The strange phenomenon of sea lightning is explained
Published on: Friday, January 02, 1931

THE BRITISH NORTH BORNEO HERALD - (January 2, 1931) - To those who have seen it, and they are many, sea-lightning must appear a mystifying term. One is familiar with forked lightning, and sheet-lightning, and one or two oil, curls but not with any form of lightning peculiarly connected with the sea. Yet no other term can so aptly describe the strange phenomenon. 

The advent of sea-lightning is sufficiently rare to excite wide comment, but apparently no satisfactory explanation of its occurrence exists, and one can but theorise to the best of one’s knowledge and ability. It has no definite, permanent locality, for it, has been seen in places as far apart as the Malacca Straits and the Persian Gulf and it was my good fortune to meet with it in the latter neighbourhood. 

Imagine a night in the early part of the Persian Gulf hot-weather season, moonless and with few stars. You are in a small ship steaming southwards before a breeze barely sufficient to stir the smoke from the funnel. There is a slight sea, but die shallow waves are uncreated; and altogether the weather is perfectly normal and consistent. ln the clammy heat you have become so lethargic and somnolent that you have no longer any interest in your environment, and you pay little or no attention to the numerous faint patches of phosphorescence all around. 

As you proceed, however, these phosphorescent patches become brighter and multiply in number, until their uncanny green light forces itself upon your notice. Reflected from the white paintwork, it brightens and dims irregularly, relieving the darkness of shadowy corners, and making new shadows where were none before. Then quite suddenly you detect a confusion of light ahead. On a large area, less than half-a-mile away, the phosphorus is no longer placid, but has become intensely alive and is bubbling fiercely as though boiling in a huge cauldron. Is it imagination, or can you really hear a faint hissing sound! You are reminded of raindrops striking upon a wet pavement in the gleam of a street-lamp, save that here the colour is green, vivid against the blackness of the sea beyond. Without warning, for there is no gradual metamorphosis, a definite shape appears before your eyes, and in a moment the bubbling mass is transformed into an astonishing wheel of light upon the water. It is not a complete wheel for there is no rim, but it has a hub and it has spokes, and, more curious still, the whole thing is revolving it no mean speed. You gaze in wonder as you approach still nearer, until your eves become dazzled by the rapidity with which time spokes flash past. With an effort you pull yourself out of a fascinated immobility, and try vainly to determine their number. Then, in a thoughtless attempt to gauge the speed of the revolutions, you concentrate on one portion of the gigantic wheel and count each passing spoke, taking the time from the second-hand of your watch. At the end of a minute you have counted ninety spokes; you rest your eyes and count again, and this time the number is eighty. Swiftly, for the strange thing is now abeam, you endeavour to impress every detail of its appearance upon your memory; you judge the wheel’s diameter to be about a quarter of a mile, and its centre about three hundred yards from the ship; you note that the spokes curve slightly to-wards the right at the outer end of their length, and that they revolve in an anti-clockwise direction, that is from right to left. Then satisfied you give yourself up to the beauty of the amazing spectacle. 

Truly it is an experience not soon to be forgotten! 

But already, only a short distance astern, the wheel has lost some of its splendour, its brilliancy is beginning to fade, and again, almost in a moment, there is only the broad patch of pale phosphorescence to be seen. You glance at your watch carelessly, and receive another shock, for the whole remarkable display has came and gone in just eight minutes. With the thought a host of questions leap into your mind. Was the wheel stationary ? Or was it travelling in the same direction or an opposite direction to the path of the ship? First, though, how was the thing composed? Two or three answers present themselves immediately, and you examine each with but little confidence that you have hit upon the explanation. It may have been merely the effect of the waves upon the surface phosphorus, you think; then why did not every patch become a wheel on approach? Perhaps it was a large shoal of fish, or several small ones, flashing intermittently, either controlled or not controlled. Then how explain the turning effect? This requires a lot of thinking over, you decide, and turn away perplexed. One thing only is certain, that the great wheel of light revolving upon the surface of the sea, was no hallucination, but actually happened. 

Two nights later in the Straits of Ormuz you observe again the peculiar phosphorescent glare which preceded the approach of the Wheel. Again the night is a dark one, but this time the sea is smooth and unruffled by any breeze, though a faint , swell, travelling northwards from the Gulf of Oman, is just distinguishable. Your excitement increases as the light becomes brighter; so bright at length that you might almost read a book by it. But there is no Wheel though you search for it anxiously on both sides of the ship. From edge to edge of the horizon the sea is green, pale here land brilliant there, and changing every. second like restless, molten metal. From almost under your nose a flash darts out and away, until it is lost in the distance; and at the same moment, out of the corner of your eye, you see another disappear across the bow. You turn, and another flash lights up the sea before you, then still another on your left, simultaneously there ice flashes on all sides. But still there is no Wheel. By half-closing your eyes you can almost impart a turning motion, on a very wide arc, to these flashes, but you have only to open your eyes fully again to dispel the illusion. You search your mind for a simile, knowing that somewhere you have seen something like this before, and suddenly you remember a huge electric-light sign in which a long row of bulbs, lit one after the other, gave the effect of a continuous flash. 

For three quarters of an hour the illumination continues. Then the flashes become rarer and less brilliant, until at last only the pale green of the sea remains; and you have the strange feeling that an eerie quietness has descended upon everything. Gradually patches of blackness appear on the water, and before long sea and sky are normal once more. 

And you are left more perplexed than before.— W. L. G. The Singapore Free Press.

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