravelQuest. They take care of getting people to the exact right place, telescopes, etc. And they always include lots of great cultural day trips, as well.
7. What is your favorite astronomy destination as a whole, and why?For Michael and I it is always wherever the next Total Solar Eclipse will be! One of our attached maps (below) shows the total solar eclipses around the world for the next 50 years; we say ,“This is our vacation planner for the rest of our lives.” That said, I have also had wonderful dark sky astronomy experiences at Chaco Culture National Historic Park. There is something about our dark skies out here in the Southwest that is special.
8. Do you have any advice for those looking to take great night photography shots?Check out Alan Dyer at amazingsky.com. His site is inspiring, and he has a great e-book on night photography!
9. What have been some of the most important lessons you’ve learned from traveling?The world is smaller than we think. Humanity shares this one planet and that our natural world is exquisite. Seeing other cultures and experiencing diversity actually brings people together and reminds us of our commonality.
10. How has your shared passion for Total Solar Eclipses shaped your travels?Seeing Total Solar Eclipses in different locations around the world has taken — and will take — us to places we wouldn’t otherwise have thought to go. Watching the corona of the sun become visible is humbling. Understanding what seems to be a magical coincidence: the sun is 400 times bigger than the moon, and is 400 times as far away = means it is just exactly what is required for a Total Solar Eclipse and the corona to be visible. At the Total Solar Eclipse in Gabon we saw two coronal mass ejections with just binoculars. We saw this with our own eyes. Our eclipse travels have been the happiest times of our lives and is worth so much more than money or things. *Featured image courtesy of Doug Walters/Unsplash. Story photos courtesy of Polly and Michael. The maps and videos on GreatAmericanEclipse.com are built from the work of Michael Zeiler, Xavier Jubier (xjubier.free.fr) and Fred Espenak (eclipsewise.com).
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About Polly & MichaelPolly White is co-publisher of GreatAmericanEclipse.com and business manager of Great American Eclipse LLC. Polly is a seasoned eclipse chaser and loves to share her passion about the exquisite beauty of total solar eclipses. Polly directs the development of opportunities, partnerships, and public relations for Great American Eclipse LLC. Polly also manages product development and order fulfillment of our store at www.greatamericaneclipse.com/store. Polly and her husband Michael Zeiler look forward to many future eclipse expeditions to remote and special places on Earth. Michael Zeiler produces the maps and animated maps on this website. He is a geographer employed by the leading provider of geographic information systems (GIS) software, esri.com. Michael has witnessed total solar eclipses since 1991. In 2009 while writing his book, Modeling Our World, he realized how advanced GIS technology could be applied to publish new eclipse maps of high precision and good cartographic quality. After creating his first eclipse maps for the total solar eclipse of July 22, 2009, Michael launched eclipse-maps.com in 2010 to showcase new and historic eclipse maps. Recognizing the widespread public interest of the August 21, 2017 total solar eclipse, Michael launched GreatAmericanEclipse.com on August 21, 2014. Michael is a member of the International Astronomical Union Working Group on Solar Eclipses.
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