By Martin Bernetti
HANGA ROA, Sunday 11 July 2010 (AFP) - Thousands of excited stargazers waited on mysterious Easter Island Sunday to watch an almost five-minute total eclipse of the sun, as earlier stormy weather gave way to bright sunshine.
The confluence of the rare eclipse casting its shadow over the island's ancient, strange stone statues lent a mystical air to events, occurring as Spain and the Netherlands battle it out in the finals of the World Cup 2010 match.
The eclipse was set to trace an 11,000-kilometer (6,800-mile) arc across the Pacific, beginning at 1815 GMT, when the umbra or shadow falls on the South Pacific about 700 kilometers (440 miles) southeast of Tonga, according to veteran NASA eclipse specialist, Fred Espanak.
It will then zip in an easterly arc across the Pacific, eventually cloaking remote Easter Island and its mysterious giant statues at 2011 GMT and finishing with a pass across southern Chile and Argentina.
An estimated 4,000 tourists, scientists, photographers, filmmakers and journalists have flocked to the Chilean World Heritage site of only 160 square kilometers (60 square miles), doubling the barren island's population.
Chilean weather forecasters had cast doubts on how visible the seventh total eclipse of the century would be, warning of clouds and rains.
Umbrellas and raincoats have been de rigueur attire for those arriving on by boat and airplane for the last few days.
But as the sun rose Sunday, there were bright blue skies bringing hopes that, despite a brisk wind, the eclipse would be clearly visible.
Many visitors have come equipped with solar eclipse glasses, hoping to be able to stare into the skies at the exact moment that Sun, Moon and Earth align for a fleeting four minutes and 41 seconds.
"Sitting in the airport we are all supercharged with adrenaline," wrote Astronomy magazine editor Michael Bakich on the micro-messaging service Twitter.
The Sun is 400 times wider than the Moon, but it is also 400 times farther away. Because of the 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.
Parts of the globe will be plunged into daytime darkness along the narrow corridor some 11,000 kilometers long across the South Pacific.
Throughout human history, superstition, awe and dread -- fears for the birth or death of kings, victories or defeats, bumper harvests or gnawing hunger -- have attended the moment when the Moon slides in front of the Sun and the Earth is plunged into daytime darkness.
Easter Island authorities have increased security, especially around key heritage sites, including the 3,000-year-old large stone statues, or moai, that put the far-flung ethnic Polynesian islanders on the world culture map.
In ancient lore here such an eclipse "would have been seen as a very powerful signal of upcoming upheaval," as their world view was rooted in nature, in "the earth, the sea and especially the sky," said Patricia Vargas of the University of Chile.
A French and a Japanese tourist were both arrested Sunday for mounting "platforms where they are not allowed to touch and climb the statues," said police chief Cristian Gonzalez.
Mayor Luz del Carmen Zasso said local officials have taken "all measures to protect the heritage and the environment."
She said visitors will be told to treat the island with respect. "Easter Island is an open-air museum, and the eclipse is part of this museum," she added.
Meanwhile, in the small Patagonian town of El Calafate, just across the border from southern Chile in the snow-capped Andes, hundreds of people gathered hoping to witness the eclipse.
"We are pleased and excited by the interest generated by the eclipse. The five daily flights arriving in El Calafate were full on Friday and Saturday and the climate is excellent for watching," said tourism director Ana Ianni.
Forecasters were predicting clear skies with below-freezing temperatures amid the southern hemisphere winter, with all-terrain vehicles need to brave the snowy mountains.
The more adventurous could choose to spend the day in heated tents, with food and drink, high up in mountain spots only accessible with the help of guides with the stunning Perito Moreno glacier as a backdrop.