Mystery of the Wheels of Light

On May 15, 1879, on a clear night, the captain of the H.M.S.Vulture recorded an extraordinary phenomenon called the "Wheels of light", which was observed in the Persian Gulf:

"I noticed luminous waves or pulsations in the water, moving at great speed and passing under the ship from the south-south-west. On looking towards the east, the appearance was that of a revolving wheel with center on that bearing, and whose spokes were illuminated, and looking towards the west a similar wheel appeared to be revolving, but in the opposite direction. I then went to the top (fifty feet above water) with the first lieutenant, and saw that the luminous waves or pulsations were really traveling parallel to each other, and that their apparently rotatory motion, as seen from the deck, was caused by their high speed and the greater angular motion of the nearer than the more remote part of the waves. The light of these waves looked homogeneous, and lighter, but not so sparkling, as phosphorescent appearances at sea usually are, and extended from the surface well under water; they lit up the white bottoms of the quarter-boats in passing. I judged them to be twenty-five feet broad, with dark intervals of about seventy-five between each, or 100 from crest to crest, and their period was seventy-four to seventy-five per minute, giving a speed roughly of eighty-four English miles an hour.

From this height of fifty feet, looking with or against their direction, I could only distinguish six or seven waves; but, looking along them as they passed under the ship, the luminosity showed much further. The phenomenon was beautiful and striking, commencing at about 6h. 3m. Greenwich mean time [9:40 p.m. local time], and lasting some thirty-five minutes. The direction from which the luminous waves traveled changed from south-south-west by degrees to south-east and to east. During the last five minutes concentric waves appeared to emanate from a spot about 200 yards east, and these meeting the parallel waves from south-east did not cross, but appeared to obliterate each other at the moving point of contact, and approached the ship, inclosing an angle about 90 degrees."
One year later, passing between Oyster Reed and Pigeon Island in the Indian Ocean late on a calm, starlit January evening in 1880, Commander R. E.Harris and other crew members of the steamship Shahihehan saw a similar phenomenon. Harris’ account was published in the Calcutta Englishman on January 21:

"I . . . observed a streak of white matter on the horizon bearing south-south-west. I then went to the bridge and drew the third officer’s attention to it. In a few minutes it had assumed the shape of a segment of a circle measuring about 45 degrees in length and several degrees in altitude about its center...We were steaming to the southward, and as the bank of light extended, one of its arms crossed our path. The whole thing appeared so foreign to anything I had ever seen, and so wonderful, that I stopped the ship just on its outskirts, so that I might try to form a true and just conception of what it really was. By this time all the officers and engineers had assembled on deck to witness the scene, and were all equally astonished and interested. Some little time before the first body of light reached the ship I was enabled, with my night glasses, to resolve in a measure what appeared, to the unassisted eye, a huge mass of nebulous matter. I distinctly saw spaces between what again appeared to be waves of light of great luster. These came rolling on with ever-increasing rapidity till they reached the ship, and in a short time the ship was completely surrounded with one great body of undulating light, which soon extended to the horizon on all sides.

On looking into the water it was seen to be studded with patches of faint, luminous, inanimate matter, measuring about two feet in diameter. Although these emitted a certain amount of light, it was most insignificant when compared with the great waves of light that were floating on the surface of the water, and which were at this time converging upon the ship. The waves stood many degrees above the water, like a highly luminous mist, and obscured by their intensity the distant horizon; and as wave succeeded wave in rapid succession, one of the most grand and brilliant, yet solemn, spectacles that one could ever think of was here witnessed. In speaking of waves of light I do not wish to convey the idea that they were mere ripplings, which are sometimes caused by fish passing through a phosphorescent sea, but waves of great length and breadth, or in other words, great bodies of light. If the sea could be converted into a huge mirror and thousands of powerful electric lights were made to throw their rays across it, it would convey no adequate idea of this strange yet grand phenomenon.

As the waves of light converged upon the ship from all sides they appeared higher than her hull, and looked as if they were about to envelop her, and as they impinged upon her, her sides seemed to collapse and expand.

Whilst this was going on the ship was perfectly at rest, and the water was like a millpond. After about half an hour had elapsed the brilliance of the light somewhat abated, and there was a great paucity of faint lustrous patches which I have before referred to, but still the body of light was gone, and, if emanating from these patches, was out of all proportion to their number. This light I do not think could have been produced without the agency of electro-magnetic currents exercising their exciting influence upon some organic animal or vegetable substance; and one thing I wish to point out is, that whilst the ship was stopped and the light yet some distance away, nothing was discernible in the water, but so soon as the light reached the ship a number of luminous patches presented themselves, and as these were equally as motionless as the ship at the time, it is only natural to assume that they existed and were actually in our vicinity before the light reached us, only they were not made visible till they became the transmitting media for the electro-magnetic currents. This hypothesis is borne out by the fact that each wave of light in its passage was distinctly seen to pass over them in succession, and as the light became gradually less brilliant, they also became less distinct, and had actually disappeared so soon as the waves of light ceased to exist."

This illustration depicts a display of light seen by Captain Gabe of the steamer Bintang on the surface of the Strait of Malacca in June 1909. (Courtesy Fortean Picture Library.)
Such unexplained phenomena continue to be seen to the present day, mostly (though not exclusively) in the Indian Ocean. Sometimes they appear in association with luminous parallel bars, as in this September 27, 1959, incident from the East Indian Archipelago. This account appeared in the journal Marine Observer in 1960:

"The first indication of anything unusual was the appearance of white caps on the sea here and there,which made me think that the wind had freshened, but I could feel that this was not so. Then flashing beams appeared over the water,which made the Officer on watch think that the fishing boats were using powerful flashlights. These beams of light became more intense and appeared absolutely parallel, about 8 ft wide, and could be seen coming from right ahead at about 1/2 sec intervals. At this time, I thought I could hear a swish as they passed, but decided that this was imagination. They did not appear like rings or arcs of a circle, unless it was a circle so big as to make them appear as straight lines. It was like the pedestrian’s angle of a huge zebra crossing passing under him whilst he is standing still. While this part of the phenomenon was at its height it looked as if huge seas were dashing towards the vessel, and the sea surface appeared to be boiling, but it was more or less normal around a fishing vessel which we passed fairly close. 
The lights of various fishing vessels were visible through the beams of light, though dimmed by the brightness of the latter. The character of the flashes changed and took on the appearance of beams from a lighthouse situated about two miles on the starboard bow, or as if the center of a giant wheel was somewhere on the starboard bow with the beams as its spokes. As the beams from the vessel on the starboard bow weakened, the same pattern appeared on the port bow at the same distance and regularity. The wheel on the starboard bow revolved anticlockwise and the one on the port bow revolved clockwise, i.e. both wheels were revolving towards the ship. The wheel on the starboard bow diminished as the one on the port bow increased; when the latter was at its peak the one on the starboard bow had disappeared. The next change was that the beams appeared to be travelling in the exact course of the ship, i.e., the beams now seen were a reversal of those seen at first.

More than a hundred well-attested sightings like these have been recorded in the last century and a half. To the extent that scientists have paid attention, they have been forced to acknowledge that these phenomena seem to defy explanation. Nearly all witnesses and commentators agree that the glow comes from bioluminescent organisms in the sea. The problem is explaining what triggers the luminescence and what causes the organisms to manifest in long-lasting, fast-moving, stable, complex geometric patterns. 
Not surprisingly, these marine apparitions have inspired speculation about “vast wheel-like super-constructions,” in the words of Charles Fort. Fort’s disciple Ivan T. Sanderson theorized that “some source of energy starts broadcasting some invisible ‘waves’ on the electromagnetic (or other) spectrum which stimulate or activate the light-producing mechanisms of the Noctiluca [single-celled bioluminescent sea creatures]. . . . [This] energy is broadcast in the form of a series of radiating bands whose source of origin is revolving; we would then have a progressive and, to our eyes, instantaneous turning on and off of the Noctiluca as the beams swept by them.”

Such speculations would be more compelling if, for one thing, witnesses reported the kind of water displacement one would expect from the rapid passage, not far under the surface, of a vast structure. Instead witnesses insist on the sea’s placidity during the sighting.

In September 1961, near Leba, Poland, a resort on the Baltic Sea coast. Late one evening a vacationer, Czeslaw Kawecki, on a walk through the sand dunes that separate the sea from an inland lake, stopped to look out on the Baltic. After a short time he turned to go, only to hear a sound of rushing waters. He whirled around in time to see something rising out of the water 100 yards away. “It looked like a round hill — pushed up from beneath,” he said. “Then splashes of water gushed from the top and [something] like fountain jets fell around the ‘hole’ in the waves. From this opening in the water emerged an object which at first I took to be an elongated triangle. . . .

[T]he object rose a few meters and hovered above the same spot, and there was now a whirlpool of water rushing inwards with a loud sucking and gurgling noise. The object itself was black and silent.”

Leonard G. Cramp gives this account in his Piece for a Jig-Saw (1966):

"Suddenly there appeared a belt of steady white light segmented by a number of convex dark streaks. This light made glowing reflections on the lower rim of the object. It also lighted considerably the upper rim and all the rest. Now it became apparent that “the thing” had the shape of a huge funnel with two rims, separated by a belt of segmented light. About half way up the upper part was a thin strip of something whiter than the rest, of a rather dark body. The slim end of this “funnel” had a rounded top, from which protruded a stump, thinning upwards, and bent in the middle on one side.

The stillness of this object lasted about a minute . . . then, there appeared the glow of a second light under the object. Also a white one, but much stronger and sharper than that emitted by the segmented belt and almost immediately the “funnel” tilted slowly northwards revealing the bottom. After remaining in this position for about half a minute without changing, it glided about 50 meters eastwards, stopped but soon glided back and stopped again. All the time the bottom of the object was visible and consisted of a dark circular perimeter corresponding to the lower (and wider) rim of the “funnel.” Towards the center was a wide ring of strong white light, with a number of dark, hook-shaped streaks upon it. Next was a dark ring with three evenly spaced triangular spokes, which protruded over half the width of the lit, streaky ring. Finally, there was a central disc which looked as if it was made of highly polished silver or crystal."

It reflected the light with great brilliance. “There was some rotating movement involved,” Kawecki reported. “I could not make out whether the spikes were moving or the dark streaks gyrated under them. But I had no doubt that one or the other rotated. The light now became bluish and more intense. Then the object moved towards the north and upwards at an angle of about 45 degrees, with a speed not exceeding that of a jet. It became just a diminishing spot of light until it finally disappeared. There was no sound. The entire observation lasted not more than four to five minutes.” The object was about eighteen feet wide and twenty feet high. After the UFO’s departure he noticed several other persons who had also witnessed the bizarre sight.

On the whole, however, it must be said that wheels of light are probably not the marine equivalent of unidentified sky objects. What they are, on the other hand, is far from clear.

Unexplained: "Strange Sightings, Incredible Occurences & Puzzling Physical Phenomena" by Jerome Clark
Pic Source:
Unexplained: "Strange Sightings, Incredible Occurences & Puzzling Physical Phenomena" by Jerome Clark page 206

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