Sunday, April 17, 2011

CELESTIAL DOLPHINS – Figments of Phosphorescence

I guess it all started with the moon and stars. Ancient man found those celestial lights a great source of wonder. Now and then, when things got a little more exotic (like eclipses and northern lights), wonder turned to fear.

But when you're a kid, most such fears are, as yet, unlearned. And things like awe and wonder tend to fall a little closer to home.

     We hung over the bow railing and saw our 
     bow waves filled with millions of little blue-
     green pinpoints of light

I'll never forget the first time I encountered fireflies. While living at our family’s summer house, I’d find them on those cricket-pulsing, sultry nights in the hay fields down by the St. Croix River. My parents let me keep a few in a jar. From this I learned not just about phosphorescence, but also a little about life and death.

I'm not proud of this, but, as a ten-year-old boy, my curiosity sometimes trumped respect. My experiments with fireflies included squashing them and rubbing the glowing goo on my clothes, where it shone for a few seconds longer than the poor creatures’ lives.

My wife’s dad was a navy man. He’s told us of seeing the entire wake of his minesweeper aglow with phosphorescent plankton stirred up by the vessel’s night passage through the South Pacific.

I thought that experience, as phosphorescence stories go, would surely have to take the cake. Until, that is, my wife and I were lucky enough to discover the Searcher and its fantastic natural history cruises from San Diego around the Baja Peninsula.

Late one night, while we were motoring in the calm, deserted Sea of Cortez, the captain of the 95-foot boat came on the P.A. system and announced that he and the crew were seeing some good phosphorescence from the bridge and that we might want to head out on deck to check it out.

           The glow of a single firefly can be 
           your ticket to wonder.

Maintaining cruising speed, he turned off the Searcher’s lights. In near-total darkness, we and our 20 or so fellow passengers hung over the bow railing, looked down and saw our bow waves filled with millions of little blue-green pinpoints of light, enough to completely light up not just the water, but the sides of the hull as well. It was absolutely mesmerizing. We watched in reverent silence for nearly 20 minutes.

As some of our fellow travelers headed back inside, Sally and I still couldn’t get enough of the hypnotic glow and gurgle of those bow waves. Suddenly, several large streaks of churning light emerged, like so many comets, from the watery darkness on both sides of the boat and streaked toward the bow.


The dolphins, like the Searcher, ignited the plankton, which shrouded them in light, leaving 20- to 30-foot glowing, swirling trails. These delightful creatures seemed to know this would thrill us even more than their daytime antics, weaving, twisting and jumping with an extra measure of exuberance.

After about ten minutes lacing in and out of our bow waves, our living comets peeled off from the bow one by one and launched themselves back into their own deep, dark universe.

We were so fortunate to have been in the right place at the right time for such a powerful, magical experience! But one needn't witness a celestial dolphin light show in the Sea of Cortez to appreciate the wonder of phosphorescence. If you let it, the glow of a single firefly can be your ticket to wonder.

Have you had any magical encounters with phosphorescence? 
Let us know!


sue in mexico mo said...

I would love to see that! How wondrous. . .

Jeffrey Willius said...

Hey Sue -- If you ever have a chance to take a cruise on the Searcher, you'd have a good chance, as well as near certainty of getting to touch mama and baby gray whales! Check it out: Searcher Natural History Tours - San Diego.

ZihuaRob said...

You can see similar sights as your glowing dolphins right here in Zihuatanejo. The phosphorescent plankton aren't always so numerous, but at certain times of the year just walking down the beach you can "turn them on" by scraping your foot across the wet sand at the water's edge.

Some folks think it's neat to swim in the bay at night and see themselves glow, but I would remind them that sharks, crocodiles and other predators typically hunt at night.

Jeffrey Willius said...

Hola Rob -- Yeah, I think I'll pass on the moonlight swim! I'd see myself as one big lighted crank bait.

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