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No. 80: Mar-Apr 1992

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Aerial Bioluminescence

January 19, 1991. South China Sea. Aboard the m.v. Benavon. The vessel was heading for Singapore on a body of water noted for bioluminescent displays. Flashes of light were seen in the bow wave and the ship's wake, appearing to be both on the surface and slightly below. This type of display is rather common, but another, much rarer phenomenon was also present:

Vessel engulfed in great waves of light
In 1880 off the Malabar Coast of India, a vessel was engulfed in great waves of light floating above the sea.

"At the same time as the above form of bioluminescence, there seemed to be a second type but it was difficult to pinpoint the source. The effect was that the atmosphere around the ship and extending to the horizon had some form of faint white illumination not provided by the light in the water, which was black apart from the previously described flashes. On the other hand, there was no obvious source in the sky either, which although virtually cloudless was very dark, and certainly darker than the atmosphere at the level of the ship.

The only conclusion that the observers could come to was that this was a faint example of (to quote The Marine Observer's Handbook), 'luminescence in the air a few feet above the sea surface when there is no light in the water'. This form lasted for about 30 minutes, whereas the bright flashes continued for three or four hours before they too eventually ceased."

(Thompson, P.C.; "Bioluminescence," Marine Observer, 62:14, 1992.)

Comment. Many cases of aerial marine light displays have been cataloged. It is assumed by scientists that bioluminescent particles are somehow carried into the air from the ocean, but there is no evidence at all for this. It is quite possible that some marine phosphorescent displays are electrical rather than biological. Additional examples and discussion of possible aerial phosphores-cent displays available in GLW3 in our catalog: Lightning, Auroras. To order, visit: here.

From Science Frontiers #80, MAR-APR 1992. 1992-2000 William R. Corliss

Science Frontiers Sourcebook Project Reviewed in:


  • "A sourcebook of unexplained phenomena is therefore a valuable addition to a collection of scientific literature. William R. Corliss has provided this in the past with his source books of scientific anomalies in several subjects, and now he has provided it for astronomy. He has done an excellent job of collecting and editing a large amount of material, taken in part from scientific journals and in part from scientific reporting in the popular or semi-scientific press." -- "The Mysterious Universe: A Handbook of Astronomical Anomalies", reviwed by Thomas Gold, Cornell University, in Icarus, vol.41, 1980

  • "An interesting, systematic presentation of unusual weather [..] This book is recommended for a general audience" --"Corliss, William R., Tornados, Dark Days, Anomalous Precipitation, and Related Weather Phenomena, Sourcebook Project, 1983.", revieweed in Choice, September 1983
  • "..the science is necessarily somewhat speculative, but Corliss's symthesis is based on reputable sources." -- "Corliss, William R. (Compiler). Lightning, Auroras, Nocturnal Lights, and Related Luminous Phenomena" reviwed by Joseph M. Moran, Univ. of Wisconsin in Science Books and Films, Sep/Oct 1983

  • "Before opening the book, I set certain standards that a volume which treads into dangerous grounds grounds like this must meet. The author scrupulously met, or even exceeded those standards. Each phenomenon is exhaustively documented, with references to scientific journals [..] and extensive quotations" -- "Book Review: The moon and planets: a catalog of astronomical anomalies", The Sourcebook Project, 1985., Corliss, W. R., Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, Vol. 81, no. 1 (1987), p. 24., 02/1987