Why does the sea sparkle? - Katherine Roberts
|Europa and the bull enter the sea
picture credit: Jean François de Troy [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons
Small boy to his dad: "Why does the sea sparkle?"
Dad (clearly the practical type): "It's the sun reflecting off the water."
Small boy goes quiet, possibly trying to remember exactly what 'reflection' means, and why he isn't seeing the whole sun reflected in the water just a whole bay full of sparkles?
A writer might have answered differently:
"They're fairies dancing on the waves..."
"A mermaid dropped her purse and lost all her diamonds..."
"It's the dreaded sparkle-eye disease and you've just caught it..."
"They're last night's fallen stars..."
"An evil villain in an underwater lair is trying to hypnotise us all into voting for him so he can rule the world..."
And I'm sure you can think of plenty of other creative explanations for this phenomenon.
The small boy's question is, of course, a classic starting point for a myth. This got me wondering if there are any traditional myths out there mentioning sea glitter, so I looked it up and came across the myth of Europa and the Bull, where Zeus transforms himself into a white bull to seduce the maiden Europa, who catches hold of the bull's neck and is carried on a wild ride across the sea to the isle of Crete, where they embark upon a night of passion. This myth mentions the sparkles as being the pearls of Europa's gown and her ride is in pursuit of pleasure, though in a later version Europa notes the 'oily glitter of the sea' as she is unwillingly being carried across it by the bull. Here, it's the movement of the bull through the water that disturbs the waves to produce the glitter, in the same way the sea otter in this lovely picture creates its own glitter:
|picture credit: Brocken Inaglory via Wikimedia Commons
The real science behind the glittering sea is, of course, a bit more complicated than the father's explanation. It is really many thousands of reflections of the sun reflecting off the waves, dependent on the wind and the tides and the position of the small boy, the angle of the sun, and other random elements such as seabirds landing on the water, fish breaking the surface and submerged rocks. There must be a mathematical formula for the glitter but I suspect it's not straightforward, and would need a lot of computer power to reproduce the effect even if I could come up with a formula. So here's a short video I took on one of my 'research walks':
The sea is still out there. Its tides ebb and flow just the same, and the water is just as deep. We might get angry in stormy weather and batter a few cliffs, claim a slice of a neglected coast path, perhaps even demolish a railway line or two. But when our readers do not shine on us we do not sparkle, and we are about as welcome as an ocean of cold water at the parties. All we can do is carry on writing in the hope that next summer will be a good one, and many thousands of small boys (and their dads and mums and sisters and aunties and uncles) will wonder at the suddenly visible surface of our work and ask: "Dad, why does the sea sparkle?"
Katherine Roberts writes fantasy with a focus on legend and myth for young readers. Her latest release is a collection of science fiction in her series of Ampersand Tales for slightly older readers, bringing together some of her previously published shorter fiction and prize winning stories from the 1990s.
|Weird and Wonderful
short science fiction by Katherine Roberts
Note: It was daylight when the small boy asked the question that inspired this post, but there is apparently a similar phenomenon seen at night in some parts of the world, where the spooky blue light known as 'sea sparkle' is due to glowing algae:
http://adorablearchana.blogspot.co.uk/2012/07/sea-sparkle-noctiluca-scintillans.html - which looks rather like something out of one of my stories!