“The protein binding substrate luciferin dissociates from the protein under external influence, and then an enzyme called luciferase acts upon it. Oxygen also takes part in this reaction, and the electrical impulse serves as a signal for its initiation. As a result, the cell membrane potential changes and the cell starts to glow.”
PhD; Senior Researcher, Timiryasev Institute of Plant Physiology, Russian Academy of Science
One afternoon I got a tip-off. One of my fellow south coast landscape photographers told me that they’d spotted bioluminescence in the water down at Jervis Bay and that the odds were good for a repeat performance that evening. Word got out to our little group and a few of us grasped the opportunity to photograph this amazing natural phenomenon. I drove down that evening, parked up and walked down onto the beach to discover that the small waves rippling onto the beach had turned to neon.
This kind of marine display only occurs under very specific conditions and not in very many locations in Australia or indeed the world. Sailors sometimes witness it out in the ocean, surfers have spotted it out on the breaking waves and there have been sightings in several places in Australia, in South America, in the Caribbean and, most recently, in North Wales. The fact that, in the case of the North Wales incident, bioluminescence is a troubling indication of rapidly warming oceans, does dull the excitement somewhat, but it’s still amazing to witness.
It’s exactly five years since I got to experience this amazing visual display and it’s not a sight I will easily forget. So here then, are some of the photographs I took that evening.
All of the photographs I took that evening were very long exposures. In this case the shutter was open for 30 seconds which is why you can see successive waves rippling gently onto the shore.
I took all of these shots on the Canon 550D which I had a the time. Unfortunately, this entry-level DSLR camera does not have the greatest high-ISO performance and consequently exhibits a lot of noise when shooting with the settings that scenes like this demand.
Once the excitement of photographing the bioluminescent algae had settled, I started to think more about the kind of shots I could capture while I was there. Fortunately for me it was a cloud-less night and and the moon was small and I realised I could capture the Milky Way and the algae in one shot. With that in mind I took a series of long exposure images in landscape orientation with a view to turning them into panoramas later on.
This particular pano is comprised of four individual images, shot with my 550D on a tripod in the ocean. The main problem was the fact that I had to stop the camera moving during the long exposure which is obviously tricky in the ocean when the tripod is resting on sand. I got around this problem by pushing the tripod as far as I could into the sand and, as there was very little in the way of surf, it was stable enough to take the shots. Even so I wasn’t sure any of the shots would be usable until I got a chance to scrutinise them in Lightroom when I got home. The light shining through the trees was a street lamp.
Walking in the ocean during the bioluminescence was a surreal experience because the algae attached to you and you suddenly had bioluminescent legs. Even the small fish that were swimming through the waters became coated in the algae and started looking like something out of a Japanese animation.
As landscape photographers, we are always searching for incredible scenery to capture with our cameras. The problem is that when an amazing situation presents itself, we often get so carried away with the excitement of the moment that we forget to think through the possibilities. On this particular night I knew that I was unlikely to ever see anything like this again and I forced my brain to slow down and look for imaginative compositions. Hence I shot from the beach and from in the water, I shot multiple exposures for panoramas, I looked for interesting foreground material, I switched the angles and heights around. I could undoubtedly have done more, but like all landscape scenes, time is never on your side. This algal bloom lasted for about two hours in total.
The most frequently encountered bioluminescent organisms may be the dinoflagellates present in the surface layers of the sea, which are responsible for the sparkling phosphorescence sometimes seen at night in disturbed water. At least eighteen genera exhibit luminosity. A different effect is the thousands of square miles of the ocean which shine with the light produced by bioluminescent bacteria, known as mareel or the milky seas effect.
This is probably my favourite shot of the night (and one of my favourite shots ever). It’s a four shot pano, taken from in the water with the bioluminescent algae rippling against that cool catamaran as the Milky Way arches overhead. You only get one shot, do not miss your chance to blow, because opportunity comes once in a lifetime.
Bioluminescence typically appears at the beach at high tide. You may get a clue to its later appearance by the arrival of red algae on the sand and rocks earlier in the day.
There was about 15 photographers on the beach that night – you can see the lights from their cameras here to the left of the boat.