European studies blog

Exploring Europe at the British Library

24 December 2018

A Bioluminescent Christmas

Christmas is associated with sparkling lights that lift the eyes up to the stars in motionless awe. On Christmas 1875, a curious traveller wrote about a less-known yet equally magical light that drew his eyes below the horizon, a light that flared up with the breaking waves: sea sparkle.

Photograph of the phenomenon of sea sparke
Sea sparkle (Photo by Sander van der Wel from Wikimedia Commons [CC BY-SA 2.0])

The traveller, count József Zichy, a politician of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy, was on a semi-official Asian tour to expand trade and political relations, and to learn about the world through personal experience, a practice not uncommon among members of the aristocracy.

Title page of József Zichy’s manuscript diary (1875-6)
Title page of József Zichy’s manuscript diary: “From 1875 November 22 to 1876 September 22 | Diary of my travels in Asia | original manuscript: I.-XVII. notebooks ‘Nulla dies sine linea’” Reproduced in Zichy József, Zichy Mihály (ed), Gróf Zichy József utazásai, Volume 1 Ázsia 1875-76 (Budapest, 2013) YF.2014.6057

Map of Zichy’s travel in Asia in 1875-1876
Map of Zichy’s travel in Asia in 1875-1876, from Gróf Zichy József utazásai

En route from Aden, Yemen to Pointe de Galle, Sri Lanka, in the Arabian Sea, , Zichy described his encounter with sea sparkle in a few words but with great precision:

December 22. Lat. 12.16 - long. 46.20
We are on open sea again […]. […] - In the evening we can’t help but staring at the sea’s phosphorescence, which is much stronger here than anywhere else. We are leaving behind a pretty fiery trail and gazillions of sparks are scattered when the waves brake on the side of our huge ship’s hull. - The weather is splendid, a mild breeze makes the heat more tolerable than it was in the Red Sea.

December 26. Lat. 9o12’, long. 63 o55’
[…] The evenings are not so beautiful any longer because the sea’s phosphorescence is much weaker here than it was in the Gulf of Aden; the weather remains good.
[Translation: Andrea Deri]

What Zichy observed was bioluminescence, generated by high concentration of tiny planktonic organisms, probably Dinoflagellates (δίνη, Greek, refers to whirling, swirling; flagellates, Latin, refers to the flagellum or flagella on the surface of the algae). However, a wide range of species of several taxonomic groups may bring about similar phenomena.

The cold glowing white-blue light of sea sparkle is the result of biochemical reactions within marine organisms. The light flares up with wave action that may be produced by walking, swimming or vessel movement. The light is assumed to deter the Dinoflagellates’ predators or act as a ‘burglar alarm’, which may attract secondary predators to prey on the primary ones.

Sea sparkle can occur in coastal and shallow waters of tropical and temperate seas. Current blog posts and daily newspapers document sea sparkle from India’s western coast to Anglesey

Mariners have known bioluminescence for long time. Fishers and traditional navigators of South India’s Malabar coasts and around Bombay ‘have reported a luminous sea surface and at times a milky sea invariably during dark nights following calm or sultry weather and during overcast monsoon periods’ and glowing sea surface like fireflies in Bengal.

Bioluminescence is now even used as a tourist attraction to small islands off the south Indian coast. While Zichy mentioned some of them, Lakshadweep and the Maldives, the distance from the atolls and the time of the night did not allow him to record any further observations:

December 27. Lat. 8o 15’, long. 68o 34’
[…]Tonight we are going to pass between the Lakedires and the Maldives. To see these islands we will barely do because their shores are rather low. […]
[Translation: Andrea Deri]

Zichy did not have the public in mind when he wrote his diary. Yet, its publication by the Hungarian National Széchenyi Library and the publisher Széphalom with the editorial scholarship of Mihály Zichy, a member of the same family, adds great value to history, linguistics, anthropology, arts and sciences.

József Zichy’s entries also demonstrate the significance of personal diaries in environmental change research, especially when the traveller’s environmental and cultural observations include metadata such as longitude and latitude coordinates. Mapping Zichy’s observations shows that he was able to observe sea sparkles in deep sea also: an occurrence that may be of interest of current long-term and large-scale studies.

Map showing Zichy’s positions on 22 December 1875

Map showing Zichy's position on 26 December 1875
Map of Zichy’s positions on 22 Dec and 26 Dec

Zichy embodied the qualities of what we would call today a citizen scientist. He was keen to learn about the world through first-hand experience and use his insights for the public good. His guiding principle for keeping a diary features on the title page of his manuscript: Nulla dies sine linea (‘No day without a line’, that is no day should pass without a line written).

While Zichy was ‘only’ interested in the aesthetics of sea sparkle, he may have unwittingly made an important contribution to environmental history of the Arabian Sea in light of current studies on the possible nexus between increasing bioluminescent algal blooms and unfolding environmental change. Even if this is not the case, his observations certainly offer opportunities for interdisciplinary research, bridging humanities and environmental studies, a dynamically growing field of environmental humanities.

If you cannot frolic with luminous fellow creatures this Christmas, you may still dive into watching and recording (so easy with mobile phones!) a natural spectacle, inspired by Zichy, our fellow citizen scientist from the 19th century. Who knows where your Christmas diary might end up in the history of science?

Andrea Deri, Cataloguer

References/Further reading:

R. Santhanam, Marine Dinoflagellates (New York, 2015) (B) 579.81776

Therese Wilson, J. Woodland (Woody), Bioluminescence: living lights, lights for living (Cambridge, Mass., 2013) YK.2013.a.10980

Balsubramiam Arunachalam, ‘Traditional Sea and Sky Wisdom of Indian Seamen and Their Practical Applications’ in Himanshu Prabha Ray, Jean-Francois Salles, Tradition and Archaeology - Early Maritime Contacts in the Indian Ocean (New Delhi, 1996) ORW.1997.a.1626

Balsubramiam Arunachalam, Heritage of Indian Sea Navigation (Mumbai, 2003) YA.2003.a.26499

Ismael Vaccaro, Eric Alden Smith, Shankar Aswani, Environmental social sciences: methods and research design (Cambridge, 2010)

University of British Columbia, Phyto'pedia - The Phytoplankton Encyclopaedia Project: Noctiluca stintillans (UBC, 2012)

iSpot: Share Nature - an Open University platform where today’s citizen scientists can upload their sightings (photo, text) and request identification