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Starlight, Starbright – What is Bioluminescence?

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The sun drops from the sky and it’s time for the night dive. You listen to the pre-dive briefing and learn about night diving procedures and the different types of nocturnal creatures that you could encounter. Suddenly, your ears prick up – underwater light show? Twinkling stars? Did you hear that correctly? Yes you did.

Bioluminescence is the scientific name and it is one of the loveliest visions you can see in the ocean at night. One of the earliest people to record their encounters with bioluminescence was Charles Darwin in 1883. This is how he described it:”… the sea presented a wonderful and most beautiful spectacle. There was a fresh breeze, and every part of the surface, which during the day is seen as foam, now glowed with a pale light. The vessel drove before her bows two billows of liquid phosphorus, and in her wake she was followed by a milky train. As far as the eye reached, the crest of every wave was bright, and the sky above the horizon, from the reflected glare of these vivid flames, was not so utterly obscure, as over the rest of the heavens.”

 

So, what is it? Back in 2013, I was lucky enough to dive with the world’s leading expert on bioluminescence, Steve Haddock. This was how Steve explained it to me: “Bioluminescence can be described as the ability of organisms to make light by chemical reactions in their tissues. Mostly this is not through bacteria, although some more notable and famous species use bacteria, such as the bobtail squid or flashlight fish.”

Within the Komodo National Park, we can experience this in a few different forms. Firstly, and probably most commonly, in the form of plankton named dinoflagellates. As the plankton react to movement in the water, they produce a white/green glow resulting in what we see as underwater sparkles. Divers can see this by covering their torches and moving their hands in side to side motions, disturbing the plankton and leaving a cascade of tiny lights.

Another type of light emitting organism are small crustaceans – often referred to as the sea firefly. Using bioluminescence as a defence mechanism, these shrimp expel a cloud of blue light when they are threatened, to bamboozle their predators. It’s possible for a diver to see this from time to time when we make long, sweeping motions with our torches. It doesn’t last for long and sometimes it can feel like a trick of the eye – was it even really there? But if you get close enough, you can actually see these miniature shrimps hanging in the water column.

 

Obviously, it is not just restricted to the marine environment, fireflies and glow worms also emit light in the same way. However, it is more prevalent in marine creatures and occurs for a number of reasons. “In the context of the marine organisms themselves, bioluminescence can be a matter of life or death. Many animals use the light to hunt prey, frighten away predators, or find mates. While beautiful to look at, bioluminescence can be serious business,” says Steve. He’s not the only one who is interested. Steve also notes on his website that the Navy are paying attention to research. “When objects move through the water they can excite bioluminescent organisms to flash. This can reveal the presence of submarines, or operators whose duties might require them to swim up to a hostile shore by night, risking revealing themselves to coast watchers by the luminescence they generate.”

So, I hope that has shed a little light on things. And non-divers – don’t despair. It’s equally possible to witness the bioluminescence on a beach or from a boat just as Charles Darwin did back in the 19th century. Observe the waves lapping the shore, or the wake coming from the boat and bioluminescence will be your reward.

Visit the links below for more info:

http://guides.library.harvard.edu/content.php?pid=419040&sid=3493478

http://wickeddiving.com/2014/01/jellyfish-exposed-blooming-marvellous/

http://biolum.eemb.ucsb.edu/

 

Article by Jo Marlow, Wicked Diving

Photo by www.aquacare.de , National Geographic

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