Casting nets out into the shallows of high tide, the Thai man works with a cigarette hanging from his mouth. His longtail boat, named Kokhao, or “rice island,” is flat-bottomed and has long arms hung with bright lights. It looks like a theatrical lighting rig for some oceanic play.
On any given night, the horizon of the ocean is dotted with dozens of bright green and white lights. They’re all squid boats, casting light to mimic the moon and draw the calamari to the surface.
Even on the darkest new moon nights, the black of the ocean in the Gulf of Thailand is peppered with bright spots.
From an unlit beach, the stars are breathtaking. The misty rift of the milky way hangs steadily overhead. Far-off thunderstorms on the horizon flash a sporadic light show. A few kilometers away, fleets of green-lit fishing boats putter between Koh Samui and Ang Thong national marine park.
But the greatest spectacle of lights is also the closest. Wading into the open water, each gentle toss of wave rustles thousands of sparkling specks. Every move made in the water sends countless flashes of blue-green bioluminescent algae swirling. As you move through the warm ocean, you’re not called to swim, but to dance.
Kicking, waving, hopping, diving, laughing, algae catches on your skin and eyelashes. It entangles with your hair and crowns each person a mermaid. You flick your wrist and a universe spins from your fingertips.
The saltwater holds you. You can lay on your back and let the water lap around your face. Play with buoyancy as air fills and leaves your lungs. Know you’re safe. Rest. Look into the milky way. Then continue your dance.
Bioluminescent algae is one of the most captivating features in the Gulf of Thailand. On lucky nights, riding a long-tail boat will toss glimmers of shining algae in parting waves and you just feel that magic is alive.
I had a similar experience in the depths of night, high in a Thai mountain jungle. No fire was lit, no artificial light was anywhere to be found. Just the faintest deep blue sheen of moonlight backlighting the pure black shadow of jungle trees.
The darkness was so deep, pure, and comforting. So, when I glanced about, I was perplexed to notice the faintest glimmer on the ground—just a speck, the size of a pencil led. I went and scratched the soft earth, letting it roll in my hand, fascinated.
It’s funny how our eyes work in darkness. Our night vision is a key component of high-functioning eyesight. Without getting too into the scientific weeds about rods and cones and things like “rhodopsin” in our eyes, I’ll just note that there are a number of scientific studies about night vision. They suggest looking in darkness helps strengthen both the physical components of our eyes and the neural network we have that processes visual information.
Have you noticed when you look into a stary sky that the longer you gaze, the more stars seem to appear? If you let your vision rest slightly unfocused and peer into the darkest spot in the sky, incrementally it becomes a rich carpet of distant light.
Likewise, as I held this mysterious speck of greenish glow in my palm, I began to see them in multitudes. Any naturalist will tell you a similar story—it’s Homo sapiens’ skill of pattern recognition. You see one red wildflower, then your eyes and brain are tuned to see dozens of them throughout your hike.
There I was, scratching through the black earth to find networks of this glowing mysterious thing.
Only when I picked up a decaying leaf and saw the green glow webbing through its veins did I realize it was a rare, bioluminescent fungus.
I suppose by now you can tell how much I love glowing things. Stars, “sea sparkles,” fungus, fireflies: I’ll stay up until any hour to see them. But in truth, I love the darkness almost as much as the glimmering things themselves. (Side note: Nothing expresses the love of stars and “total dark sublime” of a night sky like W.H. Auden’s poem, “The More Loving One.”)
These caves have been a visitor attraction since a Maori chief showed English surveyors the chamber in the 1880’s. Now managed by Chief Tane’s descendants, the cave has been one of New Zealand’s most unique destinations for well over a hundred years.
I’m a long-time spelunker, having spent a decade of my life in the cave-riddled hills of eastern Tennessee. Experiencing complete darkness while deep underground is a powerful thing. I love to inhale the musty earth of damp limestone and listen to the drips of diluted calcium that will, over the course of thousands or millions of years, create the massive stalactites and stalagmites we admire.
I close my eyes and open them, without any difference at all. After a few minutes, my eyes start creating flashes of light. The minute muscles in my eyes are grasping at air, trying to find any sort of color to cling to. Without any, they create their own and my peripheral vision has flashes of yellow and purple.
I’ve seen some bizarre and beautiful things underground. And I’ve been awestruck by ethereal beauty of the glowing, gleaming natural world. But those glittering caves have now brought New Zealand high on my personal travel list.
I can just imagine swaying gently on a small boat, hearing nothing but the drips of water and the quiet breath of the people beside me. All heads are turned to the cave ceiling. All is silent. Then, quietly, almost timidly, a faint celestial light blooms. Dots of blue spread in long fingers across the ceiling of the cave, strengthening to a bright, otherworldly glow.