The Colour of the Sea

The Colour of the Sea

A Riddle. A Story.

by Tristan Gooley

The following story is a bit of fun, if you're looking for a more serious explanation of why the sea is the colour it is, you'll find it in the book, How to Read Water.

Some questions summon up slippery monsters in the place of answers, ‘What colour is the sea?’, is one such question.

You decide to wrestle this particular monster into the shallows. Reaching down into the sea with a glass, it is soon time to eye the serpent.


What colour are its eyes? Clear, transparent, translucent? A minute speck of green-brown something swims in the swirling currents of the water, but other than this there is nothing to mark it apart from the stuff of taps and bottles. The puzzle is solved, the serpent is slain, seawater is clear! You make your way to the foredeck, ready to make a speech to those present and those not. You clear your throat,

‘My fellow sailors, let our Evinrudes bring us together at this moment. Gather in your Zodiacs, my friends! The riddle that has teased mankind since Homer’s excitable utterings about wine-darkness, has been solved here for you this afternoon on this sun-tried teak!’

For dramatic effect you pour the contents of the clear glass back into its greater mater and as you do so, your eyes jump to the cataract of seawater as it races down to the sea. Suddenly it is no longer transparent, but white, silver and for one horrible moment, blue. The serpent has winked at you as it slips back into the ocean and races away towards the horizon. You clear your throat once more, ‘As you were!’

Angry and disappointed you pour the rum in your other hand in after the seawater, partly to punish yourself and partly to sting the serpent. What dark magic is the beast enlisting? You ask, fingers twitching about the stays in irritation. You look to the horizon. Where does it live? If it can be caught at home, then it might find its secrets harder to hide. The sea is blue as far as the eye can see. It was never transparent at all, what foolishness!

Then from halfway to the horizon a new beast moves towards the boat. A darker patch of sea is approaching, sombre, menacing. It will soon engulf your small vessel, this dark leviathan. It moves too quickly and the water is too murky for it to be a giant ray. This moody patch of water is not just darker, its colour is different somehow to the water that surrounds it. Browner perhaps. There are no fins. Its time is soon. Was the sea offended by the liquor? You feel a dread, a guilt and your lips begin to move involuntarily,

‘Be self-controlled and alert… Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. Resist him, standing firm in the faith, because you know that your brothers throughout the world are undergoing the same kind of sufferings.’

Then it is upon you. The lip of the dark water rides up the freeboard and swallows you in… a shadow! The cloud moves fully in front of the sun. Your fingers slide down the fast-cooling sweat on the stay and you sit uncomfortably on one of the deck’s handrails. It is so clear now the fear has passed, the serpent is in league with the sky. It borrows the light from the sky to forge blues and whites and silvers. But how?


Seeing your abject form slumped at the base of the mast, a familiar gravel calls up from the waterline, ‘Permission to come aboard.’ It is not a question.

‘Granted.’ You sigh, failing to lift your now heavy head from its painful perch of a metal eye at the base of the mast. The Professor hauls himself aboard, helps himself to the bottle and then leans one elbow upon his knee, forming a pose that looks no more comfortable than your own. He realizes his discomfort and throws the spirit down his throat, before filling another glass with bottled water and placing it by your side.
‘That won’t solve my problem.’ You explain that problems that remain after quarter of a bottle of Mount Gay will not be so easily washed away by water. And certainly not when administered by a man known as the Professor, who left school at 15.

‘Ah, but that is where you are wrong.’ The Professor replies and thrusts one scarred digit past the edge of the tumbler and into the rainbow that has formed on the deck down-sun. ‘Look, see, the water has split the light. The red light bends this far, the blue light bends further, to here.’
‘Yes, of course! Divide and conquer! Divide and conquer!’

‘Are you alright?’ The Professor enquires.

‘Better than alright. Don’t take him head on. That is just what the serpent is expecting. Improvise, adapt, overcome. Find his weaknesses. His weakness is the light. I see it clearly now!’

‘You see the light?’

‘No. Well, yes. No, I see the way to the serpent’s heart.’ At that precise moment the effects of the rum and the full day’s sun come together and conspire to bring half a dozen physics lessons into collision with more than half a life’s experience. ‘That’s it. The sea is absorbing some wavelengths more than others. It is holding onto the reds, yellows, oranges and releasing the blues. It takes depth, much more than a glassful for this effect to be noticeable. Oh you sly one, you pretty one. You’re not so coy now are you?’

‘I’ve been called many things, but never coy.’ The voice from the cockpit is that of the woman in the yellow bikini with the perfect complexion. They call her the biologist, in recognition of her having spent two years researching sexually transmitted diseases in a lab in Seattle.

‘I was talking to the serpent.’

‘I know who you were talking to,’ she says, ‘but you are forgetting the water you poured back in.’
‘Yes. He had clear eyes then, didn’t he, but I know his secret now. His pact is with the light, it is his strength and shall be his weakness.’

‘What if he has other strengths? This serpent keeps two other friends for the moments when we dare to tread towards its lair. The particles it lies over and the particles that lie within.’ As the words sink in, the Biologist rearranges a breast under a pad. ‘You remember the speck that swirled?’


‘There are many that you cannot see. Minerals, silt, phytoplankton, algal blooms, we must be ready to find patches of green, yellow, even red, when the creature is angry.’

‘If these are the friends it keeps within, what of those that lie below?’
The Professor steps into the cockpit, tanned hand resting momentarily on the pale brown awning. ‘Look towards the island. What do you see?’

You squint as your eyes work up over the glistening waves. Then there it is a paler blue and then a green collar hugs the beach. At one end of the island there is a bright turquoise.

‘More colours. Is this not the light, nor the friends within that I see?’ Your voice weakens at the end.

‘No.’ The Professor finishes another slug of rum and then fills his glass with bottled water. This makes you uneasy. It is a sign that all may not be well. ‘Now we must look down into the cup. Come, come, stare down from above. What do you see?’

‘Brown.’ You and the Biologist reply, as you peer through water and glass to the awning and your cheeks come close to touching.

‘Good.’ The Professor replies, ‘Now, steady yourselves,’ he says as he sways for a moment at the edge of the cockpit, ‘and prepare for magic!’ He takes the glass of water and places it over the white plastic of a plate. ‘Come, look down, what colour do you see now?'


'White.’ You reply as your cheek touches the Biologist’s.

‘The serpent has doubtless fraternized with the chameleon! Don’t you see? It changes colour as it shallows and passes over land. It turns green over golden sand and turquoise over white coral or sand!’

‘Yes. We have him now! The serpent’s pacts are known to us. He is weak! We know his friends above, within and below. We can steel ourselves for the wrestle, better the devils we know!’

You step over the guardrail and leap into the water, confident of victory.

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For a complete guide to Natural Navigation read Tristan’s books.