Night Lights: Bioluminescence

Glowing creatures in Hawaii's seas light up the night.


Story by Shannon Wianecki  |  Photo by Steve Crane

phosphorescenceThe artists who created the luminous forest for the blockbuster movie Avatar could have found plenty of real-life inspiration in Hawai‘i. Hawaiian waters teem with bioluminescent species—corals, squid, fish, worms, plankton, and even sharks that are capable of creating their own light.

The photo above shows dinoflagellates, planktonic organisms, glowing in the surf—a rare sight in Hawai‘i.

The snazziest light producers live in the deep, many fathoms beyond the reach of sunlight. At 3,000 feet below, the seven-foot-long squid Taningia danae flashes brilliant bulbs at the end of its waving arms. Deep-sea bamboo coral emits waves of blue light along its jointed branches.

Bioluminescence is often confused with fluorescence—which occurs when organisms absorb light from an external source and reemit it in a different color. Bioluminescent organisms produce their own light through chemical reaction.

Bioluminescent creatures use their light in different ways. Comb jellies glow green when agitated, while other animals light up to attract mates or prey. The tiny cookiecutter shark uses luminous organs on its underbelly as camouflage; fish swimming below can’t distinguish the shark from the ocean’s bright surface.

You don’t need a deep-sea submersible to see some living light shows for yourself. Take a starlit stroll down the beach and look for greenish-blue sparkles in the surf, or in your wet footprints on the sand. Those are likely dinoflagellates, tiny phytoplankton that drift in the ocean currents. They secrete light-producing chemicals when stepped on, tumbled in the shore break, or stirred in the wake of a passing ship or swimmer. According to local dive-boat operator Don Domingo, the trail of sparkles behind his boat is particularly strong during the summer months. Who says Hawai‘i has a dull nightlife?



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