By Alex Scott
Imagine: You’re paddling a kayak under a moonless sky. Underneath you, the water that slides beneath the kayak and your paddle glows a spectacular blue, leaving a trail of sparkling light behind you. A brief rain shower passes and blue light sparkles where each raindrop hits the sea.
It sounds like something out of a science fiction movie, but in a bioluminescent bay found right here on Earth, you can experience something truly otherworldly. These bays are truly unique, because their water literally glows in the dark, through a process called bioluminescence.
Left to right: Bioluminescent red tide at La Jolla Cove, California. Bioluminescence at the Yacht Port of Zeebrugge, Belgium. Bioluminescent plankton on the Maldive Islands.
Left to right: Bioluminescent algae Noctiluca Scintillans on the Maldive Islands. Bioluminescence at Eden, New South Wales, Australia. Bioluminescent sea,
Zhejiang Province, China.
There are several locations in the world with enough persistent bioluminescence to be considered official bioluminescent bays. Puerto Rico is home to three: Mosquito Bay (the largest bioluminescent bay in the world) in Vieques, La Parguera Nature Reserve, and Laguna Grande in Fajardo. Luminous Lagoon in Jamaica and Halong Bay in Vietnam are also great places to catch a nighttime glow.
Bioluminescent plankton glowing at Red Bridge, Samut Sakhon near Bangkok, Thailand.
Beaches in North America, Australia, China, and Thailand are also popular tourist attractions for their uniquely glowing waters, and they are a must-see for anyone looking to brighten up their vacation plans. Occasional so-called red tides created by blooms of Noctiluca scintillans have been known to create bioluminescent waves in California, when conditions are right.
Bioluminescence in the natural world is not uncommon: jellyfish, fireflies, bacteria, and over three-quarters of deep-sea animals are just some of the animals that are capable of producing light. The glowing lights in bioluminescent seas comes from unicellular micro-organisms living in the water called dinoflagellates. Scientists hypothesize that these “dinos” produce light at night in response to changes in their environment—like rough waves—and to potential predators, hoping to startle them away.
Despite what long exposure photography of bioluminescent bays might indicate, dinos do not produce a long-lasting glow; instead, they blink on and off in the span of milliseconds. Although one microscopic blink wouldn’t be noticeable, dinos usually gather by the billions and blink together. Different species of dinos produce light in different ways inside their cells, but the result is the same: a beautiful, blinking sea of light.
Noctiluca scintillans, commonly known as the sea sparkle, a marine-dwelling species of dinoflagellate that exhibits bioluminescence when disturbed.
The best time to visit a bioluminescent bay is on the night of a new moon, for obvious reasons; the darker the sky above, the brighter the dinos below! There are plenty of kayak and boat tours available at the five bioluminescent bays, so make sure to do your research and reserve a spot early. Because of the rarity of these bays and the tiny organisms that make the bays so famous, sunscreens, creams, and deet, as well as swimming in the water itself, are strictly forbidden. These rules are there to protect the dinos and their unique ecosystems, so that future generations of eco-friendly tourists will be able to experience this magnificent natural beauty.
This article appeared in the Beachcombing Magazine March/April 2020 issue.
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