I know what I saw…

Paros Sunset


There is a phenomenon, hotly debated among boaters, fishermen, beach bums, etc. – called the Green Flash. If you spend any time watching sunsets over the ocean, you have heard of it. In it’s simplest terms, it is a tiny flash of green light that you see when the sun sets. Or, I should say, HOPE to see – the Green Flash is rare, and people continue to debate if it’s even real. You can go your whole life watching the sun go down and never see one. Other people claim that if you know what to look for, you can see them all the time.

The scientific explanation is that when you watch the sunset, the last rays of the sun, angling through the atmosphere (I would say “up”, but that’ s not really scientific) reflect off of moisture in the air, and refract, turning the light green for a moment. Why green? Because the wavelength of the light is in the blue-green range, but the atmosphere filters out the blue and leaves the green.

There is (as always with a sea-borne phenomena) a list of superstitions and portents attached to the Flash. People say it is the soul of sailors, or that it signals that the Flying Dutchman is near (they had fun with this at the end of the third Pirates of the Caribbean movie), or that it fortells a change in the weather. There’s even an old Robert Burns story where he claims “those who have seen the green flash will never again err in matters of the heart”.

I prefer the more common superstition, that seeing the green flash brings good luck and prosperity. Probably I am projecting here, because I always need a little bit more of both. But in any case, I never saw the flash, so whatever it brought, I wasn’t having any of it anyway.


The sunset photo above was taken on my trip to Greece last fall, on Paros Island in the Cyclades. I spent most of my trip island hopping (terrible, I know) and this was the last night of the island portion of the trip. I was down by the port, taking photos of this sunset – by far the best sunset of the trip, and I was out shooting them every night – watching people feed the inevitable sly cats, watching the ferries come in, taking some more photos.

Just as the last sliver of sun sank into the sea, I took the camera down from my eye, but was still looking out towards the horizon. And there – just in that instant, so quickly that I saw it both through the camera and with my own eyes – it was. Flash. I saw it, and in the instant my brain registered it, it was gone.

Now, I am not the most reliable of people when it comes to visuals. I am forever “seeing” things out of the corner of my eye, I wear coke-bottle glasses or contact lenses that should come with a seeing eye dog, and my hair is always out of control (never more so than at the beach) and getting in my eyes and obscuring my vision (which I will claim is why I am always walking into things). To call me a reputable eye-witness is laughable. But.

I have played that instant over again and again in my head, and it always plays back the same. I saw it. Plain, ordinary me, who is about as average as…. I don’t know but I am pretty damn average. Me. Hardly the sort of person who sees extraordinary astronomical events, but there you go. I took that camera down from my eyes, looked at the horizon, and there it was. l remember looking around to see if anyone else had seen it, but no one seemed to notice but me. Had I imagined it? Was it just the reflection off the camera lens?

I don’t think so. I saw it. I know I did. My last night in the islands, in a place I loved and knew in my heart I would never see again, the sun flashed a green petticoat, a tiny glance back over it’s shoulder. Just for me.

I know what I saw.

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