05 February 2024

Bioluminescence ("Sea Sparkle")

The photos above were taken at the Gippsland Lakes (Victoria, Australia), where in 2007 fires and floods resulted in massive amounts of nitrogen being washed into the lakes, which resulted in an algal bloom...
But this was not the blue-green algae that had appeared in the lakes before. Early analysis identified the cause of the green tinge as an algal outbreak of Synechococcus... As summer took hold at the end of 2008, what happened surprised everyone – a new species called Noctiluca Scintillans began to prosper, by feeding on the Synechococcus.

In contrast to the widespread bright green of the Synechococcus, Noctiluca Scintillans was visible during the day as localised murky red patches, often building up on sections of shoreline facing the wind during the day. At night though, Noctiluca Scintillans produced a remarkable form of bioluminescence (popularly referred to as ‘phosphorescence’) – the water glowing brightly wherever there was movement – in the waves breaking on the shore, in ripples in the water and wherever people played in the water.
You can read the rest of the story at Phil Hart's webpage and see additional photos in his gallery (via Neatorama).

Massive blooms of bioluminescent organisms can produce "milky seas" that can be seen from satellites, as shown in this image from Chemical and Engineering News:

"Generated most likely by the bacterium Vibrio harveyi, this awesome display of flamboyant biological chemistry happened on a vast scale: The researchers estimate that it took a bloom of 40 billion trillion (4 X 1022) bioluminescent cells to generate the milky sea that the Lima had encountered."
Reposted from 2011 to add this video of bioluminescence in the Wadden Sea.

Addendum 2024:  A tip of the blogging cap to reader James, who sent to me the following photos, apparently harvested from the Bioluminescence Tasmania Facebook Group -

- and a link to a very useful site: Tasmania Geographic's The Definitive Guide - How to Find and Photograph Sea Sparkle Bioluminescence.


  1. Sweet, like a real life Pandora =D

    Though I don't know if that guy should have all of that stuff on him, especially since some of those bacteria that cause biolilluminescent also create Red Tides.

  2. You might consider reading the link: "Luckily, Noctiluca Scintillans was not a health threat..."

  3. This reminds me of an amazing evening i had at Lake Tabourie near Ulladulla in NSW, Aus., at which time my friends and i had an American tourist friend visiting on his first overseas trip, which happened to be to Australia. It was the night of new year's day 2006, and I'm not sure what conditions caused it, but after a day of searing temperatures (peaked at 45°C = 113°F) the lake itself was absolutely shimmering with bioluminescence. At night it was still very very warm so we spent the evening swimming into the small hours of the 2nd of January, and the whole time everyone was clearly visible because of the amazingly bright algae stirred into illumination by even the slightest movement in the lagoon, between the lake and the ocean. It was fantastically bright. I vividly remember us taking turns doing what we called 'interpretive dance' (mindless thrashing) in the middle of the lagoon late at night, simply because anybody's movements were surrounded by a nimbus of ghostly green light.

    The tourist with us said it was the most amazing experience of his life and that none of his friends back home would believe him. I'm glad we gave him such a memorable experience, even if it was completely serendipitous and we had no idea the lake would be glowing as much as it did =)

  4. Interesting, Jim. Thanks for adding that note.

  5. 30 years ago in Maine, I was standing nighttime watch on a 30' pulling boat in Penobscot Bay when I had to answer nature's call over the gunwhales. I was quite startled and amazed to see areas of bioluminescence surrounding the stream where it struck the water. Certainly not the same scale as in your article but plenty surprising seeing the phenomenon for the first time.

  6. Probably millions of little critters delighted by the rich nitrogen source suddenly arriving...

  7. I was staying with my uncle, who was teaching marine invertebrate zoology during the summer of 1956 at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole (Massachusetts). Late one night my aunt came and woke me and my cousins and said we were going swimming at Stoney Beach (http://tinyurl.com/4kpp356). When we went in the water our bodies glowed as we moved. When my arms moved they would light up as the biolumniscent microorganisms were stimulated. It was an absolutely wonderful experience!

  8. Walking along in the shallow waters of the ocean on Guam, your feet were outlined by bioluminescent critters...
    Way cool!

  9. Phil is a friend of mine and we both volunteer at a youth camp on the Gippsland Lakes, where these were taken. This past summer we again had the bioluminescent algae and spent some truly magical late nights out on the lake in canoes, with our wash and paddles glowing and sparkling in the still, mirror-like water. It's an incredible experience to be paddling in complete silence (apart from the odd exclamation of "WOW!") with the stars overhead and the water glowing around you.

  10. Terschelling represent! (That's where I was born.)

  11. Also fairly common in Southern California during different times of the year. Locals call it "glow surf" as when the waves break there are long flashes of blue luminescent light as the algae in the water are disturbed and light up. Boats leave luminiscent wakes. And if you run along the beach near the water, you leave glowing blue foot prints, And stomping on the wet sand produces blue lightning-like streaks from your foot.

  12. https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2024/01/04/bioluminescence-beach-waves-orange-county-california/72102677007/


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