A sea of galaxies

life of piI watched Life of Pi with my family about two weeks back. And when the image on the left appeared on screen, I could hardly contain my excitement. I remembered that I’d written about the Lakshadweep incident somewhere, and at the time it had felt almost surreal, but words couldn’t describe what I saw. And thus I hadn’t mentioned it to many people. But here it was.

We didn’t have our cameras with us that evening – Anne and I, we were not supposed to be on the boat. We were sulking at home a little earlier – when Rohan, Teresa, Rucha, Amod and Vardhan were putting their dive equipment together. Anne and I had got our diver certificates just a month back, and couldn’t dive deeper than 18 meters with our basic certification. All the others were advance-level divers, some having decades of dive experience. The preparations were on for a night dive, but Anne and I weren’t qualified enough to join the rest, and were pretty peeved. But we did end up on the boat with others that evening, having decided that we would sulk some more in the dark while the rest were on their precious night dive.

Underwater torches were tested, chaperones were assigned and divers plopped into water from the boat over the reef. There still was feeble light in the horizon and we saw beams of torch light crisscrossing downwards as people descended. The beams soon got polarized several feet below and disappeared in one direction. I think it was Anne who suggested that we take a dip, and by the time we put on our snorkels and fins, it was pitch dark. We could only hear Shaafi’s voice as he asked us not to drift too far from the boat, and we jumped in.

biolum summary

I remember having seen plankton luminescence before – in the open sea between Agatti and Kadmat islands, when I saw sparks in the wake of the boat by which we were travelling. I was initially scared that there was some neural short-circuit happening in my eyes, before Anne explained what it actually was. But it was quite different now as we finned in the water, and the sight was unbelievable.  Each of our movements in the dark water was followed by a trail of luminescence, which would disappear soon after. The more we moved in the water, the brighter was the illumination. As we paddled with our fins, our legs created the brightest sparks. When we swam we left behind glistening Tinker bell trails. Anne and I were soon giggling and yelping, wriggling all over to create neon outlines of ourselves. We were slapping the water surface with our hands, kicking with our feet, duck diving and creating symmetric arcs in the water column as we moved towards each other and surfaced with a gasp.

It is one of the happiest memories I have of Lakshadweep. While the rest of the divers were gushing on about how amazing their night dive was on our boat ride back, I couldn’t care less. We had our own glowing little secret.

 biolumbiolum uses

Click on the images to visit source page. For more on bioluminescence, go source article, or visit this page.



  1. Karpagam

    Bharthi – that is a lovely article – enjoyable and informative – I thought that the luminescence in “Li of Pi” was just made up by whoever makes up these things under the influence of whatever – not necessarily luciferin 😉
    Now I know better.

  2. varuntorsekar

    This blog brings back memories of the time I spent in Sunderbans Tiger Reserve. We used to roam all over the delta in a small boat, keeping our eyes peeled for the sight of a tiger. Fortunately, we also managed to get permission to go on some night rides. One of these nights, I was sitting in the front of the boat, when I noticed that the foam caused by the keel of the boat cutting through the water was blue! Being a first year zoology student, I realised that it was bio-luminescence. Rather optimistically (and foolishly), I even carried a full bottle of that water back to Bombay, hoping for an encore in a bucket at home!

  3. bhartidk

    Thanks. 🙂

    Hari – I’ll try and write more about Lakshadweep, we should nudge Anne to chip in as well. She’s better with the biology part of it.
    Karpa – I’ve never studied zoology, and for me, going to Lakshadweep was something like Alice dropping into the rabbit hole. It is another world altogether, being underwater.
    Varun – 🙂 I’ll ask Anne to get some water samples back to lab. It’ll be fun looking at these things under the microscope.

  4. Aparna Lajmi

    It was good fun reading this article Bharti. As Hari said, we would love to read more. I am yet to see Life of Pi but I had no clue movement could trigger luminescence. Wonder what the mechanism is? Any clues?

  5. bhartidk

    Thanks Aparna.
    I’m not entirely sure what the luminescing organisms in the lagoon were on that particular day. If I remember right, Anne had said they might be Noctiluca – a dinoflagellate. Not sure about the mechanism, but I think it is useful in startling predators.

  6. MeenakhiPoti

    Wow, sounds like an amazing experience!
    It would be really interesting to find out about the mechanism and the chemical reactions that take place in the organism to produce this luminescence!

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