• Nathan Litjens

Introducing the sea sapphire - Sapphrina species

Updated: Jun 13, 2019

It was one of these things that really stuck in my memory from when I was young. Those days of riding over the glassy calm sea with my grandfather in his boat in northern New South Wales on Australia's east coast. He had a peculiar desire to get as far out to sea as possible, obviously enjoying the rolling swell coming in from the vast expanse of the Pacific that stretched far over the horizon. We would see whales, free jumping marlin, tuna schools ripping along the surface and oceanic birds such as albatross and shearwaters anxiously awaiting the return of the wind. Sometimes we found ourselves in the East Australian Current; sweeping warm, clear water and plankton down from the tropics to the north like a gigantic river. I would look over the side when we stopped to drift for flathead (of all things) to watch the plankton silently pass by. There were the starfruit-like comb jellies with iridescent flashes of colour rippling down their sides, salps jetting along and all sorts of other fascinating creatures. But there was one that really caught my attention. The mysterious electric blue "sparks". Like a bright electrical arc they were among the other plankton and didn't look to be real - they were so incredibly iridescent. But what were they?

In 2012 I went to the Lombok Strait in Indonesia and saw them again. Hundreds, thousands of them drifting under the small wooden Kapal. This time I jumped in for a look. I couldn't get close as they would swim off at my approach. I sensed they were a crustacean; an isopod or copepod. But I was not to see them close enough this time.

Now, in 2019 I finally have had a good look at one. I was snorkelling once more off Northern NSW from the Wildside Sportfishing boat in search of some Mahi Mahi (dolphin fish) photos. As I was climbing back onboard I noticed in one of the millions of salps drifting by there was a bright blue flash. I grabbed the salp and dropped it in a container of water onboard. The creature swam out of the salp. I let the salp go immediately and took the container of seawater back to shore. The creature looked much like a garden slater (pillbug, sowbug) and it was transparent - practically invisible until the light hit it at a particular angle and the opalescent flash reflected back. It was around the size of a rice grain; much bigger than any of these I had seen before.

Back on shore I put it in some water within a black plastic container and took some photographs from above. It was very active and would not stop for more than a couple of seconds. After an hour I had a decent collection of photos to work with. I isolated them from the imperfections in the background on Photoshop and made a collage. The creature is a Sapphrina - a sea sapphire. There are numerous species in the world's oceans and they are a copepod. Apparently the females are transparent and only the males have this brilliant shine. I'll be sure to do some more reading on these but right now I'm getting ready to head to the Blue Mountains to look at one of the most interesting insects of all - the Australian glow worms. Don't forget to check out our online stock library at And the services we offer on the menu above. Thanks to Wildside Sportfishing for the trip out to the Trial Bay Canyon and the cool things seen along the way! Check out their site at

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