In Search of Bioluminescence
In early August our dear grandchildren came to camp with us on the shore of Puget Sound. We had a wonderful time hiking, kayaking, and exploring. One of the magical things we experienced was bioluminescence.
By definition, bioluminescence is the production and emission of light by a living organism. Some folks get to see fireflies in the summer. Those of us around marine environments have to look in the water for our “fireflies”.
“Look, the stars have fallen into the sea,” said Christina as all four of us swished our long marshmallow sticks through the water at the edge of the dock.
Ever the literalist, seven-year-old Sasha looked overhead and said, “But the stars are still in the sky!”
“Right, some of them are up above and some of them are down below,” responded Christina.
“Wow, even in total darkness you can see a rock drop way down into the water!” exclaimed 13-year-old Jaden. “What actually makes the light?”
“It is caused by energy released from a chemical reaction inside tiny organisms,” I explained. “When we stir up the water, they get activated.” While I am talking, everyone is busy swishing sticks through the water like magic wands.
“Why do they do this?” asked Jaden.
“Lots of creatures have the ability to produce light—fireflies, jellyfish, even some sharks. These tiny creatures here are called dinoflagellates, a kind of marine plankton. We think they light up to confuse their predators. Other creatures exhibit bioluminescence to attract mates or to attract prey or to aid in hunting.”
We all returned to the beach, turned our headlamps back on, and filled our pockets with rocks. Though it was getting late, our exuberance did not wane for over an hour. Nearing 11:00 p.m., when we were finally satiated with swirling lights in the dark waters, we made the 10-minute walk back to our tent. I complimented Jaden on his persistence.
“It took us three nights to figure out how to find the bioluminescence,” I said. “You were determined and kept me coming back each night. The first night all four of us tried to find it at the end of the dock but it was too choppy and didn’t feel safe to be close to the water. The second night you and I didn’t know to bring sticks. The final night we got everything right. Good job following through!”
On the way back to the tent we paused to lie on the group site picnic tables with our headlamps off so we could see the Milky Way overhead. An infinity of stars, endless possibilities for life beyond what we know, complete silence and darkness.
“I miss Gracie,” said Sasha.
“She is sleeping in her little kennel,” said Christina. “Let’s go back and check on her.”
Soon we are all asleep in the big Grandma tent, a satisfying end to our first camping trip with Sasha, and dreams that sparkled in the night.
Lovely. I would like to see that; I’ve missed fireflies since I left the east coast! Thank you.
Oh, lovely. Thank you for this story of loved ones and loved things and loved things that aren’t things.
I was lucky enough to experience it with my teenage grandchildren too. I live by the Gulf of Mexico and we happened to be walking the shoreline one evening and turned off our flashlights to see this amazing event. It is rare here and we were blessed to witness this phenomenon. Five years later, they still marvel about that night.
This is so lovely. Thank you so for sharing.
This is magical, Ann! My inner little one is enthralled. As she and I were in the land of fire and ice…Thank you.
The first time I experienced Bioluminesence was in 1970 on a Greek Island. It happened at the same time as I experienced my first Periods meteor shower in August. It was truly magical to see the stars seeming to fall into the sea. Every time I experience either again, I am reminded of the magical experience in Greece. I hope to share both with my grandbabies sometime.
always ‘illuminating’ and so inspiring. Thanks for the education….. hopefully will see this one day.
Oh Anne, I hope you get to see it too. Maybe we can “elder” up the river together a ways!
As a child vacationing on the shores of south Whidbey Island, we would dive and swim at night in shimmering, magical light.
Thank you, Nancy! I love knowing another story of Whidbey Island bioluminescence. Knowing the temperature of the water around here, I am impressed that you were actually swimming in the water. We were standing on a dock!
This was just delightful to read, Ann. Thank you!