Witnesses -November 22, 2001
Last Sunday, the alarm clock buzzed at 4:30 am. I rolled out of bed. "We'll be late," I said. Eileen remained inert under the sheets. Finally, she croaked, "Why don't you take the wind scoop down and I'll look through the hatch and see it all from down here?" Eileen is not a morning person. On occasion, it's been suggested that she's not a person in the morning.
We were in Los Testigos, a small cluster of islands about 40 miles off the Northeast coast of Venezuela. "Testigo" is Spanish for "witness". We happened to be there to witness a rare event, the peak appearance of the Leonid meteor shower.
A few days before, when we were still in Trinidad, amateur weatherman Eric Mackie had told us of the coming event on the morning ham radio net. According to Eric, the best viewing of the meteor shower was going to occur in our part of the world around 5 am on November 18th. This was when the earth was going to be the closest to the tail of the Tempel-Tuttle comet. Particles trailing behind the comet become "shooting stars" when they enter the earth's atmosphere and burn up. Although the Leonid shower is an annual November occurrence, the predicted intensity of this year's display only occurs every 33 years.
Los Testigos proved to be a fortuitous viewing ground for the meteor shower. The islands lay more or less en route to Isla Margarita, our ultimate destination. Less than 200 people live there - no bright city lights to obscure the night sky. On Sunday, the new moon was going to be only three days old and, in any event, due to set long before the meteor shower's peak. Viewing conditions couldn't be much better - as long as the clouds kept away.
We arrived in Los Testigos Friday morning after a pleasant overnight sail from Trinidad. We anchored in clear, pale blue water - a nice change from the turbid Gulf of Paria - off a clean sand beach on the lee of Testigo Grande, the largest island in the archipelago. We took our dinghy to the main village on Isla Iguana in order to check in with the local coast guard station. Los Testigos are not an official port of entry for Venezuela, but the polite officer told us we could stay three days - long enough to catch the Leonids.
The islands are rugged and beautiful, rising abruptly from the sea. We enjoyed some incredible views while hiking the numerous goat trails - warily avoiding several species of cactus along the way. Near the Southeast tip of Testigo Grande, on the windward side, we marvelled at a wonderful group of sand dunes (much easier to descend than to climb!). On the boat at anchor, the local fishermen waved and smiled as they passed in their distinctive, high prow "peneros".
When I got up on deck early Sunday morning, the black sky overhead was punctured by bright stars. Not a cloud anywhere! I lay down on the foredeck with a sail bag as a pillow. Orion was stalking the Pleiades off our stern and the Big Dipper was upended on our port side. Our bowsprit pointed up at Arcturus. To my surprise, Eileen joined me after a few minutes. "Good thing this won't happen for another 33 years," she mumbled.
The light show was well underway. At first, we exclaimed, "There's one!" or "Did you see that?" as each meteor streaked overhead. But they were coming fast and furious. Soon we reduced our comments to simple "oohs" and "wows". Occasionally a really bright meteor would explode into view, big enough to display different colours - an orange "head" and blue-green "tail". Better than the Fourth of July!
After an hour, the eastern horizon began to pale and the light show slowly faded. I yawned and said, "Well, we've just witnessed something we'll always remember Los Testigos for." There was no reply. I looked down at Eileen curled up beside me. She was smiling with her eyes closed.