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No. 86: Mar-Apr 1993

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The milky sea a.k.a. "white water"

June 1854. South of Java. Aboard the American clipper Shooting Star. Captain Kingman reporting:

"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."

We selected this account of the milky sea phenomenon because of its vivid verbiage -- something absent from the modern reports:

"August 13, 1986. Northwest Indian Ocean. The entire sea surface took on an intense white glow which was not unlike viewing the negative of a photograph."

The milky sea phenomenon in the northwest Indian Ocean
The milky sea is a rather common phenomenon. In fact, the British Meteorological Office has established a Bioluminescence Database, which presently contains 235 reports of milky seas seen since 1915. P.J. Herring and M. Watson have employed this Database in a review paper on these impressive displays.

Geographical plotting of the reports shows a strong concentration in the northwest Indian Ocean (see figure). Seasonally, there is a strong peaking in August and a secondary blip in January. The phenomenon is independent of water depth and distance from land.

Surely bioluminescent organisms must be the explanation for milky seas. But most such organisms simply flash briefly and are incapable of generating the strong, steady glow of the milky sea. Marine bacteria alone glow steadily. However, calculations show that unrealistic concentrations of bacteria would be needed to generate the observed light. Furthermore, samples from the affected waters show no such bacteria. Herring and Watson admit there is no acceptable explanation of the milky sea. What, they ask, is so special about the northwest Indian Ocean? Why do milky seas not occur in the adjacent Red Sea and Persian Gulf? These bodies of water seem equally promising.

(Herring, P.J., and Watson, M.; "Milky Seas: A Bioluminescent Puzzle," Marine Observer, 63:22, 1993.)

From Science Frontiers #86, MAR-APR 1993. 1993-2000 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