In December of 1996, I made arrangements with officials of the Instituto Nacionál de Historia e Antropologia (INAH) in Mérida and Mexico City, paid their fees, and booked transportation. To capture the event, I'd shoot a combination of Kodak's new Elite II, an improved Ektachrome transparency emulsion, and a special Kodachrome professional film (PKL 135), both of which having a speed of ISO 200.
Upon arrival, obtaining final permits from INAH proceeded without difficulty and, on the morning of January 10th--Day One of the "window"--I sat in the doorway of the Palace of the Governor, equipment ready, waiting for Venus, and enjoying the comings and goings of the 2,000 or so bats that occupied the building's main interior gallery.
But in addition to the expected radiation fog, some clouds occupied the southeastern sky. As twilight progressed and Venus emerged from the horizon-hugging obscuration, they threatened to block the view--then did! Nevertheless, I managed to get several shots through the intermittent obscuration during and slightly after the morning's approximately three-minute "window" of time when Venus appeared directly above the pyramid.
Visually, it was spectacular! But photographically the day's effort was questionable at best. Oh well, six days left; what were the chances of being clouded out two days in a row during this, the region's dry season?
|The next morning I found out. Half an hour prior to the Venus rise, the brilliance of the stars shared the sky with the zodiacal light which extended well into Scorpius (nearly 30 degrees high). Time ticked, the sky brightened, and the tiny clouds overhead quickly swelled into a total obscuration. An unusually severe winter storm pattern sweeping through North America that week was drawing moisture up from the InterTropical Convergence Zone (ITCZ) and producing the clouds. Oh well...|
That night, the rains came, dropping at least an inch in several hours of constant downpour. The Beginning of Morning Astronomical Twilight (BMAT) on Day Three found me sitting before the Palace door in dense fog. After the time window passed, I stepped inside and wished the bats a nice day before trudging back to the hotel.
Day four, 13 January: Depressingly, fog reduced visibility to less than perhaps a quarter-mile and completely blocked the sky overhead. As I stood in the Palace door, a wet bat hitting me in the side of the face provided the morning's high point (the bats of Yucatán aren't particularly good at echo-location and often run into things in the dark). I used one of my camera's self-timers to capture pictures of myself sitting alone. It didn't work; the flash caught one of the bats too. I think I was beginning to recognize some of them.
|The next morning, Day Five, brought broken cloud cover but hopes of a view. I sat on the Palace steps watching the sky brighten and the clouds thicken. The daily three-minute time window arrived and, at it's very end, there was a sudden break in the clouds! In position, I shot as quickly as possible getting what seemed to be some ideal pictures, despite the fact the clouds severely darkened the sightline-marking monuments in the foreground. In a twinkling, the opportunity ended as the curtain of nubes (Spanish for "clouds") slid shut.|
That day, the weather turned spectacular and temperatures warmed while the air dried--excellent conditions for preventing morning fog or clouds. I'd also finished up the roll of Elite II Ektachrome and, allowing my confidence to swell as I gazed out upon a strikingly clear night sky, loaded my roll of professional emulsion Kodachrome. This also eased my daily consumption of ice since this type of film has an extremely limited shelf-life and needs to be stored below 50 degrees Fahrenheit; I'd been keeping it in an ice chest ever since arriving.
|The next morning, skies were clear but a deep fog hugged the jungle, obscuring the horizon from the ground up to six or seven degrees. Twilight progressed and, just at the middle of the daily time window, Venus emerged. I shot again and again, desperate to ensure at least some usable images could be captured. The window ended and I took what seemed to be my first breath in minutes. A bat bounced off my shoulder then onto the ground.|
By now, I'd grown to enjoy picking them up and relaunching them since, unlike birds, they can't hop; their hind feet are made for hanging so they need to crawl to an edge somewhere they can drop off, then begin to fly. It's an interesting sensation to hold a bat, then feel him take wing right from your hand without having to toss him into the air.
The next morning, Day Seven and the final opportunity, opened with unquestionably prohibitive cloud cover. No chance. Game over.
Of this seven-day "window," four had been clouded out; the next will occur in January of 2005.
Film Processing and Analysis
Once back, I immediately sent my roll of professional emulsion Kodachrome to Kodak's Dallas, Texas lab and took my roll of Elite II Ektachrome to a local processor. Catastrophically and despite my cautions that the film contained priceless images, an employee of the local lab left the safelight on when he loaded the film into the automated equipment. The result was nearly total destruction of the film. Using a digital scanner and image-processing software, I managed to salvage a single image taken on 14 January. All images from the first day of the "window," January 10th, were lost.
But the returned film from Kodak showed that the seven exposures I'd taken on 15 January during and just past the three-minute opportunity had all been successful! However, it was obvious the ambient lighting had indeed been beyond even that specialized film's dynamic range and my careful bracketing of exposure times had just managed to capture the scene.
Working with a professional custom laboratory in Los Angeles, I used the highest resolution digital scanning equipment available to extract images from the two best exposures.
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