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LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.

For hundreds of years, ship captains in the Indian Ocean have been writing of nighttime voyages through eerie stretches of water, areas where the ocean glowed so brightly that sailors could read a book at midnight. These milky waters were said to cover thousands of square miles. Marine biologists used to scoff at these reports. No longer. NPR's John Nielsen reports on the satellite photos that changed their minds.

JOHN NIELSEN reporting:

`June, 1854, an American clipper ship is sailing through the Indian Ocean on a cloudless night. Suddenly, the ship is enveloped by a thick glowing fog. The shaken captain writes of a scene that is one of awful grandeur with the sea being turned to phosphorous. The heavens hung in blackness and the stars going out.'

Unidentified Man: `...blackness and the stars going out. It is as if all nature is preparing for a last grand conflagration which we are taught to believe is to annihilate the world.'

NIELSEN: That may be the purplest description ever of milky waters but not by very much. Other captains wrote of sailing over glowing cloud banks and snow-covered plains. Researchers have collected 235 of these reports over the years. Steven Haddock, a biologist at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, says they all paint the same picture.

Mr. STEVEN HADDOCK (Biologist, Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute): Light on the surface of the water covering a huge area, apparently not stimulated by anything and just continuously glowing.

NIELSEN: Haddock studies living things that light up in the sea, bacteria, squid and other so-called bioluminescent creatures. Until recently, he was a fairly hard-core milky waters skeptic. Then an expert on remote sensing at the US Naval Research Laboratory sent Haddock some intriguing satellite photos of the Indian Ocean. They'd been taken in 1995 on the same night a merchant ship reported sailing into glowing waters. Haddock looked at the photographs and noticed a strange bright shape off the coast of Somalia exactly where the ship had hit the glowing cloud. The cloud was the size of Connecticut, he says.

Mr. HADDOCK: The ship was driving through it for a hundred miles so imagine driving your car on the freeway for an hour and a half continuously, you know, looking out both windows on both sides and being surrounded by glowing water.

NIELSEN: Haddock says this cloud was almost certainly created by bacteria, 10,000 billion billion of them, according to his estimates. From space, they look like a single living thing.

Mr. HADDOCK: We're actually seeing their breathing essentially, the metabolism of these bacteria. So you can actually measure sort of the rate at which they're breaking down material as evidenced by the light that's produced while that reaction happens. So it's pretty amazing.

NIELSEN: Now it's long been known that the ocean is full of bacteria that flash in the wake of boats and swimmers, but Woody Hastings, a marine biologist at Harvard University, says these bacteria are different. They are genetically coded to glow when crowded together, he says, and not merely to flash when disturbed. Before the photographs, crowds this big were thought to be impossible, however, especially on the high seas.

Mr. WOODY HASTINGS (Marine Biologist, Harvard University): In the ocean where it's infinitely dilute, a bacterium would never be able to manage to get it to a high enough concentration to turn that gene on. And what this discovery now makes us have to believe is that those bacteria can do that.

NIELSEN: So far, these photos haven't gotten much public attention, except from people who belong to what Steven Haddock calls the paranormal community. There the glowing blob has been hailed as proof of extraterrestrial contact. Haddock says he's had some fun with that.

Mr. HADDOCK: I actually called up my co-author and posed as a reporter from UFO Weekly and had him going for a good five minutes before I confessed that I was just pulling his leg.

NIELSEN: The photos were published in a recent issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Haddock says the next step is to sail a research boat into milky waters and take samples. He'd give almost anything to be the researcher who gets to jump into the glow. John Nielsen, NPR News, Washington.

WERTHEIMER: You can see images of the glowing patch of water at our Web site, npr.org.

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