Get Glowing: Where to Find Bioluminescence Around the World
Shimmering seas, blinking bays, and twinkling tides. You’ve seen this glow-in-the-dark phenomenon in films from “Avatar” to “Life of Pi” to even the animated “Moana”—and maybe you’ve also been lucky enough to experience it in person. Whatever the case, and wherever the setting, bioluminescence is a magical sight to behold. But what exactly is it, and where are the best places to ensure you can encounter it up close? Here, we explore the science behind the seemingly otherworldly bioluminescent light that appears in bodies of water around the world. And, we share a few of our favorite places where you can see it for yourself.
What is Bioluminescent Light?
The simplest explanation for this natural marvel is that it’s the product of various complex chemical reactions that produce light. According to National Geographic, these reactions occur within (and in some cases, between) living organisms, such as fish, jellyfish, bacteria, and even fireflies and fungi. It’s interesting to note that most of the marine organisms that are capable of producing such light reactions are found in the ocean, and that freshwater habitats are generally considered inhospitable to bioluminescent organisms. Essentially, none are native to freshwater.
How It Works
Now, for an enormously oversimplified look at the chemistry behind oceanic bioluminescence. As National Geographic explains, the marine phenomenon involves two specific chemicals: one known as luciferin (an enzyme, and the source of the eventual light production), combined with either luciferase or photoprotein.
While some bioluminescent organisms produce luciferin themselves, others depend on other nearby organisms to synthesize it. Regardless, the enzyme luciferin ultimately interacts with either of the other two chemicals present, with the former acting as what’s known as the “catalyst” in this chemical relationship, while the latter (either luciferase or photoprotein) act as the “substrate.” In the process of this chemical reaction, its byproduct emits the light that we know as bioluminescence.
How Long Does Bioluminescent Light Last?
While a few kinds of organisms are capable of continuously producing bioluminescence (for example, certain species of fungi on land), most produce light in very short bursts. These illuminations can range anywhere from 10 seconds or so, to flashes of less than a second—the latter of which produce that twinkling, starry effect that many of us think of when picturing the phenomenon.
Where to See Bioluminescence
Now for the fun part: where you can experience these sparkling, milky seas for yourself!
The truth is, it’s possible to come across bioluminescence in any number of marine environments, and it can seem to occur so randomly that it might feel, at times, like true serendipity just to see it. Still, there are a few places around the world where you can just about count on it. Here are a few of our favorites.
Mosquito Bay, Puerto Rico
If you’re looking for the most out-of-this-world glow-in-the-dark experience, this is the place to start. This tranquil region, located off the southern coast of Puerto Rico’s sister island of Vieques, is home to some of the brightest bioluminescence in the world. In fact, Mosquito Bay has held the Guinness World Record for it since 2006. The effect is thanks to the native plankton in these waters, which emit a bright blue light when gently disturbed. You can arrange kayak or small boat tours through responsible operators, which enable you to see it up close without harm to the delicate environment.
San Juan Islands, Washington
On the West Coast, the calm waters that compose Wescott and Garrison Bays are home to incredibly biodiverse marine life. As a result, the bays are filled with nutrients that feed and sustain a variety of bioluminescent organisms—many of which have been known to emit visible light from the twilight hours and well into the night. Book a tour through a San Juan Island operator, and aim for the summer months if possible. These times allow for more comfortable touring temperatures.
Waitomo Caves, New Zealand
While considerably farther away, this bioluminescent experience is well worth the jetlag. It differs from many other such marine attractions, because in this case, the light you’ll see is actually being cast by a particular native species of glow worms (Arachnocampa luminosa), rather than by marine organisms, such as bioluminescent bacteria or plankton. Located about 2.5 hours from Auckland on the North Island, you can arrange a boat tour through the three caves in this system, but don’t miss the most spectacular of these, aptly named Glowworm Cave.
The Space Coast, Florida
For those who live in the states, Florida’s Space Coast offers an incredible bioluminescent experience that’s a bit closer to home. Located on the Atlantic coast, and so named because it is home to Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral, the region has several brackish bodies of water that are home to bioluminescent organisms that light up the night sky. For the best viewing experience, book a paddling or kayaking tour in Mosquito Lagoon, Indian River Lagoon, or the Banana River. In these quiet waters, you’re also likely to spot a variety of marine life, including dolphins and even manatees. Aim for a late-night visit between June and October when the native dinoflagellates and other marine organisms cast the most vibrant and visible blue lights of the year.
Luminous Lagoon, Jamaica
Situated between the popular tourist towns of Ocho Rios and Montego Bay along Jamaica’s northern coast, you’ll find this tiny lagoon just outside of Falmouth. Here in these protected waters, its name truly fits, with nightly displays of vibrant illumination in spectacular shades of blue and green. The bioluminescence here is thanks to a kind of microorganism known as dinoflagellates, and you can experience them up close via nightly boat tours—or even slide in for a gentle swim in the shimmering sea. It’s completely safe to swim among the bioluminescent organisms, and it’s an experience you’re sure to remember for a lifetime.
San Diego and La Jolla, California
On the West Coast, the postcard-perfect shores of San Diego and La Jolla light up with a dazzling display of bioluminescence—if you can time your visit just right, that is. While it’s known to be a recurring phenomenon in this region, the native plankton and algae emit light only occasionally, with some years being particularly luminous and others, not so. When the tides do turn a radiant blue here, though, it’s truly a sight to behold. For the best chance of seeing the vibrant shades of sparkling cyan and turquoise here, check online to see if the blue light has been spotted that month. Then head to the San Diego pier well after dark (think: 11 pm or so when the sun has long since set) to observe the glowing tidal waves.
Bioluminescent Basics: What You Need to Know
To get the most out of any bioluminescent experience, there are a few tips to keep in mind.
- While peak times may vary by location, it’s best to time your visit late at night. The darkness around you allows the bioluminescence to truly radiate.
- In many parts of the northern hemisphere, the months of June to October tend to offer peak conditions for seeing bioluminescence—with July through September offering some of the brightest and most dazzling displays. Check with a trusted tour operator in your desired location to confirm when the peak months are in that region.
- Time your trip around a New Moon phase of the month when possible.
- Bring a flashlight or small camping-style headlamp with you to ensure you can safely reach the waterfront (and your kayak, stand-up paddle board, tour boat, or other vessel, when taking a tour on the water). It will be useful to have with you, but be sure to keep it turned off once you’re on the water so you can see the bioluminescence clearly.
- Depending on your location, pack a few layers of clothing in case it’s cool on the water.
Ready to Get Glowing?
These marine phenomena (and many more!) are easy to find—and safe to explore—with the right tour guides who operate responsibly in their local areas. Experiencing bioluminescence really is as easy as booking a tour. The hard part is simply choosing where to go.