Nightly green fireworksFeb 28, 2014
Jess Barber’s sloop Adamastor at anchor in Panama.
To the editor: The Americans we’ve met call it bioluminescence. When we crossed the Atlantic we talked about it as nightly green fireworks. Without doubt, one of the biggest changes we’ve felt since going from one ocean to the next is that the Pacific is brim full of spectacular phosphorescence at night.
This is a light show that can be appreciated in many different ways. At anchor we’ve seen the strange effect of a wind line, lit up like a lightsaber, a glowing gust on the water moving towards us. When there’s a steady wind the white horses that cap the waves during the day become eerie, green-glowing froths of light in the darkness, lapping at each side of the boat. If you’re sailing in bigger seas at night then these spumes of emerald light become whole lit-up waves, curls of bright surf that crash towards the hull and explode. Boats themselves take on a more ghostly form with this light too as they leave luminous trails behind them, like gleaming jet paths. The intensity of the glow is always in proportion to the speed. So, you can imagine that it’s even more remarkable when you see fish in the phosphorescence.
First we saw jumping fish. Or rather, we heard the splashes in the darkness and saw bright pools of light flash where they landed. Then we saw the hunting fish, their fast predatory movements leaving a mark like a torpedo had gone off. Sometimes you can only discern what sort of fish you are looking at in the blackness by the light shapes they make. In this way, by reading the motions of the lights, we worked out that we were looking at a group of five squid speeding along one night.
The dolphins put on a good light show too. They move so fast in the water and criss-cross over one another so quickly that the streams of light they trail behind them look like phantom snakes. Or else you see nothing at first, but hear the give-away sound of a blow-hole breath and then the acceleration or the jump reveals how close they are to you as the flickers of green show in the water. A school of hundreds of fish encircled us one time, like a huge carpet of iridescent lights at all different depths, waltzing around one another creating dashes of ghostly glow everywhere. Then there are the times when the water is still, but the phosphorescence hangs in the water all around you, looking like a million tiny stars, seemingly more and more dense the deeper you look into it.
Probably the most magical thing we’ve seen in this strange, spooky light were the three huge eagle rays which danced towards our bow at anchor one night. The light outlined their wing tips and tails and we watched them twirl and sway in and out of vision as they moved fast or slow, seeming to appear out of nowhere then evaporate only to reappear again somewhere else a moment later.
Or, there are the far less obvious delights that one can enjoy on one’s own boat. James’ laugh on deck is so loud that it disturbs me down below in our cabin and I put down my book to go and see what’s so funny. He’s at the bow, marvelling at what a fantastic light show he is greeted with when he pisses into the water. The simple pleasures of voyaging.
Jess Barber is voyaging aboard Adamastor, a 1990 Crossbow 42 sloop, with her partner and their little girl, Rocket. They left the U.K. more than two years ago and are now 11,000 miles into their circumnavigation.