Monthly Archives: May 2015

TG #33

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In This Issue :

Extreme Bioluminescence + Flying Above the Treetops at Warra + Steady Camera Tips + The Definitive Guide to Photographing Sea Sparkle

Strange things are happening in the oceans near Tasmania, and there are new discoveries of mysterious creatures from the sea. We’ll go to the shores to marvel at the surreal spectacle of the sea sparkle, and we’ll catch a ride on a tiny helicopter and fly above some of the tallest forests on Earth.

The month of May brought with it a new obsession in night photography – bioluminescence. Tasmania has long had, on occasion, sparkling seas, but recent weeks have been beyond all expectations. In a viral digital photography explosion which could only be compared to the Great Tasmanian Midwinter Aurora Obsession, we are now in the grip of the Grand Tasmanian Autumnal Sea Sparkle Phenomenon.

Against that backdrop, we’re very pleased to be sharing with you a remarkable number of awe-inspiring photographs from the glowing shores of south-eastern Tasmania. The dinoflagellate organism Noctiluca is putting on quite a show, and it’s sharing the stage with the aurora australis, the lights of the city, and the creative talents of many passionate photographers.

In this issue, we have images contributed from fifteen (!) photographers who have been part of the Phenomenon – a record number of co-authors for this site. There are two excellent articles on biology and photo-capturing of Noctiluca by Dr. Lisa-ann Gershwin, Fiona Walsh, and Matthew Holz. Dr. Gershwin is a best-selling science writer and internationally renowned marine-life taxonomist, and we’re delighted to have the chance to work with her on this issue.

Shaking the sand off of our gumboots and blinking in the morning sunlight, we’ll then go into some of the world’s superlative forests at the Warra Long Term Ecological Research Site. World-class technical knowledge from around Australia gathered at the atmospheric carbon flux measurement station by the shores of the Huon, and together contributed to the Auscover campaign from the Terrestrial Ecosystem Network. In this, forest land cover was simultaneously measured using laser scanners, aerial cameras working in infrared and ultraviolet, cutting-edge flying robots from Arko Lucieer’s TerraLuma lab at the University of Tasmania, and teams of researchers with boots on the ground. It’s an exceptional effort and in this issue we’ll get a chance to fly above the treetops at the flux tower.

And even though he’s currently backpacking around the Indonesian archipelago,  Mike Fuller has found the time to put together four useful and creative tips for taking sharp and steady photographs when you don’t have a tripod (or, just as likely, when you left yours at home!). This matches in perfectly with the Definitive Guide to Photographing Sea Sparkle, and nicely rounds off Issue #33.

We hope you enjoying reading it as much as we enjoyed compiling it!

All the best,

The Editor



The Definitive Guide – How to Find and Photograph Sea Sparkle Bioluminescence

Text and images by Dr Lisa-ann Gershwin, Fiona Walsh, and Matt Holz

Images by Arwen Dyer, Leena Wisby, and Jo Malcomson

Spectacular masses of Noctiluca scintillans (Latin for “sparkling night light”) has brought thousands of people to the shorelines of southern Tasmania, hoping to catch a glimpse of sea sparkles, or bioluminescence. Many questions about how and where to look have been posted to the Facebook page, Bioluminescence Tasmania, and the activity there has catalysed this guide.

Here is a brief Q&A-style go-to resource for finding and photographing sea sparkles. If you get the timing and location right, you can go down to the beach and have a look at the water’s edge, make a splash, and watch the sparkles.



Seasonality: Sea Sparkles, or bioluminescence, can occur anytime, anywhere, because it is created by a variety of organisms with different ecological profiles. Noctiluca scintillans, the organism responsible for the recent brilliant displays, is commonest in the warmer months, but may be found any time of year.

Time of day: Noctiluca is positively buoyant, meaning that it will concentrate at the surface if left undisturbed. During the day, thick blooms of Noctiluca appear as a soft pink haze on the surface of the water, sometimes so thick that the bottom cannot be seen in even only a few cm of water. At night, these thick pink clouds may be seen with a torch, but the bioluminescence is best observed in total darkness once the eyes have acclimatized to the dark.

Most bioluminescent organisms – including Noctiluca – have an inbuilt biological clock that tells them when it is night or day, and they will not flash during daytime, even if put into a dark room.

Weather conditions: Noctiluca is around all the time in fairly low numbers, too sparse to put on a good light display. After a rainstorm, however, nutrient runoff into the water acts as fertilizer, stimulating a phytoplankton bloom. Therefore, when the days have been calm and sunny after a decent rain are the best nights to look for Sea Sparkles.

Gentle breezes will concentrate the bloom against the shore, whereas stronger winds will create too much turbulence for Noctiluca to stay at the surface, and it will sink down and disperse.



Longitude and latitude: Noctiluca is widespread around the world, and is most often observed in coastal areas. In Tasmania, it has been found in many locations, but is quite common in southern Tasmania where it responds well to the high nutrient load from urban discharge, agricultural runoff, aquaculture, and the slow flow situation created naturally by Storm Bay and the Derwent Estuary.

Habitat: The best habitats in which to observe Sea Sparkles are those where either (A) the wind is gently blowing straight into a bay, concentrating the bloom in one place, or (B) protected places where they are trapped and can’t get out. Examples of good bays would be Ralph’s Bay on South Arm during a gentle northerly or westerly breeze, or Howden on a southerly (winds are named for the direction that they blow from). Examples of protected places include Lauderdale Canal, Cremorne, Sullivan’s Cove, or Brown’s River in Kingston.


Bioluminescence from Noctiluca sea sparkle occurs in three ways. Because the human eye does not see colour at night unless it is quite bright, a dull but definite glow throughout the bloom may appear to the naked eye as pale whitish. Where the cells are stimulated through agitation – a breaking wave, footsteps along the water’s edge, a rock or sand tossed into the water, a dog or child splashing about, or a dancing photographer – brilliant neon blue flashes will occur that are easily visible to the naked eye. And where the water washes up on the sand then back down again, cells left behind on the beach will glitter on their own; this also happens with cells stranded on our hands or clothing.



Camera type: In mild to moderate bloom conditions, a camera with adjustable settings (e.g., a DSLR) will produce the best photos. In dense and widespread blooms, any camera will produce good images; during the recent bloom event, even iPhones were producing good stills and videos.

Intriguingly, with bioluminescence, if it is bright enough to plainly see blue colour with the naked eye, a photograph will effectively “flatten” the image so that the dynamic action of the flashes and glitters becomes essentially one broad wash of colour. In these cases, video is ideal to capture the action.

Settings: On DSLR cameras or those with adjustable settings, the following generic guideline can be adjusted as appropriate. Use your tripod, steady rock, or post. (Further information on settings can be found in the owner’s manual for each camera, or online):

  1. Focus: With the lens in manual focus mode, set your infinity focus. Disengage auto focus.
  2. Shooting mode: Turn the camera to manual mode.
  3. ISO: begin with about 1600, moving up when necessary. Remember, too high ISO gives grainy photos.
  4. Aperture (f-stop): set as wide as it will go (small number, big opening): e.g., 3.5 or 1.8 if your camera allows.
  5. Shutter speed: For softer definition and more “glow”, go for a longer exposure, like 30 seconds. For more “flash” and less glow, choose a faster exposure like 10 seconds or even 3 or 5. A faster shutter will need a higher ISO. This is largely where the art comes in.

Post-processing of photos: Most of the photographs produced from the recent bioluminescence event were distributed as unretouched, or non-photoshopped. Quite simply, the colour was so stunning straight out the camera, that nothing needed to be done to enhance it or more fully develop the undertones.

For paler light shows, some photographers may wish to “fiddle” with post processing to reach the artistic expression that is pleasing to them. Programs like Photoshop, Lightroom, Gimp, Zoner, etc are widely used.



Are they dangerous to humans? Do not ingest Noctiluca or put it on the face, eyes, or mouth. Brief handling such as swishing water with the hands or dancing in the light generally cause no adverse effects. Still water in canals and lagoons near urban regions must be treated with caution.

Does it hurt them when we splash around? Splashing around doesn’t hurt them. The tide stranding them on the beach – or us stomping on them – will dry them or crush them; these actions are generally fatal to them. However, they are clonal, so “fatal” is not as terminal as it sounds.

Can I take them home? Yes! In a widemouth jar in a cool area (not the refrigerator or freezer), they will live several days or more. Open the jar during the day, and replace the lid before swirling. They will not luminesce during daytime, but if the jar is tapped or gently swirled at night in a dark room, they will put on quite a sparkling show!

Because they are an introduced pest, after you are finished with them, ecologically appropriate disposal methods include down the drain or poured down the driveway.

What about the ocean? Respect the ocean, water, and seashore. Waves, gravity, and other dangers mus always be kept in mind when exploring the shore at night.



  • Warm clothing
  • Torch for safely traversing to and from the beach at night
  • Camera and tripod: ideally a DSLR or other camera capable of manual mode settings
  • Snacks: it might be a long night if it’s really fascinating, like an aurora and bioluminescence at the same time
  • Lens warmer or lens wipes to reduce night-time condensation
  • Something creative to agitate the water and stimulate the sparkle, if necessary: a broom, bucket, dog, or child
  • Gumboots for dancing in the light (!)



Many questions about how and where to look have been posted to the Facebook page Bioluminescence Australia, (formerly Bioluminescence Tasmania), and the activity there has catalysed this guide.

Special thanks to all who have contributed to the excitement and enthusiasm sparked by these mysterious creatures.

Four Steady Camera Tips for Improving Your Photos

“Necessity is the mother of invention.”

Since my first adventures in night photography — cycling suburbia with a cutting-edge 2 megapixel brick — I have always been too cheap to buy a tripod.

And even when JonP gave me his old tripod, I barely ever brought it anywhere.

You see, I create most of my images when I’m either in the wilderness, or stumbling across unexpected things while traveling. And I’m just too lazy to carry a few extra grams on these wild or random adventures. This forced me to get very creative when shooting in low-light.

In fact, I’m probably better at finding ways to steady my camera than I am at photography.

So what? Why do steadier cameras give better photos?

Regardless if you’re shooting on a camera-phone or a D3X (footnote 1),  these tips apply to all cameras, by making your images: sharper, via reduced motion blur; and/or
less noisy, by allowing your camera to work with a lower ISO sensitivity (footnote 2).

So even if you don’t own a tripod (to leave at home), today’s camera-steadying tips will improve everyone’s photography! And if you do have a tripod, this may help you ditch that 3-legged anchor.

Without further ado, you can steady better by:

1) Bracing against yourself

Breathe in and focus the camera (depress button halfway), then hold your breath while you click the shutter.  Have your elbows braced against your torso to steady yourself, or lean into a wall; crouch down; or even lie on the ground (first checking for buffalo entrails)

2) Pressing against fixed objects

Press your camera’s side or bottom into a door frame, wall, railing, tree, etc. Try to find a nook in the object where the camera feels steady. Then, press that camera hard into the object while you shoot a few, have a look, and adjust for better composition.  Try to combine this with the next tip.


3) Taking multiple exposures in a burst

Believe it or not, pressing that shutter release button shakes your camera. So use your burst mode  (footnote 3), and find the sharpest image after. You can also try using the 2 second timer but I prefer just bursting.  Usually for me the second shot is the sharpest.

4) Free-resting

Night shots typically require long exposures (>2 seconds) — longer than the previous tips will enable. As do self portraits during the day.

So channel your inner engineer, and look around: Are there flat rocks? chairs? a branch? a pile of sand?  If you’re walking away from the camera, this could be risky, so choose wisely. But no guts, no glory, right?

Once you’ve found your ‘trypod’, you can fine-tune the composition by placing something under your camera or lens. Like your lens cap or camera strap. Then snap away!

So there you have it. Four tips to steady your camera for better photos, as easy as: Bracing; Pressing against objects; Burst mode; and Creativity at finding trypods.

These are what work best for me. Others swear by beanbags, or string mono-pods (look it up) — but I find those all just too much of a faff.

Necessity may be the mother of invention. But for me, laziness was the grandmother.

  1. $7000 DSLR. Before you buy the lenses.
  2. ISO is the sensitivity, and high levels lead to graininess or ‘noise’
  3. even iphones have them now

Flying Above the Treetops – Lasers, drones, and tree climbers at Warra

Equipped with a mountain of high-tech reminiscent of science fiction flicks, scientists and volunteers have just spent a week working in the World Heritage Area of Tasmania to measure the composition and architecture of tall eucalypt forests that have regenerated naturally from past wildfires.

This video above was acquired by Arko Lucieer (UTAS) with a small quadcopter (DJI Vision+) during a TERN AusCover field campaign in the old growth forest of southern Tasmania. The footage is of the Warra flux tower, which towers at 80 m over a 50-60 m tall canopy of wet eucalyptus forest. The data was collected as part of a airborne hyperspectral campaign and field campaign to measure forest properties. The small unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) was flown at about 120 m above the ground, with its high-resolution camera capturing 300 images every 5-minute flight. The overlapping images captured during each flight are stitched together and used by scientists to make 3D models of the forest canopy’s structure.

Recently, a group of scientists and volunteers from the University of Tasmania, the University of Queensland, the CSIRO, and Forestry Tasmania descended on the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area for a week of field work supported by TERN’s AusCover facility.

The team used a suite of high-tech equipment, including laser scanners, drones and planes to scan, measure and document the state of the forest at TERN’s Warra Tall Eucalypt SuperSite, part of the Australian SuperSite Network.

The Warra SuperSite is partly within the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area, which is managed for conservation, and partly within State forest, which is managed for multiple purposes including wood production. The site was established in 1998 to better understand the fundamental ecological processes in E. obliqua forests, to assess the rich biodiversity, and to determine the long-term effects of forest management regimes.

A drone and TERN’s DWEL terrestrial laser scanner were just part of a suite of high-tech equipment that scientists used to measure and document the forest like never before.  It wasn’t all fun and games for the team though, with a heap of data waiting for processing at the end of a long day of work (photos courtesy of Peter Scarth)

Over the week of fieldwork, ground-based teams used advanced terrestrial laser scanners, including TERN’s new DWEL scanner, to capture the three-dimensional structure of the forest beneath the forest canopy within a 25 square kilometre area. A tree climber, a slingshot, and a sharp shooter were all used to sample leaves from high in the canopy to learn about their spectral signatures and chemical composition.

For the first time in the AusCover project’s history, several small drones, or Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), carrying multiple sensors were deployed by the coordinator of the AusCover Tasmania node, Arko Lucieer from the University of Tasmania. These UAVs were deployed to capture imagery from a unique perspective above the forest. The drone generated 3D models of the forest, and collected infrared images that will enable scientists to learn about the variety of tree species present in the forest. These UAV observations also allow researchers to link the detailed ground observations to the satellite observations covering much larger areas.

Airborne Research Australia (ARA), a research wing of Flinders University, also conducted a number of flights over the site, during which the aircraft used advanced hyperspectral and LiDAR scanning to measure the 3D structure of trees and discover how the trees absorb and scatter light.

AusCover collaborator Dr Peter Scarth, of the University of Queensland, was one of those carrying out the fieldwork and says that all the data collected will be made openly accessible via AusCover’s data portal to help facilitate new science. These new datasets will help to answer complex questions about the composition and role of this ecosystem, including the total biomass and carbon stored in these old forests.

‘Trips like this are a significant investment in both time and money so it’s critical that all the data collected is captured in a way so that nothing is lost, it has comprehensive metadata and becomes free to access and reuse,’ writes Peter in his comprehensive online blog about the field campaign.  ‘…Our various devices automatically uploaded over 500mb of data as soon as we were back in mobile range to the AusCover ODK Aggregate server so it’s safely backed up and ready to access using standard database tools. From here, it will be merged with any instrument data, checked for errors, and then uploaded to the AusCover portal for anyone to access. Cool.’

Arko Lucieer  who led the weeklong Warra field campaign, says that such research and data provision wouldn’t be possible without the infrastructure provided by TERN and the support it receives via the Federal Government’s National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy (NCRIS).

‘The collaboration of ecologists and remote sensing scientists using state-of-the-art sensor technology allows us to answer difficult questions about these complex ecosystems,’ says Arko.

For example, research and data collection exercises such as these have already led to a better understanding of how harvesting methods for use in tall, wet eucalypt forests can meet social, ecological and silvicultural objectives while still being safe and productive.

This project is just one illustration of how TERN’s shared research infrastructure is allowing Australia’s ecosystem scientists to collaborate and synthesise effectively across regions and disciplines.

‘So that was a wrap – the week went really well and we achieved all we set out to collect, and more,’ concludes Peter on his blog. ‘Thanks to all the team and the Forestry Tasmania folk who came down to help, discuss, lug gear, cook, wash up, climb over decaying logs, work ridiculous hours and above all have a great time, share and learn from each other.’


  • To read more about the fieldwork at Warra click here to view Peter’s blog.
  • For more information on AusCover’s fieldwork at Warra and Arko’s research on drones for environmental monitoring click here and here.
  • For more information on TERN’s DWEL scanner click here and here.
  • For more information on Airborne Research Australia please contact Flinders University’s Jorg M. Hacker.

(A press release from TERN -the Terrestrial Ecosystem Research Network) – Thanks to Mark Grant

Sea Sparkle – Extreme Bioluminescence in Tasmanian Waters

Text by Dr. Lisa-ann Gershwin and Fiona Walsh

Images by Alison Painter, Dallas Stott, Geraldina Dijkstra, Jonathan Esling, Leoni Williams, Nic Fitzgerald, Paul Fleming, Theresa Ockenden, Dave Reynolds, and Nick Dobinson

We mere mortals have marvelled at Mother Nature since time immemorial: sunsets and sunrises, lightning, hail storms, eclipses, aurorae, rainbows… and even snowbows for that matter. Nature’s art has inspired painters, poets, lovers, and the forlorn, and provided us all with a means of feeling a connection to something so much bigger than ourselves. This connection – this attraction to nature – transcends cultural boundaries, political paradigms, and the passage of time.

And it was has been on full, electric blue display across southern Tasmania.


Our story begins with a handful of aurora photographers, who were out on their regular Friday night aurora hunt. The skies were clear, the moonlight was dim, and the weather mild; unfortunately the aurora failed to develop. As they were heading home, they noticed a strange yet illuminating glow coming from waves lapping in the distance. The tide was too far out to get a closer look, yet curiosity had taken hold and a plan was made to return the next night on the hunt for the glowing stuff. And the rest, as the saying goes, is history.

Photos were posted, the story went viral, media frenzied, young and old flocked to the beach, people flew in from the mainland to see … In the blink of an eye – or really, in a flash of light – Noctiluca became a household word and Tasmania became a bucket-list destination.


The phenomenon of bioluminescence – or sea sparkles – is caused by organisms that make their own light with a chemical reaction inside their body. In this case, the organism is a tiny dinoflagellate called Noctiluca scintillans, Latin for “sparkling night light”. Dinoflagellates are a type of phytoplankton (phyto = plant, plankton = drifter); however, they aren’t true plants, rather, they are microscopic single-celled algae. They are like seaweed, but much smaller. Rather than make their own energy like a plant does, they consume organic matter floating around them, including other single-called organisms like plankton and even fish eggs.


Many types of dinoflagellates are bioluminescent, and may produce different colours of light. Noctiluca flashes or glitters with brilliant neon blue. Singly, each individual emits a tiny speck of light, but en masse, they can light up a beach with an eerie other-worldly glow. Their bioluminescence are usually be observed in three different ways: a dull glowing band along the shore that defines the edge of the concentration, brilliant flashes when disturbed such as by crashing waves or dancing enthusiasts, and gentle twinkling where individual Noctiluca cells have been washed up on the sand.

So bright is their light, in fact, that during World War II, the Japanese dried dinoflagellates into powder and issued envelopes of it to their troops. At night on the front line, the soldiers would pour a bit of powder into their hand, spit on it, and rub it between their palms, giving them enough light to read their maps by without giving away their location.


So what has triggered Tasmania’s recent sea sparkling? The present bloom had been building for a few weeks following rains that washed nutrients into the water; dog poo on the sidewalk and Seasol in Grandma’s garden act like fertilizer for algae when storm runoff gets into the sea. The bloom came to light when the winds blew it into accessible locations, and this extreme bioluminescence event has now been reported across Southeast Tasmania from Kingston, Howden, Battery Point, Howrah, Lauderdale, Eaglehawk Neck, and many points in between. Protected areas, surf beaches … you name it, people are seeing Sea Sparkles there. Many of the most incredible photos were taken at South Arm near the neck, where the northerly breeze blew the Noctiluca into Ralph’s Bay and concentrated them against the shore at the bottom of the bay. The neon blue waves were plainly visible to passing traffic.


This influx into such easily accessible areas has provided a unique opportunity for people to interact with nature in a completely unexpected and thrilling way. A hand dipped in the water comes out glowing an electric blue. A handful of sand thrown over the water produces a spray of sparkles … and then an explosion of light. Sand poured through the hands looks like molten blue light. Footprints at the water’s edge flash then twinkle. A dog splashing in it creates a light show that defies description.


While the spectacular unretouched photos made their way across the world’s headlines and mainlanders booked flights to come see this natural wonder, there is another, more sinister side of this species that is just as surprising as its sparkle: it is a pest. And a bad one at that.


The sad truth is that Noctiluca is one of the world’s most unwanted species. It was first reported in Tasmanian waters in 1994. It is not native here. Its invasive progress has been tracked and studied by researchers at the University of Tasmania, and the story is not a good one. It has spread to more or less every nook and cranny of the Tasmanian coastline, and has recently penetrated the Southern Ocean, expanding ever southward. Periodically when the conditions are right, it blooms into superabundances, the sorts of numbers that are generally only met with in astronomy. Billions. Trillions. Numbers that don’t even have names. In these sorts of numbers, Noctiluca is a killer. As the cells die, they burst and release their ammonia-rich contents into the surrounding water. The water becomes toxic and de-oxygenated. Globally, Noctiluca has more fish kills notched onto its belt than just about any other species. Having said that, it is a sight worth seeing as well as a spectacular reminder for us all to explore the world around us. You never know what amazing things you may find.