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.


 

WHEN TO LOOK

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.


 

WHERE TO LOOK

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.

WHAT TO LOOK FOR

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.


 

HOW TO PHOTOGRAPH

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.


 

SAFETY MATTERS

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.


 

CHECKLIST OF ESSENTIAL GEAR

  • 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 (!)

 

MORE INFORMATION

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.