Blinded by the light

It’s like nothing I’ve ever experienced before, a sense of ecstasy and wonder beyond any hallucinogenic substance I’ve ever imbibed. Every move I make, indeed every breathe I take, I’m surrounded by a swarm of shining blue LEDs. I can’t feel them but they’re everywhere around my friends and I, magical haloes tracing their outlines in the pitch darkness of Khanom at midnight. The effect is only intensified as I dip my head into their realm and propel myself forwards through them. My eyes are stinging but my what passes for my vision is filled with a brilliant blue blur, swathes of intense white/blue lightning criss-crossing my visual field.

This is, to use the scientific term, fucking awesome.

Backtrack a few hours… It’s just a standard Saturday in Surat – teach a few substandard kids some remedial English (If you say “I are go” one more time you are go out that window!), de-toxify the week’s sweat-sodden workclothes, jump on the motorbike and ride to the beach. A veritable tribe of teachers was descending on normally catatonic Khanom to celebrate the birthday of Charlie, local beach bar proprietor, and to get righteously hammered in the process.

After a rather gruelling ride (sunburn on the back of my hands) I touched down in Rabiangsai, our cheap-ass resort of choice and located my partners in crime. Cue some swimming, being chased by silver death-fish, eating, and – of course – drinking games. Two rounds of ‘Break The Circle’ saw us suitably inebriated to join the festivities at CC’s Beach Bar. Perhaps a little two inebriated in retrospect – impromptu pole-dancing lessons definitely hadn’t been on the agenda earlier that day although I fared significantly better than I had any right to do, given my somewhat impeded sense of balance. As the night wore on, the booze wore off and the band calmed down it was time to head home, but not before a touch of nightswimming.

Eight of us traipsed a short distance down the beach, stripped down to the bare essentials and immersed ourselves in water which turned out warmer than your average bath back home. And that’s when we saw it, one of the phenomena I’ve been waiting nine months to see and was beginning to doubt actually existed. At certain times the waters around Khanom play host to bioluminescent plankton, microscopic organisms which sit happily invisible in the until disturbed by a paddle or a flailing limb. Once disturbed their chemiluminescent reactions kick in and they emit a tiny glow which would be almost undetectable from a single creature but is hypnotically beautiful when simultaneously released by several thousand at once.

As the first paragraph might suggest this was one of those experiences which can truly be described as awesome – my entire being was filled with a sense of awe and wonder, rendering me almost speechless for ten minutes. Some people at this point may start banging on about how it was ‘spiritual’ or some other such babble, for me though the wonder is in how this seemingly supernatural stuff came to be, how it does what it does and, of course, why? I’m a science nerd. I like explanations, they are my fuel, my raison d’etre, my joie de vivre.

I particularly enjoyed finding out, earlier today, that the chemicals involved in creating the mindblowing display belong to a family called luciferins. Bioluminescent organisms contain two compounds called luciferin and luciferase stored in separate containers and when the two are mixed, say when some damn fool teacher statrts charging through a cloud of them, the two mix together and all sorts of quantum excitatory jiggery-pokery results in the emission of light.

For those who don’t get it yet, Lucifer – as in the devil – derives his name from “the light-bringer”, continuing the mythical lineage of knowledge distributors from Prometheus and beyond. So, light-bringing chemical compounds are luciferins. I love it when scientists have a sense of humour.

So, that was my weekend. I’ll omit the 80km motorbike ride in cold winds and pouring rain which occurred the next day. I’ll leave out the flat tyre which happened en route. I’ll just remember those devilish dancing lights and smile a knowledgeable smile.

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