Monday, March 24, 2008

from The American Quarterly Review, 1830

(page 206)

In connexion with these phenomena, peculiar to northern regions, and presenting to those who witness them, some of the most splendid and impressive scenes to be found in the contemplation of the great firmament above us, we are led to notice an appearance which has been observed in the waters of the gulf of St. Lawrence, not altogether unknown perhaps to any who have chanced to regard the ocean, but seldom exhibited in so beautiful and striking a manner, or at least seldom so graphically but unaffectedly described.

"On the 7th of September, 1826," says captain Bonnycastle, "whilst coming up from the gulf, the weather had been cold without much wind, the little there was being from the south-west. At two o'clock a.m., in the night, the mate, whose watch it was on deck, suddenly aroused the captain in great alarm, from an unusual appearance on the lee bow. The night was starlight, but suddenly the sky became overcast over the high land of Cornwallis county, and a rapid, instantaneous, and immensely brilliant light, resembling the Aurora Borealis, shot out of the hitherto gloomy and dark sea on the lee bow, and was so vivid that it lighted every thing distinctly, even to the mast head. The mate, having alarmed the master, put the helm down, took in sail, and called all hands up. The captain then called me up, but the light which had been only from one quarter, now as suddenly spread over the whole of the sea between the two shores, and the waves, before tranquil, became much agitated. I shall never forget the scene which presented itself when I came on deck. The whole sea, as far as it could be distinguished, was one blazing sheet of awful and most brilliant light, such as I never before saw, although I have frequently observed the luminous appearance which the ocean occasionally presents. A long and vivid line of light, superior in brightness to the parts of the sea not immediately near the vessel, showed us the base of the high, frowning and dark land abreast of us; the sky became lowering and intensely obscure, and perhaps such a scene will seldom fall to the lot of many to observe. The oldest sailors on board had never seen any thing of the kind to compare with it, except the captain, who had, he said, observed something of the kind in the Trades. The fish appeared terribly alarmed; long tortuous lines of darting light, in a contrary direction to the sea, showed immense numbers of very large fish flying about as if lost. The wind increased a little, but not much, and had a peculiar hollow sound. Day broke very slowly, and the sun rose of a fiery and threatening aspect. Rain followed next.

"To sail on a sea of fire is the only similitude I can fancy to this really grand and awful scene. The sprit-sail yard and mizen boom were lighted by the reflection, as though they had gas lights burning immediately under them, and until just before day-break, at four o'clock, I could distinctly see, by the light of the sea, on any part of the deck, the most minute objects on my watch. This light first came from the north-west, and there had been a slight Aurora observed about eleven. I caused a bucket of this fiery water to be drawn up; it was one mass of light when stirred by the hand, and not in sparkles, as usual, but in actual corruscations. I kept some in an open jug, and sealed up some in a bottle. The first night after, there was no light on shaking the bottle, but plenty in the jug. The second night the same: the scintillations were this night visible somewhat strongly on the sea, as even on spitting into the water they appeared, and the usual trick of throwing a rope over and towing it along, caused a very beautiful line of light. This evening the sun had set very singularly, so as to exhibit a double sun, and when a few degrees above the horizon, it showed as if the globe of that luminary had been suddenly changed into a long cylinder, which reached the horizon. I made a drawing of it. This night the sea was again very luminous and smooth; in fact it was very nearly as much so as before; the water in the jug still the same. On the fourth night the water in the jug was still very brilliant, although oil had been accidentally spilt into it. The fifth night the sea scarcely exhibited any traces of luminosity; the water in the jug this night as brilliant as ever. Sixth and seventh nights, water in the jug the same. I am sorry to say, I left the sealed bottle on board in my hurry, and that the water in the jug was spilt before we landed at Quebec."

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