A milky sea of luminous bacteria

“The whole appearance of the ocean was like a plain covered with snow. There was scarce a cloud in the heavens, yet the sky … appeared as black as if a storm was raging. The scene was one of awful grandeur, the sea having turned to phosphorus, and the heavens being hung in blackness, and the stars going out, seemed to indicate that all nature was preparing for that last grand conflagration which we are taught to believe is to annihilate this material world.”
– Captain Kingman of the American clipper ship Shooting Star, offshore of Java, Indonesia, 1854

For centuries, sailors have been reporting strange encounters like the one above. These events are called milky seas. They are a rare nocturnal phenomenon in which the ocean’s surface emits a steady bright glow. They can cover thousands of square miles and, thanks to the colorful accounts of 19th-century mariners like Capt. Kingman, milky seas are a well-known part of maritime folklore. But because of their remote and elusive nature, they are extremely difficult to study and so remain more a part of that folklore than of science…

Via a state-of-the-art generation of satellites, my colleagues and I have developed a new way to detect milky seas. Using this technique, we aim to learn about these luminous waters remotely and guide research vessels to them so that we can begin to reconcile the surreal tales with scientific understanding.

An article by Professor Steven D. Miller, Colorado State University, filled with wonder and knowledge.