The term pareidolia describes what is, for many, a lighthearted amusement - seeing delightful images or faces in clouds, seeing the face of the man in the moon or - if one could see from the height of a satellite – catching a glimpse what almost appears to be a turquoise sea monster swimming lazily towards a beautiful island.
On February 3, 2014 the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) aboard NASA’s Terra satellite captured this striking true-color image of brilliant colors in the deep blue waters off of New Zealand’s South Island. Near the center of the image, where the clouds part, delicate turquoise filigrees, surrounded by duller green swirls, can stir the imagination and conjure the concept of a creature swimming through murky waters.
Psychologically speaking, imagining a sea creature is a curious misperception of a vague or obscure stimulus, where something insignificant appears to be something of significance, such that the unreal seems to be real (pareidolia). Scientifically speaking the perception in this image is close to reality. Although no sea monster exists the colors are, indeed, created by living organisms. They are called phytoplankton.
Each summer the waters off the east coast of South Island come alive with vast blooms of phytoplankton. These living, plant-like organisms form the first link in the marine food chain and, like plants, contain chlorophyll. Chlorophyll allows photosynthesis, which drives the changing of light energy to chemical energy, as well as absorption of carbon dioxide and release of oxygen, both of which occur in phytoplankton. Chlorophyll and other pigments also give color the organisms themselves and, when favorable conditions spur rapid growth, the colors of massive blooms of these phytoplankton bring stunning hues to ocean waters – sometimes for hundreds of kilometers at a time. Although the lifespan of each organism is brief, the bloom itself may exist for many weeks when conditions are favorable.