The Magic, Wonder, and Science of Ocean Bioluminescence in Southern California

How and why so many of earth’s creatures make their own light.

Last week, a video went viral showing a small pod of dolphins swimming at night off the coast of Newport Beach. Seeing dolphins off Southern California is not particularly unusual, but this was a very special moment. In the video, the dolphins appear to be swimming through liquid light, their torpedo-shaped bodies generating an ethereal blue glow like a scene straight out of Avatar. The phenomenon that causes the blue glow has been known for centuries, but that in no way detracts from its wonder and beauty. The phenomenon is called bioluminescence, and it is one of nature’s most magical and interesting phenomena. 

Bioluminescence is the production and emission of light by a living organism (thanks, Wikipedia!), and it is truly one of the great magical properties of nature. At its core, bioluminescence is the way animals can visually sense the world around them. It’s all built on vision, one of the most fascinating and useful senses in the animal kingdom. Seeing is impossible without light, and so it makes sense that in the absence of sunlight, some animals created a way to make their own light. 

I have been fascinated by bioluminescence since I was a child growing up near Newport Beach when the occasional nearshore red tide bloom would illuminate the waves like we are seeing now. It’s a truly magical experience. I’ve also experienced bioluminescence in various places around the world, including Thailand, Mexico, and Puerto Rico. In fact, 13 years ago, I made the trip to Puerto Rico’s Vieques Island and its world-famous Mosquito Bay, for the sole purpose of seeing the bay in person and swimming and kayaking in its warm, glowing waters (there is a rental outfit there that does tours at night…it’s amazing. Trust me.)

The phenomenon of bioluminescence is surprisingly common in nature. Both terrestrial and sea animals do it, as do plants, insects (for example, fireflies), and fungi. Curiously, no mammals bioluminesce. That we know of. The ocean is definitely the place that animals and plants bioluminesce the most. Which makes sense because deep in the ocean, there is little or no light. Light is absorbed very quickly in the water, so while on land you might be able to see a single streetlight miles away, after about 800 feet, light largely disappears in the depths of the ocean. I know. I’ve been there

It’s estimated that as many as 90 percent of the animals living in the open ocean, in waters below 1,500 feet, make their own light. Why they do this is in part a mystery, but scientists are pretty sure they understand the basic reasons animals do it: to eat, to not be eaten, and to mate. In other words, to survive. And to communicate. 

Credit: NOAA

The angler fish dangles a lighted lure in front of its face to attract prey. Some squid expel bioluminescent liquid, rather than ink, to confuse their predators. A few shrimp do too. Worms and small crustaceans use bioluminescence to attract mates. When it is attacked, the Atolla jellyfish (Atolla wyvillei) broadcasts a vivid, circular display of bioluminescent light, which scientists believe may be a kind of alarm system. The theory is that the light will attract a larger predator to go after whatever is attacking the jellyfish. While this is still a theory, a 2019 expedition that took the very first images of the giant squid used a fake Atolla jellyfish designed by the scientist Edith Widder to lure the squid into frame. I had the fortune of interviewing Dr. Widder, one of the world’s top experts on bioluminescence, several years ago for the New York Times.   

Edith Widder holds a vial of bioluminescent plankton. Credit: Erik Olsen

Making light is clearly beneficial. That’s why, say evolutionary biologists, it appears that bioluminescence has arisen over forty separate times in evolutionary history. The process is called convergent evolution and is the same reason that bats and birds and insects all evolved to fly independently. Clearly, flying confers a major advantage. So does making light.

While the Internet is awash in images of bioluminescent creatures, very often the term is confused with fluorescence. Even reputable science organizations sometimes do this. Bioluminescence is not the same thing as fluorescence. Fluorescence is the emission of light by a substance that has absorbed light or other electromagnetic radiation. Many animals like scorpions and coral fluoresce, meaning that they appear to glow a bright otherworldly color when blue light is shone on them. The key idea here is that the animals are not generating their own light, but rather contain cells that reflect light in fluorescence.  

Fluorescent (not bioluminescent) scorpion in Baja California, Mexico. Credit: Erik Olsen

So what about the recent explosion of bioluminescence in Southern California? The light we are seeing is made by tiny organisms, type of plankton called dinoflagellates (Lingulodinium polyedra) that occasionally “bloom” off-shore. Often, this is the result of recent storms that bring tons of nutrient-laden runoff into the ocean. The tiny plankton feed on nitrogen and other nutrients that enter the ocean from rivers and streams and city streets. A lot of the nutrients come from California’s vast farms, specifically the fertilizer used to grow California’s fruits and vegetables. With all that “food” coming into the ocean system, the algae rapidly multiply, creating red tides, or vast patches of ocean that turn dark brownish red, the color of pigment in the algae that helps protect it from sunlight. Michael Latz, a scientist at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego, says that the animals use bioluminescence as a predator avoidance behavior. 

Sometimes red tides are toxic and can kill animals and make people sick who swim in the ocean. (That does not appear to be the case in California right now). At night, when they are still, the animals can’t be seen. But when the water is disturbed, which adds oxygen into the mix, a chemical reaction takes place in their bodies that causes luciferin to oxidize and becomes catalyzed to make luciferase, which emits photons or particles of light. It’s not understood exactly how or why this happens, but we do know there are many kids of luciferase. In fact, scientists know the genes that create luciferases and have implanted them into organisms like mice, silkworms, and potatoes so that they glow. They’ve made bioluminescent plants, too.

A shrimp emits a bioluminescent cloud to ward of predators. Credit: NOAA

Perhaps the most magical thing about bioluminescence is that it doesn’t create heat. Almost all the lights we are familiar with, particularly incandescent light, like that from generic light bubs, generate a tremendous amount of heat. Of course, we have learned how to make this heatless chemical light ourselves, easily experienced when you crack and shake a glow stick, mixing together several chemicals in a process similar to the one animals in the ocean use to create bioluminescent light. But the light from glow sticks is not nearly strong enough to illuminate your back yard. In the last few decades, we’ve learned how to make another kind of light that does not produce a great amount of heat: LEDs. Though the process is very different, the concept is the same: talking a molecule or a material and promoting it to an excited state. Where electricity is used, in the case of LEDs, it’s called electroluminescence, where it’s a chemical reaction it’s chemiluminescence, of which bioluminescence is one form. 

Whether you are a religious person or not (I’m not) it’s no coincidence that one of the first things God said was, “Let there be light!” Light and light energy give us plants and animals to eat, and allows us to see. It heats our world, it fuels our cars (oil is really just dead organic material compressed over time, and that organic material would not have existed without sunlight). While some animals deep in the ocean can live without light, most of us cannot. And it’s a rather astounding feat of nature than when there is no light, many of the earth’s creatures have evolved to produce it themselves. If you don’t believe me, just go down to the Southern California shore tonight, and leave your flashlight at home. You won’t need it.

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