How to see bioluminescence in the ocean

Ten years ago, I was out paddling in the Bay of Islands, New Zealand when I noticed a distinctive sparkle emitting from the ocean. I later learned that this was a microalgae that emits a bioluminescent blue glow when disturbed at night. I later witnessed this phenomenon again in Vanuatu and dreamed of somehow photographing it.

Today, this dream became reality. Nature put on one of the best shows of bioluminescence I have seen – anywhere. Better still, I had the right gear with me and captured some stunning photos.

I’ve had so many questions, I thought I’d put together a mini-guide on how you too can witness the aurora of the sea.

Where can I observe bioluminescence?

Bioluminescent plankton lives in all world’s oceans, however it is best seen in locations including South Australia (Tasmania), The Maldives, Puerto Rico, Thailand (Krabi area), Florida and parts of California and of course my home country of New Zealand.

Bioluminescence observed near Auckland, New Zealand

What conditions are required?

The precursor is generally plenty of wet weather (or a storm) that generates run-off from the land and creates nutrient-rich waters. You’ll then need a hot, calm day. Often people observe patches of pink or red in the ocean during the day. Follow social media as often locals will post reports if they see anything.

Is is visible to the naked eye?

Yes! But often you’ll often need to disturb the water before you’ll see it. When there is a significant bloom, you’ll witness it in the waves and sand.

 

How can I capture amazing photos?

Forget your cellphone. I’ve tried and have been disappointed every time. You’re going to need a decent camera and lens (with low aperture) and a tripod that you don’t mind getting wet. I typically set an ISO between 2500-4000. F/2.8 and shutter 5-10 secs. Overall, it’s hard to capture, so don’t be too hard on yourself. Take a flashlight to help you focus also.

 

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