The Magic Light In the Sea

Although I lived near the Pacific Ocean for nearly 40 years, along the Gulf of Mexico, on the Atlantic, and the Caribbean Sea for one, two, and three years, respectively, I had no knowledge of bio-luminescence, the production and emission of light given off by a living organism – the disturbance of plankton, so I’m told. My first acquaintance with it came about when I visited Puerto Rico’s Phosphorescent Bay in 1964, and I couldn’t explain what I was seeing.

While stationed in Puerto Rico my mother traveled from Oregon to see her new granddaughter, Sophia. Barb and I had been content to remain close to Ramey Air Force Base, Aguadilla, Mayaguez, and an occasional trip to San Juan. But in order to provide her with a more fulfilling visit, I acquired a travel brochure that suggested Phosphorescent Bay should be on our must see list.

On the first Saturday of her brief stay we motored there.

The road between Ramey Air Force Base and Phosphorescent Bay was in poor condition. Road construction and repair was evident every way we turned. So even though the distance was not so great, late afternoon was upon us before we arrived.

About dusk several boats motored past were we stood, their propellers generating a bright green cloud that continued to glow for three or four minutes afterward. We watched people scoop up buckets of water and create more green as they poured the contents back into the bay.

We returned to Ramey with the notion that Phosphorescent Bay was the only place on Earth where this phenomenon occurred.


I began watching for the greenish glow every place we visited, and I found it as far north as Portland, Oregon. It shows up best at stoney portions of the beaches where the water is more turbulent, and during the time of the new moon. Eight to ten feet out to sea from furthest reach of the surf – perhaps the third wave back – I saw the same green glow. In the cooler waters its color is darker and it diminishes more quickly than it did in Caribbean.

A bit of research unearthed the fact that in 1637, René Descartes, a French philosopher and scientist, discovered that striking seawater generated what he called barium sulfate which he tagged the magic light.