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Stories by Mike Humfreville

Phosphorescence    ( Posted November 14, 2002 )

It was an easygoing night at La Gringa many years back. I think it was prior to the summer of ’85 when we four had lived just a few miles north, at Las Cuevitas. Regardless, Michael and Kevin were still young, like maybe pre-school age. A bunch of us had heard Halley’s Comet was making another earth-approach and we knew it would be a spectacular viewing from Bahia de Los Angeles. We planned a trip and, as I remember, it was spring when we arrived on the gravel berm in motor homes and tents for a week’s stay and an adventure watching the comet.

We passed time fishing and fooling around for a few days and went to bed early on the “Comet Night” because it was first visible at 3 or 4 the next morning. Someone set an alarm and way too early we were dressing and gathering along the shore and scoping out the dark sky to the north and west of our position on the beach. There was no moon and the generators from the village, ten miles distant, had shut down at ten the night before. It was completely dark and an ideal night for comet spotting.

We kept our eyes peeled into the sky in the general direction we knew was correct and there was nothing to be seen. We kept a tight watch and after an hour or more we still saw nothing except stars. During this time the boys were restless and running back and forth on the beach, but staying out of the water. It was on the leading edges of summer and not fully hot just yet. But after so much time looking at nothing in the dark sky of deep night, they wanted to go swimming. We discussed it and Mary Ann told them it was OK, but they could only stay near shore and where we could hear and see them.

“Yea, Mom!” Michael hollers.

“Yea, Mom!” Kevin echoes. And they go roaring the several yards down to the shore and into the water.

From the instant their little feet hit the ocean the entire area around the disturbance of foot-penetrating-water lit up. It was shocking and the adults hurried down to the shore to see where the light was coming from. By the time we got there, the boys were jumping and splashing and the surrounding area was just about fully lit in a diameter of maybe twenty feet. It was amazing and awesome, and it took us only a minute to realize it was just a heavy dose of phosphorescent plankton that was causing the water to illuminate when it was disturbed. The adults’ fears were calmed and we returned to our nest on the berm and continued to stalk the comet. Eventually, one of us spotted it and pointed into the sky.

Soon we were all seeing this very dim and vague shape amongst the stars and Halley’s looked like no other thing there. It was “foggy”, indistinct, a shower rather than a single point of light. It didn’t appear to be moving. It would have been boring actually, if it weren’t so rare. We called to the boys who stopped their frolicking for only a moment, spotted the event, and went back to the water. They were throwing the small smooth stones into the water and admiring the light show provided by the plankton.

Soon we were all standing along the shore and throwing stones, sometimes in handfuls of a hundred, as far our as we could and wondering over the nature of the tiny beasts that illuminated on disturbance, how much energy they consumed upon activation, how many there were per a given volume of water and on and on. We discussed the phenomenon until we had exhausted the questions, had no answers, only speculation. One of the guys pointed out that we’d be needing to get up in two hours to fish.

I called the boys out of the water and we toweled them off and soon we were headed back to sleep. Michael and Kevin climbed up into our tent trailer, followed by Mary Ann and, finally, me. There were no lights anywhere in camp because we’d been comet-watching. But the tent trailer had an eerie glow. I was looking around to see who’d turned on a light. No one had.

The light was provided by plankton, but not from the beach. The boys had brought it into the trailer on their feet. We looked in amazement at the shining path of steps from tiny feet running all the way up from the beach and into the trailer where they were now getting ready to go back to sleep. There steps had left tracks that were almost bright enough to read by. Amazing! The boys were now ready to run back and do it all over again. But we put our foot down, so to speak, and sent them off to bed. Mary Ann and I climbed into the outer bed and I spent the last hour before sun-up wondering about plankton and their environment. Maybe someday I’ll have time to investigate. Too soon that morning we were catching, then filleting, then canning Jurel.

So, the trip was a little lacking in luster from the standpoint of comet-watching. It was just too dim to see enough to make it interesting. Of course, just knowing it won’t return to our view for such a long and enduring cycle makes it a wondrous event to behold. Might never see this again, I was thinking. But the plankton made the difference and saved the science issues of the trip from dragging down, especially with the young minds we loved to challenge. Maybe we were looking too far out into the heavens for a huge, rare event. In so doing we could have missed another inspirational moment so close at hand. If it hadn’t been for Michael and Kev’s wanting to swim at three in the morning we surely would have.

Copyright 2002-2006 Mike Humfreville

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