Why is the Sea Blue?
Why is the Sea Blue?
One answer to this chapter’s question is straightforward and based on high-school physics. The early SCUBA divers quickly discovered that if they took underwater colour photographs, even if they were only a few metres down, their pictures had a strong blue cast to them. However, if they illuminated their subjects with a flash, then a more colourful world emerged in their pictures—especially if they were photographing the rich diversity of highly coloured fish that can be found in some parts of the tropics. The reason for the blueness is that as sunlight passes through water the colours of the spectrum are absorbed at different rates, with the long wavelengths (e.g. red) absorbed first and the higher-energy shorter wavelengths (e.g. blue) penetrating deeper into the depths. It follows that underwater available light is predominantly blue and that any light reflected from within the water body is more likely to be from the bluer end of the spectrum of visible light. So, light coming from the sea to our eyes is mainly blue because these wavelengths are least absorbed; indeed oceanographers who have studied some of the cleanest waters describe them as looking ‘violet blue’. As biologists we are interested in a more ecological answer to the question, ‘Why is the sea blue’? The physics explanation only works if seawater is reasonably clear, and it is this clarity that biologists need to explain. Consider our opening quotation, which comes from Peter Matthiessen’s book describing early attempts to film the great white shark in its natural habitat. It raises an interesting ecological question—why can a SCUBA diver or snorkeler see where they are going in the ocean? Put another way, why is the sea blue rather than green? The upper layer of the ocean with enough light for photosynthesis is called the euphotic zone (defined as extending down to the point where only 1% of photosynthetically usable light is present compared with surface light levels); this is often only a few tens of metres deep, but in extremely clear water near Easter Island in the Pacific it has recently been found to extend down to 170 m depth.
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