We had sailed Indonesia’s shattered archipelago before arriving at the uninhabited island chain of Wayag — a gumdrop cluster of limestone peaks cloaked in an aura of brilliant, turquoise lagoons. Our crew, a ragbag of scientists and sailors, had come to this remote corner of the globe to study coral reefs. Unlike the bony, barren graveyards that haunt much of the tropical world, the reefs in this part of Indonesia are still vibrant, prismatic wonderlands, and if kept intact, can serve as nurseries to repopulate our oceans. These Technicolored coral wildernesses are unforgettable, yet what I saw at night during that voyage glistens most brightly in my memory.
One evening we had a cookout on a small beach, and in the wee hours of the morning I peeled myself off the sand to head back to the boat and my bunk. I pushed off into the black water, the fins of my paddleboard scraping the ground before gliding out into the bay. I didn’t have a flashlight, nor did I need one; the entire Milky Way had touched down to fill the secluded inlet with thick, woven starlight. Sixty feet up the mizzenmast, our ship’s anchor light shone, a little beacon moon to aim toward as I crossed the half mile of water. Snaking off each side of the pointed tip of my board were pearl necklaces of light, twisting in tiny jet streams past me. With each paddle stroke, the once-dark water pulsed a lucent bluish-white, first in a stout wall, then breaking into windswept clouds of luminous flagella, frenzying for a moment before going black and silent once again. I was rowing straight through the cosmos: the bright, cold braid of stars above and the starlike streamers below. I imagined how the Polynesians had read the night sky like a map of pinpricked light — a map that was not only above them but all around. A map that their wooden boats cut straight through, parting the stars as they went.
Bioluminescence is the emission of light by a living organism. Before going to sea for the first time, I had no idea just how positively awash this world is in light-emitting life. Most of the bioluminescence seen from the deck of a ship comes from profusions of Noctiluca scintillans, microscopic dinoflagellates aptly known as “sea sparkle,” which burst with light each time the water around them is stirred or agitated. Noctiluca scintillans proliferate in warmer waters, so all around the equator our planet is wearing a thick belt of potential light, wakened into nebulae and galaxies by boat hull and paddle stroke, whale and turtle, wave against sand and rock, creeping octopus and patrolling hammerhead shark.
Imagine raven-black ocean all around you — nothing to see — but then you stand at the front of the ship where it slices through water, and there, light is spinning and twisting in opaline helixes and clouds off each side of the bow like liquid fairy dust or a cast spell still careening toward its destination from the tip of a wand.
I’ve seen birds take off from the surface of the sea in the dark, startled out of a bobbing sleep by our approaching vessel, and as they beat, beat, beat their wings, they smacked a trail of light in their wake before disappearing into the invisible air. If birds can set off this thrum of light, imagine blue whales and how nobly they must shine as they drive their ninety-foot bodies through the sea at night, glowing from baleen to fluke, their spouts hissing geysers of blue crystals into the night air.
On another night we were anchored off a different small Indonesian island. I was nearly finished cleaning the galley after dinner when I headed up on deck to pitch the slop bucket overboard. When that dripping pile of onion peels, potato skins, and coffee grounds splashed against the still water below, it looked like I had thrown a bucket of Day-Glo paint instead of compost overboard. By then I had seen bioluminescence, but this was different — this was concentrate. I took off my shirt, put on my snorkel mask, and jumped off the stern.
My body created an upside-down fountain of white light as I slammed through the surface of the water, instantaneously incandescent. I flailed around wildly, sending limbs and sparks in all directions. My slim, creaturely legs resembled two long, bony-tailed fish glowing in a wet splendor. My crewmates shouted that it looked like I was on fire: a watery self-immolation; a scintillated baptism; a sacred, gleaming doggy-paddle. To swim in light. To become light. If this was the only thing I ever experience before leaving this world forever, it would have been worth it.
When I finally climbed back on deck, I was surprised there was no need to scrape the light from my body. O
Read a follow-up dispatch from the author, “Bioluminescence,” on the Orion Blog.
Congratulations Sam. What a marvelous piece of writing.
Beautiful. Love reading about Sam’s experience. Truly mesmerizing, and the idea that we can repopulate ruined or dying coral with still pristine and vibrant corals is really encouraging and hopeful.
Loved the images of the bird taking off from the water and the blue whale coursing through bioluminescent waters.
Sam’s riding comes alive for me as I read it! I feel as if I’m surrounded in glowing light, and surprising Wonder!
I want to quote this entire article, frame it , and put it up on my wall. Gorgeous writing.
Wow, what a beautiful vision to be surrounded by shimmering light from both sky and sea in the dark … a gorgeous piece of writing.
Beautiful. Thank you.
An absolutely transporting essay. I have never been anywhere like the Indonesian archipelago, especially at night, but Sam’s descriptions took me as close as possible. Bioluminescence sounds like the Northern Lights of the sea. Amazing!
just amazing… thank you
Sam’s richly worded essay reminds me of the potential light in all creatures. The images he painted of the most minute of organisms glowing in harmony with his humaness inspires me. Thank you Sam.
Simply beautiful piece. “I was on fire: a watery self-immolation.” Reading your piece in the latest issue of Orion made me feel, for a moment, what it must be like “to swim in light.” Unforgettable.
Beautifully written . A fantasy of grand proportions. You are a very lucky person indeed to have had that experience .
You may never forget this experience, and I will never forget reading it. These small, wondrous places that still exist on this planet are magnificent solitudes that I sincerely hope will remain so. The rest of us can live well on your writing about it.
This essay illuminates the dying beauty of our natural world, calling great attention to what remains and paying homage to what has been lost. Thank you, Sam, for this transcendent experiential essay.
What a beautiful piece, it captured me and I was there
Yes. This. Thank you for sharing, expressing and attemoting to articulate the divine.
Exquisite Sam….Thank you.. I just cried while reading ..and still am.
I can’t say anything in addition to previous comments, except thank you. Thank you for showing us such beauty, in times like ours.
I hope you live in the light!
Reading Sam’s gorgeous writing about his illuminated experience brings me back 52 years to a beach on the Gulf Coast of Louisiana. I had just concluded the final evening of a brief romantic interlude that had never gotten off the ground. I was a thousand miles from home, and felt as sad, confused and lonely as a jilted 26 year old can feel. I don’t remember now where that beach was, but it was not a gorgeous national park, rather a modest stretch of sand near a motel, by a highway. I would be flying back home the next day. With a sense of desperation for nature, I had left my hotel room crying, and was walking toward the water, when I noticed fireflies around me. Their sparkling presence surprised and comforted me; still, I felt oh so sorry for myself as I continued on in their enlightened company beneath a canopy of stars. When I reached the water, tears still falling, I took my sneakers off and walked into the gentle Gulf waves. Then: “What is this?! These waves are shining!” And that was when the cosmos finally broke through to me, as streaming light sparkled below, trailing my feet through the water. I had never seen bioluminescence except in fireflies, and did not know what it was that was creating this third tier of magic. Nor at that time had I ever heard the Navajo song prayer: now I walk in beauty, beauty before me, beauty behind me, beauty above me, beauty below me. But as I kicked splashes of light-water into the air, while a joy inside rose up that matched the beauty of that night, I knew for sure that stars, fireflies and whatever aliveness sparkled at my feet, had conspired to let me know that everything, everything, everything was gonna be alright.
Inexplicably wrapt in splendor, I find myself pausing, then releasing and allowing my fingers to type words without thinking. All I feel are tingles and trembles rushing slowly up my spine, sensations then spreading to my cheeks in bliss and reaching the top of my head; as I form a mental image in my mind of the tantalizing, light of your fellow friends. I am bowing down to the beautiful spirit who wrote such wonder. I am so happy and deeply gratified. With so much love, honor, and respect.
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