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No. 48: Nov-Dec 1986

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Phosphorescent Bars And Wheels

May 29, 1955. The Java Sea.

Phosphorescent bars at sea

"At 0210 LMT I witnessed the start of a bioluminescent display. My first impression was that the ship was being 'attacked' on all sides from different directions by pulsing light-bands. A dull 'strobe-light' effect flashed through a mist, giving the bands a dirty white to gray colouration which was not a 'smooth' colour, but rather grainy in appearance. The bands were about 2 m wide and about 2 m apart and moving at speed. At first it was difficult to discern whether or not the bands were in the water or just above the surface, as no form of reflection or distortion was visible off the hull. In the end, I decided that the effect must be waterbourne if only because nothing was visible in the vessel's wake.

"The most intense activity was observed on the starboard side of the ship where the phenomenon appeared to stretch as far as the horizon. At this stage, it did not appear localized, just a mass of high-speed interacting bands of light. The effect is shown in the first sketch. As is usual on an 'all aft' ship, you become 'deaf' to the constant background noises, but I gradually became aware that the pulses of light seemed to match those of the main engine's throb, that is, about two per second. The radar (3-cm radar, running on the 24 n. mile range), and the echo-sounder (indicating a water-depth of about 35 fathoms), were switched off in turn to see if any change was discernible, but there was not.

"However, at about this time, the ship passed a localized revolving system, distance off appeared to be about 150 m. My impression was that of a catherine wheel revolving and casting out waves in an angular motion, as shown in the second sketch. How many spokes it had I'm not sure owing to the speed of the pulsations, but I think that there were at least three. If viewed from above, the system rotated in a clockwise direction wheeling itself along the ship's track. No central hub was visible, just a dark area devoid of activity. One or two systems were visible farther out to starboard."

(Lakeman, J.D.; "Bioluminescence," Marine Observer, 56:68, 1986.)

Reference. Chapter GLW in our catalog volume: Lightning, Auroras covers a wide variety of anomalous marine light displays. See: here.

Catherine wheel phosphorescent at sea

From Science Frontiers #48, NOV-DEC 1986. 1986-2000 William R. Corliss