They couldn’t believe their eyes: the ocean was shining.


Naomi McKinnon knew something was wrong, but she didn’t know what. She descended below decks for a minute, then joined her two watch mates.

Then it hit her. From horizon to horizon, stern to bow, the sea all around them shone as their 52-foot-long ketch passed south of the Indonesian island of Java on a moonless night.

“What the hell?” she remembered thinking.

What Ms McKinnon and her six crewmates encountered in August 2019 was a glowing swell of seawater so bright and gargantuan in size that a satellite orbiting hundreds of miles above could see its reflections. Last summer, a team of scientists reported on the satellite’s feat, which opened a window into one of the planet’s most puzzling features. Bioluminescent seas seem to be born when billions of tiny bacteria light up in unison.

Now a researcher who wrote this article, Steven D. Miller, a satellite expert at Colorado State University, has told how McKinnon and her teammates used their own observations, cameras and bucket of water from sea ​​to verify the findings of the satellites, albeit unconsciously.

Late last year, after Ms McKinnon learned of Dr Miller’s research, she reluctantly came forward. “I thought, ‘Maybe he doesn’t want to know,'” she recalls. “But his response was ‘Wow! You’re the first person to confirm that!’ He was so excited. I was really glad I reached out.

Dr. Miller spoke about the sailboat’s corroboration of the spacecraft sightings in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on Monday.

At the ocean surface, bioluminescence occurs in two general types. The most common occurs when churning waves or other movements stimulate the glow of microorganisms. Many night swimmers have seen the blue-green luminescence of the crashing waves.

The other type – the one the boat crew observed – is poorly understood and appears to exist without mechanical stimulation. Its rarity makes joint observations of the satellite and ship a major scoop for ocean science.

Dr Johan Lemmens, a retired doctor from Southend-on-Sea, England, was circumnavigating the globe in the twin-masted sailboat he owns and captains when the sighting occurred. He said he had never seen anything like it.

“Normal bioluminescence is when the waves come on or there’s a trail of light behind you,” Dr. Lemmens said. “You see this two or three times a year. It was different. The sea was bright, but the waves were black. It made him really strange. This gave the idea that the light came from a deeper level.

The crew lowered a bucket into the water and pulled out a sample containing several points of light that glowed steadily until the water was choppy; then, the dots suddenly turned dark. This response, the new paper notes, is contrary to “normal” bioluminescence.

Ms McKinnon said her first awareness of the glow occurred around 9 p.m. local time, and it intensified overnight, until dawn. Satellite observations revealed that the bright spot south of Java, Indonesia’s most populous island, persisted for at least 45 nights and grew larger than the collective areas of Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts , Rhode Island and Connecticut.

Ms McKinnon studied biochemistry at university and was a research assistant in a laboratory at the University of Sydney in Australia before learning about the world’s circumnavigation on a sailing forum and, at 24, joining the Voyageurs. In her lab, she has studied deadly marine venoms, including, for example, those of box jellyfish, whose toxins not only attack the skin but also the heart and nervous system.

Dr Lemmens, who grew up in the Netherlands, said the circumnavigation was a celebration of his retirement. His ketch, Ganesha, named after an early Hindu god, carried a crew of seven.

Ms McKinnon said after their sighting off Java she had done some research on the internet while in port but found little to learn. She later entered medical school at the Australian National University and last fall was doing yet another research when she read Dr. Miller’s satellite paper.

“I still had that question in my head,” she recalls. “What was that?”

Steven HD Haddock, bioluminescence expert at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute in California and co-author of the satellite paper with Dr Miller, said it was wonderfully fortuitous that “coverage of the original science reached sailors who responded to us,” giving the team independent verification of the rare phenomenon.

Dr Miller said the observations of Ms McKinnon and her crew offer insight into a major puzzle – how tiny organisms can influence entire seas.

“It’s a large coupled system,” Dr Miller said of ocean currents and the atmosphere. “It’s important for us to understand how this base level of the biosphere relates to this.”

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