“The whole appearance of the ocean was like a plain covered with snow… 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.” — Captain Kingman off Java, 1854
YOU have heard of the Milky Way galaxy, and you can even see it on a dark night, the grayish band of light that stretches across the sky. But have you heard of the Milky Sea? Although much closer to home, it was always thought to be fiction generated by seafarers to entertain landlubbers. Recent research has revealed that the Milky Sea is real, and wonderful.
In a similar phenomenon called bioluminescence, small organisms in the water generate light when they are disturbed. They do this in the wakes of ships but will even do it when you swim among them. While this is exhilarating to see, it is humble by comparison. The Milky Sea is different. It is a rare occurrence when the entire surface of the ocean glows from the light of hundreds of trillions of bacteria, forming a cloud of light the size of a state and can last for days or even weeks.
A Milky Sea often covers thousands of square miles and, for some unknown reason, occurs in only a few places in the world, primarily off the coast of Myanmar and near Indonesia. If it were simply a matter of a lot of bacteria growing together and collectively producing light, they would happen all the time and all over the world. The fact that they are rare both in terms of frequency and geography means that more is going on. Unfortunately, only one scientific research vessel has ever encountered a Milky Sea, and while they collected what data they could, we are only beginning to understand what causes them.
Since the chances of encountering a Milky Sea in progress are slim, scientists have been using satellites programmed with software only recently developed to see them from space. With better measuring tools, we are beginning to understand what they are and why they occur, but this is clearly cutting-edge science on a new frontier. Using the new resources, one of the first observed Milky Seas was off the coast of Somalia in 2018, only three years ago. Now that scientists know what to look for and have the tools to do it, they can study them more closely. In 2019, a Milky Sea the size of Kentucky was spotted off the coast of Java.
What causes a Milky Sea? Why do they only occur in select spots? How long do they last? What are their characteristics? Do they pose any danger to humans? Do they contain any practical benefits or are they merely a beautiful expression of a wondrous creation? So many questions. We need more scientists.
BC Cook, PhD lived on Saipan and has taught history for 20 years. He currently resides on the mainland U.S.