“One night after visiting my dad in the hospital, I went out to shoot some long exposures along the Big Sur coastline. I did this to relax and escape from a hectic week for an hour or two. When I arrived at Bixby Creek Bridge, it looked like the waves were being lit up by headlights from cars. But there were no car lights on the water. There were a couple of others there taking pictures too, and we chatted and figured that it was some kind of bioluminescence. The effect was magical and looked like someone had blue dive lights underwater in certain areas. As the waves would roll in, areas of ocean would light up baby blue and then fade away. I took pictures for a little over an hour, until my batteries were exhausted. When posting the images I asked Mark Siddall of the AMNH in NYC about the phenomena. We figured out due to weather, sea surface, and wind conditions, that this must be a dinoflagellate phytoplankton bloom. Steve Haddock from the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute said “It is almost certainly a dinoflagellate bloom. We are also seeing relative high bioluminescence with our instruments here in Monterey Bay.” when interviewed by a local news station.
There is much more behind this image than just the trip I took that night to Bixby Creek Bridge, in Big Sur. The image is a perfect example of how mesmerizing and beautiful this area is when you see it through the creative eye/lens combination. It is that beauty and uniqueness that has kept this area conserved from urban sprawl and that also has been my immersive focus for my physical therapy after a head on collision. Thirteen years ago they said I would never walk again, after surviving a head on collision with a construction crane. I found out that if I did more physical therapy I could do better than doctors predicted. After working my way out of a wheelchair, and then being told I would still never walk without a brace, I started using photography as an immersive distraction to walking on sand and uneven surfaces. This allowed my physical therapy to become “Pasion Therapy,” and that changed the game completely. The more I focus on the beauty of our coast here in Monterey County, the more physical torture/therapy I can inflict upon my body. This immersive distraction therapy has allowed me to burn my brace at Burning Man, climb to small mountain peaks and to even run and jump. I get all this from spending a few hours a week taking pictures near the coast. If I did not do this I would never have seen the glowing waves or gotten the shot if I had seen them. “
Will Ho is among those lucky enough to witness a beach aglow in nature’s own neon. While honeymooning in the Maldives, he saw this beach glittering with … yes, ostracod crustaceans.
These entrancing photos have spread across the web, with one scientific misunderstanding. This is not bioluminescent phytoplankton, biology professor Jim Morin of Cornell’s Department of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology, has clarified, but instead is an instance of an amazing mortality event of crustaceans in the Indian Ocean:
“These are tiny crustaceans. They produce these mass mortalities commonly in the Maldives. The species in question is almost certainly Cypridina [=Pyrocypris] dentata, a widespread cypridinid ostracod in the Indian Ocean [and perhaps all the way to the Chinese coast, where they are known as “blue tears”]. There are numerous reports from the Indian coast, especially the west side, and up into the Arabian Sea, in addition to the Laccadives and the Maldives. However, because luminescent bays in the Caribbean and crashing blue waves everywhere in the world are well known, and are usually caused by luminescence from dinoflagellates [which ARE a kind of phytoplankton], there is much confusion about the cause of these “starlit beaches.” But they are clearly NOT dinoflagellates; they are ostracod crustaceans that secrete cypridinid luciferin and luciferase from glands on their upper lips so that the luminescence is external [not intracellular as in dinos]. Furthermore the luminescence is discrete as fairly large spots, not diffuse as with light from millions of dinos. Ostracod light can last many seconds, even minutes, which is not what happens with dinos.”
George Percy noted on Flickr that he remembers these from his childhood in India:
“I am from India … and I used to see them all the time at night on the Marina Beach in Chennai. My friends and I used to scoop them up and hold it in our hands for about 10 seconds and they will lose their luminescence.”
A favorite sea phenomenon – bioluminescence, or the living lights of the ocean.
Kick back and enjoy a moment of deep sea wonder in this holiday season:
It never gets old for many, including Dr. Edith Widder, who studies bioluminescence in sea creatures:
“During my first open ocean dive, I went down to 800 feet and turned out the lights. I knew I would see bioluminescence, but I was totally unprepared for how much. It was incredible! There were explosions of light everywhere, like being in the middle of a silent fireworks display.”
Video released by the Deepwater Horizon Response team from the oil leak site shows the sheer volume of crude spraying into the deep sea 24/7 (visible especially starting at 1:58)
And we got word from the EPA yesterday that it has approved further use of chemical dispersants, both on the surface and underwater, even though EPA notes
“The effects of underwater dispersant use on the environment are still widely unknown, which is why we are testing to determine its effectiveness first and foremost. If it is determined that the use of this dispersant underwater is effective and that BP may continue its use, the Federal government will require regular analysis of its impact on the environment, water and air quality, and human health. We reserve the right to discontinue the use of this dispersant method if any negative impacts on the environment outweigh the benefits.”
Testing on a grand scale and then deciding over time if the negative impacts might outweigh the benefits? Of course, the relatively slow pace of scientific research means the determination of negative impacts will lag far behind any immediate ‘benefits’ of the chemicals breaking up oil slicks.
Countless known and little-known sea creatures in the waters of the Mississippi Canyon and beyond are being inundated with the gushing oil. Adding a brew of mystery chemicals to the mix is irresponsible at best – our government can do much better by us and by our environment than sanction wild and desperate use of untested chemicals.
Among the many creatures in the Gulf’s deep waters? Bioluminescent sea creatures like jellyfish – scientists have been working for years to unlock the secrets of this phenomenon.
Our ocean pic of the week — a planktonic jellyfish with bright green fluorescent tentacles. The red fluorescence in the middle of the jellyfish is from chlorophyll in a recent meal of algae.
This pic is from NOAA’s Operation Deep Scope 2005 Expedition – a research cruise in the Gulf of Mexico’s deep waters off Florida.
Some scientists on the expedition set out to study light in the ocean – color, fluorescence, polarization, vision and bioluminescence.
Dr. Edith Widder, a senior scientist on the trip, said her first sight of luminescence in the ocean’s depths changed her life:
“Seeing lights in the ocean – the living lights of bioluminescence observed from a submersible – is the event that set me on my uncommon career path … I was also convinced that bioluminescence had to be one of the most beautiful and important phenomena in the ocean. It seemed like it was everywhere and there was so much of it.”
Image courtesy Dr. Mikhail Matz and NOAA’s Office of Ocean Exploration & Research