Luminous Life

Among the most abundant sources of light on Earth is life itself.

It’s 10 p.m., and I’m standing in the darkroom of the Western Flyer, a research vessel belonging to the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute. The room is tiny, and several of us are crammed inside. The light is off, the air is warm and stuffy, and—as we’re at sea, 50 miles off the coast of California—the floor keeps rocking. I feel sick. But I don’t care. On a table, in a small dish, is a newly captured animal. It’s a sea creature known as a ctenophore (the c is silent). About two inches long, it looks like a gelatinous, transparent bell, with ridges down its sides. And when touched, it spews light.

Watch. Steven Haddock, one of the world experts on life-forms that make light, is about to nudge the animal with a glass stick. We all lean forward, jostling each other to see. There. For a moment, a ghostly image of the ctenophore appears in the dish. An image made of bluish light that swirls and gradually dissipates, as if the animal itself has just dissolved.

It is gorgeous. Ethereal. And, in a way, secret. For this particular ctenophore lives far below the surface of the sea, and few humans have ever seen its kind, let alone its light.

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