Epilogue to the Return of the Science of Aquaman: Costume Palettes at Depth

In response to yesterday’s review of Aquaman Volume 1: The Trench, Al Dove made a simple request via twitter:

Your next post should be "What would aquaman look like at different depths?"

Your next post should be “What would aquaman look like at different depths?”

This question is more complex than it first appears, and needs a little unpacking. Water is denser than air. When light passes through, the water acts as a filter, absorbing visible light in a predictable pattern from longest wavelengths (infrareds and reds) to shortest wavelengths (purples and ultraviolets). As Aquaman dives deeper, the brilliant colors of his orange and green costume will begin to fade.

Black Manta. From Brightest Day #19

Black Manta. From Brightest Day #19. Red was a poor style choice.

At around 5 meters, reds will begin to blend in with the oranges. This is less a problem for Aquaman than it is for Mera, his red-headed companion.  At 10 meters, his orange shirt will appear dull yellow, blending in with his golden accessories. 20 meters down, the yellows will fade away, leaving Aquaman in what would appear to be a hazy green wetsuit. Passed 30 meters, even the greens are gone. Diving deeper, or hero will slowly fade into the vast blue expanse until, beyond 100 meters, practically all light is gone.

This phenomenon has several fascinating implications for ocean life. When you look at the brightly colored patterns of a tropical reef fish, try to think of how those patterns translate as the fish travels underwater. Perhaps those magnificent stripes are less about showing off and more about breaking up the fish’s profile–an evolutionary gillie suit–that allows them to adapt effortlessly to different predators at different depths?

Because red is the first color to go, many marine organisms, especially crustaceans, cannot see red light. They lack the ability to detect it in the same way that we can’t see ultraviolet or infrared light. This is good news for aspiring behavioral ecologists, as it allows us to study nocturnal rhythms without disturbing the organisms. Leatherback sea turtles don’t respond to red light, either, which is why you’ll see patrolers on nesting beaches carrying red flashlights. Many deep-sea species are also red, rendering them completely invisible to all but the craftiest predators.

SCARLET SNIPER SCOPE: The scaleless dragonfish (Pachystomias microdon) uses red bioluminescence like a sniper scope to hunt its prey. Image: Edith Widder

Image: Edith Widder

Speaking of crafty predators, when you see something like a dragonfish that use red bioluminescent photophores to hunt its prey, you should think “deep sea ninja”. While the dragon fish can use the light to see prey that is very close by, the prey will not be able to see its predator.

This also means that the menacing red glow of the Black Manta’s dive helmet is not there to strike terror into his enemies, but to allow Aquaman’s deadliest foe to stalk his rival, undetected, through the deepest seas.

This, incidentally, is why you can’t get wifi while SCUBA diving, but you can get a sunburn.


  1. Greg Laden · September 15, 2012

    And so, if I want to avoid getting cancer from using my cell phone a lot I can just do it underwater and that will fix that problem.

    But seriously, this is very cool. Once again, a critique of a superhero’s reality or lack thereof becomes a window onto how things really work.

    You should do a post, if you haven’t already, on the difference between sea and fresh water vis-a-vis color. And, perhaps, throw in a discussion of the evolutionary history of fish that live in one of those habitats now but arise from the other, or clades that are dispersed between the two habitats, and how their coloration has changed. (Salmonids, cod, sticklebacks, etc.)

  2. Jim Kakalios · September 15, 2012

    A serious scientific analysis of a comic book superhero? What next?

    Great site and series of articles about the Aquatic Ace. Found this through boingboing.net. Keep ’em flyin’

    Your Friendly Neighborhood Physics Professor,


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