It’s dark. The stars have vanished, one by one, behind the heavy blanket of water vapor suspended above us. There is a soft glow on the horizon to the east and in my sleepless daze I keep thinking it is the sunrise. The sleeplessness fogs my mind like the water droplets blanket the stars, smothering and disorienting. The glow is instead the visual portrayal of a hectic city in its quietest moments, 50 miles in the distance, a silent slick of light on the horizon unwilling to divulge the frantic motion it encases.
I am huddled uncomfortably on a sail bag that is performing its perfunctory role poorly, hardly dampening the jolting vibration from the engine below. There is an English woman fervently reading an audiobook in my ears, her voice tinny and too loud, as I watch a small triangle jerk across the iPad, a crude representation of us and all we own slowly crawling down the California coast.
My eyes register a dim flash of color somewhere to my right but my mind sloughs it off as another ruse, a common trick employed by eyes bored in the void of light to tease the mind in its disadvantaged state. The flash appears again, enough proof for the mind to jump from disbelief to fear: a fleeting instant, half a heartbeat skipped, the instinct to fear the unknown inevitably surfacing. The next instant the fear is gone, replaced by adrenaline, my foggy brain racing to categorize the now persistent bursts of light emanating from the water not 10 feet from where I sit.
My ears pick up a sound that accelerates the categorization: quick pulsing breath taken between the playful dives of a creature living inexplicably in a world deprived of the life-sustaining air they require. Dolphins.
It takes a moment longer to discern why my eyes are able to register their movement, not as they leap above the surface to take in a new round of oxygen, but as they soar through the water seemingly unbounded by the physics that should slow their pace. Bioluminescence. A mysterious living creature evolved to glow when disturbed as a defensive mechanism and, it seems to me now, for moments like these.
I call John upstairs and we make our way to the bow, hunched against the boat’s rolling motion. Perched against the forestay, I peer over the bow into an inverted night sky, twinkling with haphazard stars. As the bow rolls forward with each gentle swell, the sea explodes in streaks of green, almost indistinguishable from a view of the northern lights on a cold crisp night. These are fish, scurrying out of harm’s way while simultaneously giving up their position to predators.
And the predators arrive. Comets of light surge forward, streaking across the watery sky. They weave across Halcyon’s bow, so close I can feel the mist of their breath. Each intake of air explodes in a sparkling spray and brings 3-dimensional life to the show. We are in it; with fingers pointing chaotically and giggles unearthed involuntarily, we are dancing through an inverted sky erupting with comets and streaked with the northern lights.
Like all mysterious moments, it is over too soon. The comets streak away leaving trails of glitter, in search of their next glowing feast. The green splashes of fish diminish until we are left with a subdued twinkling, the unintentional reflection of the invisible stars above. We stand there a few minutes more, recalibrating up from down, stunned at the generosity that afforded us a glimpse into this magical and yet perfectly ordinary event.