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

Living in a seaside resort, it can be difficult to settle at the computer in August when everyone else seems to be on holiday. But a morning walk along the promenade can be great research.

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':

But the small boy's question got me thinking about writing, and how we authors need readers to shine a light on our work even when we are in motion. Sometimes the sun shines on us, we win an award, get a handful of great reviews, or our publisher throws us a glittering launch party, and then we sparkle like the sea on a bright morning, diamond-like and dancing, and everyone wants to be near us. Then the sun goes behind a cloud, and we suddenly look dull and not so interesting, the people watching us idly from the shore shiver and go back to their hotel for a cream tea instead. Winter comes bringing grey skies and mist, and we start to look moody and chilly and at times rather threatening. Our readers leave town and head off to a glittering party on the other side of the world instead. Soon the rain sets in, and eventually even the hardiest of dog walkers pull up their hoods and decide it's time to head home and curl up by the fire with a good book, which might even be one of ours they purchased months ago while we were briefly glittering.

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!


Lee said…
The dinoflagellates sparkle whether observed by people or not. I sparkle when I'm writing well, whether or not readers are paying attention. But this is only my own experience; other writers feel differently.
Sandra Horn said…
A great post! One to treasure on the dull days when the sparkle seems like a distant memory!Thank you, Katherine.
Penny Dolan said…
An interesting image, Katherine, and the scenes all too recognisable and chilly. The sea is certainly as powerful - and probably more so - when dark and grey.
Bill Kirton said…
Lovely images, Katherine. They reminded me of another type of sparkle in water - bio-luminescence. Sailing at night off Scotland's west coast can be magical as the hull leaves a flashing green trail behind it. Better still, a long-ago midnight swim after a party in Exmouth where the sparkles actually streamed down our bodies and churned in the water around us. (Sigh.)
julia jones said…
I've recently read "Reading Water" by the natural navigator Tristan Gooley and was gladdened to find that the scientific explanations are often almost as magical as the best attempts by fiction. However they are not (for me) as memorable sp I can't show off my new learning here. (I'll recommend the book though.) Loved the post and thought the glitter of public approval an apt analogy, whether scientific or not. Thanks
Enid Richemont said…
Sea fairies, mermaids' pearls, whatever. Little dancing sun refections on water is also magical, as is the real world of nature and fact.

I did a major sparkly, bookwise, once, back in 2001. Not healthy to have these, as they spoil you for any lesser futures. Would be great to be able to freeze them in time, like diamonds.
I guess photos freeze sparkly moments in time, but they're never the same as the real thing.

Bill, your experiences sound magical! Do you mean Exmouth in Devon? Or is there one in Scotland?

And is it possible to glimpse your own sparkle, as Lee suggests when the writing is going well? Or is that more of a sparkly feeling inside as yet unseen by anyone else?
Bill Kirton said…
The Devon Exmouth, Katherine. I was at university in Exeter. I'm not sure the Gulf Stream (which brought us the sparkly creatures) reaches the same parts nowadays.

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