The ocean is a vast place, and much of what lurks beneath the surface is known. But for those who spend thier lives at sea, they may just get a glimpse of someting remarkable that has never been documneted before.
Here, sailors reveal the most astonishing thing they’ve ever seen while at sea.
1. I’ve been a lookout for several years now; if you’ve never been to sea, you simply can’t understand just how far you can see with the naked eye. One extraordinarily clear afternoon I saw a speck on the horizon, so I reported a possible small boat to the JOOD (Junior Officer of the Deck). I estimated the range to be about 11 miles or so. A moment later the OOD (The guy in charge, and incidentally, didn’t seem to like me much) came out and scanned the horizon. “Small boat, huh? Just how did you spot that?
“Uh, it’s right there sir. Hard to miss.”
“There is nothing on that side except the San Antonio and its 26 damn miles away. You spotted the tip of its mast. Christ!”
“Holy crap, sir!”
He’s never been a jerk to me since.
2. I was a submariner, so my experience is going to vary widely from most other sailors.
I had the misfortune of being on the periscope all the time. Mostly it was long, tedious staring at the horizon. Because of the long periods of one-eyed use, we were allowed to use eye-patches, and it was a kind of consolation, the pirate jokes.
Once while tracing the coast, somewhat west of Catalina, I saw a gigantic pod of dolphins, leaping and playing in the water. Mind you, we were at periscope depth, and I was watching them through the periscope. We hardly bothered the water, and so they didnt disperse like they do for surface boats. The line of them went from one horizon to the other, and there had to be hundreds of them, leaping, stirring up the water, dancing for mates. I couldnt tell you how long a line they made, but it was incredible. It was the single most beautiful thing I ever experienced while in the Navy, and among the best of my whole life.
3. Sadly, no matter how far out you go, you will always see trash.
4. I’ve seen swordfishes carving thru leaping shoals of fish, spinner sharks jumping and twisting, miles and miles of Portugese Man o’ War jellyfish, dozens of sea turtles, dozens of whales, a pod of dolphins about a thousand strong, schools of sharks and eagle rays together, sunspots and all the visible planets and several of the brightest galaxies, nebulas, and clusters thru the big binoculars. I tracked the Galilean moons of Jupiter for months. We were perfectly placed to catch an amazing lunar eclipse from the Med in mid-2011. At one time I had memorized about 20 constellations and a couple dozen stars.
The scenes that stuck out most to me were bioluminescence, though (story continued on the next page…).
One still, dark night I observed some large creature leaving a brilliant, glowing, swooping, comet-like trail behind as it swam. We were doing only a few knots, so it stayed for some time. Eventually I realized it was probably a curious dolphin swimming alongside.
Another still, dark night shortly after, we cruised thru an area where some massive group of large deep-sea creatures had come together at the surface. I never discovered what they were, but I strongly suspect they were some type of large squid. What so astonished me was that they were quite obviously communicating our presence to each other, by flashing! Each flash briefly lit up an area perhaps a couple meters across. To the first flash, dozens more around it responded in kind. The ripple effect was like throwing a stone into a still pond. This went on the whole night. Trippy as hell!
5. Here’s another thing people don’t think about- Being out to sea is pretty much the closest thing we have to being in outer space. There’s nothing separating you from your doom, save for a cold metal hull. You’re totally on your own, and only subject to the rules of the sea. There’s nothing creepier than to see your map tell you you’re floating on top of 5 miles of nothing but dark. Deep down below. A part of your consciousness goes to that great depth, and you shudder at the horror of the unknowable.
6. There are a lot more small uninhabited atolls and islands than a lot of people know.
7. Due to the lack of light pollution, it is quite possible to see a moonlit rainbow of pure pastels that’ll take your breath away.
8. So, mail is one of those things that most people don’t think about when going out to sea. The ocean is a vast place, and there is no postal service in existence to deliver the mail.
In order to address this problem… (story continued on the next page…).
In order to address this problem, a system of delivering mail buoys has been implemented and is in use by most modern navies. Cargo planes regularly make drops of floating buoys which have their drop locations transmitted to the appropriate ships to rendezvous with and pickup the mail. These are difficult to see due to size and weight restrictions aboard aircraft so junior personnel on board ships are often assigned to “mail buoy watch” and have to stand outside to help spot it when the ships are due to pickup mail. Unfortunately sometimes the mail never makes it due to getting lost or unable to be spotted so over the years the ocean has accumulated hundreds, if not thousands of mail buoys floating out there for someone to grab. If you’re lucky, you might some day run into one of these buoys and get to find some old mail!
9. The motion.
You don’t understand if you’ve never been sailing in a large ship – and I’m talking one where you go below decks and don’t see the horizon for days.
Imagine yourself sitting right now at your computer. And now start moving your head back and forth. Back and forth. Back and forth. It doesn’t stop. It won’t stop. You just keep going with the motion, over and over again. Just as you complete one roll, another starts again.
You know the feeling when you’re driving in a car and it goes over a hill in just the right way to get the partial weightlessness feeling? Imagine that happening again. And again. And again. And again. Up and down. Up and down.
And you’ve got stuff to do! Paperwork to fill out, kit to fix, writeups to pen, food to eat – but that ocean’s still moving.
Back and forth.
Up and down.
Over and over.
Again and again.
10. I sailed from North Florida to Mexico, about 7 days. And I mean sailed, not a ship, a sailboat. The dirty little secret of sailing: the rotten part isn’t the storms, those are kind of fun and challenging. The rotten part is when there is no wind at all and you go nowhere and you bob up and down endlessly and the the limp sails just bang back and forth randomly for, oh,… 48 hours or so
You. Will. Lose. Your. Mind.
11. No matter what we do, nature will always be more powerful than you. I was on my destroyer in the Yellow Sea skirting the edge (the edge!) of a typhoon, and the wind buffeting the ship, the waves smashing into the hull…that was the most convinced I’ve ever been that my ship was going to be destroyed. We pulled into port a week later to discover that there were significant cracks in the forward part of the keel from the ship getting crushed by waves. Terrifying.
12. The ocean is a beautiful and thoroughly deadly place.
While serving aboard a Navy frigate and weathering a storm a ways off the coast of Nova Scotia, I saw lightning hit the top of a rogue wave that was looming 50 feet over the bow at that moment. It was beautiful and at that instant, I knew that I would never see anything else like that again.
There were forks of lightning reaching down into that wave for dozens of feet. It was like looking at a brilliantly glowing mountain of emerald and jade… a brilliantly glowing mountain that was about to fall on you. The instant the lightning faded, the ship plowed into that wave and… (story continued on the next page…).
The instant the lightning faded, the ship plowed into that wave, bow on, and the wave broke over the 3rd level of the superstructure, three stories up from the main deck.
I was on that 3rd level and if not for a safety strap, would have been lost. At that time I had never seen such weather before. Over 100 feet of bow forward of the superstructure speared into that wave and when it broke over the wind-break, I will tell you that had you been there, you wouldn’t scoff at that carrier sailor’s reference to “solid water” in another post. In Navy-speak, “Green Water over the bow” means that you’ve got a LOT of water breaking over the ship, not just a little foam and spray, but water of some noticeable DEPTH. It was like colliding with a wall. The hull rang from the impact and the ship lost almost all forward momentum immediately. The ship began to groan and shudder along her whole length as she shouldered upwards and shed who can tell how many tons of water. There were many other waves that night but I know which one left the inch-wide cracks in the superstructure amidships. I know that the ocean contains beautiful and other-worldly vistas not to be seen anywhere else on this earth.
And I know that the ocean is totally and utterly lethal.
13. The open ocean is, for the most part, a desert. But just like the Sahara, it may appear lifeless, but in reality it’s teaming with critters. You can spend days, weeks, and months not seeing anything but water, a smattering of birds, a few fish breaking the surface. Every once in a while, you get one of those magic moments where the entire area around you just explodes with life. Timing is everything. When you watch one of those nature documentaries, whether it’s on terrestrial or aquatic wildlife, those photographers spend months filming, all to get a few good moments of action.
14. Whales can sneak up on you, and they’re huge.
15. A narwhal “horn” is actual a long tooth packed with thousands of nerve endings, and it can sense things like water temperature and salinity. It has no known equivalent anywhere else in the animal world.
16. A cruise ship can screw up your whole night. There is so much light on one of those floating foglamps that you can see the light on the horizon for hours before they come into view (story continued on the next page…).
When they pass within 5 miles you can’t see the stars anymore. My wife wants me to take her on a cruise but I am resisting, I cherish the memories of long night watches, where the satellites look like shooting stars. I don’t want to replace that with crying kids and spotlights.
17. How big it is. Seriously, the ocean is huge. If you’re not on one of the main shipping routes then you can go weeks without seeing another ship. Especially if you’re out in the middle of the pacific somewhere.
18. If you’re in the water, you’re in the food chain.
19. If you put a warm beer into a sock, attach it to some fishing line, and lower it a few feet down and drag it for a little while, you’ll have a cold beer in no time.
20. The ocean can always surprise you with its appearance. Everyday, even if you see nothing but open water, mother ocean will have a different face. Some faces are terrible to behold, some are so beautiful and striking, they touch your soul.
21. Former Marine here. I was on ship for a good 6 months for a float. There are massive groups of fish that swim by all the time. I know this because I spent the majority of my time on the smoke deck and I swear I thought that half the time they were trying to jump up there and slap me in the face.
Also, seeing a storm from far away in the middle of the ocean is one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen. Really wish I could’ve had a camera while I was there.
22. Used to work at a court as overnight weekend security. One night around 1am a man came up and started wiping stuff on the front door. We thought it was ashes from the cigarette garbage things outside. When my partner went outside to tell him to leave, we discovered he was wiping his crap all over the front door. The worst part is he only noticed when he turned around and grabbed the door handle to come back in.
23. Acres of jellyfish. It’s creepy.
24. I did 5 patrols on a submarine. We drive in circles and hide in the middle of nowhere. There’s no windows like Jules Verne suggests. For all I know, we were tied to the pier the entire time, with the Incredible Hulk rocking the boat back and forth.