Bioluminescence: What is it and Where to See it

Bioluminescence is light that is created and emitted by living organisms. It is useful to a multitude of creatures found in the world’s oceans, for functions ranging from feeding to defense, as well as communication and reproduction… and it is so beautiful to see!

Natural bioluminescence is an incredible phenomenon to witness whether you are on a boat or in the water. We are going to look at how bioluminescence is created, its uses in the ocean, and  some fantastic locations to add to your travel list to see it for yourself.

Ready to glow?

What is bioluminescence?

If you have ever seen bioluminescence, no doubt the neon greens and electric blues will be etched onto your mind, and if you have not, then we hope to inspire you to track it down on your next trip. But what actually creates this natural light show?

Organisms have evolved to be able to produce chemicals called ‘luciferins’. These chemicals will create light as they combine with oxygen in the water upon release. Alongside this, a chemical catalyst called ‘luciferase’ is released, which speeds up the oxidation of the luciferin and consequently creates more bioluminescence for us to enjoy.

The majority of bioluminescence that humans see and interact with is created by a small planktonic organism called ‘noctiluca’. These tiny creatures when concentrated will appear in some pretty dramatic light shows, including glowing waves, neon high tide lines, illuminated boat wash from propellers, and electric hues wash through your fingers if you scoop up a handful. It is thought that the presence of these chemicals in the bodies of the planktonic organisms is a deterrent to their own predators. 

Do you know the difference between hard coral and soft coral? Find out here: Hard Coral vs Soft Coral: What’s the Difference?

Bioluminescence is very prominent in the deepest parts of the world’s oceans as the dark depths cut off from the sun rays require a manufactured light source to be visible. 

Some animals have started using the bioluminescence light for different purposes. One fish targets its prey using a glowing lure as bait. Anglerfishes have a rod-like appendage on their forehead which has a small clump of cells containing bioluminescent bacteria, they flick it back and forth to entice prey to come closer toward them. Little does the prey know that underneath the lure is a cavernous mouth with thousands of needle sharp teeth waiting to snap up anything that comes too close. 

Flashlight fishes are nocturnal and live in very deep water, they have small bioluminescent sacs under their eyes. They have a small flap of skin or an internal pouch that they can cover the sac up with to regulate their usage of the light. Scientists believe that the fish use their bioluminescence to communicate to one another and also confuse predators.

Do you know the difference between a squid and an octopus? Check this out: Squid Vs Octopus: What is the difference?

Squids have many documented uses of bioluminescence including the small but incredibly beautiful firefly squid from Japan. It utilizes its ability to emit light from its photophores to break up its body outline against the light from the surface, and so predators that are below the squid are less likely to identify it. Modern day naval espionage systems use a similar principle to counter their subs being detected.

Small planktonic creatures called ‘copepods’ will often release their bioluminescent chemicals into the water as they are being pursued by a predator. This can confuse the predator and allow the prey to flee. It has also been observed to have in effect painted the predator in light, which usually ends up with them becoming prey themselves!

7 best places around the world to see bioluminescence

If you would love to see some bioluminescence for yourself, here is a list of seven of the best places to head for.

1. Toyama Bay, Japan

Between the months of March to June the firefly squid are present in Toyama Bay, Japan in their thousands. They can be seen on the shoreline, or the port authority also offers boat trips departing at 3am to catch a sight of this beautiful natural phenomenon. Fly into Tokyo and then take the Hokuriku Shinkansen from Tokyo Station to get there. The ride takes approximately two hours and is covered by the Japan Rail Pass. 

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2. Matsu islands, Taiwan

The Matsu Islands in Taiwan have a beautiful concentration of noctiluca dinoflagellates every year from June to September, all visible from boat trips or shore based activities as well. Taiwanese officials have set the Island of Beigan as the main hub to travel to to get out on the water to see the bioluminescence. The island is accessible by frequent flights and ferries, but as it is a popular place to visit it is always advised that tourists book in advance to avoid disappointment.

3. Luminous Lagoon, Jamaica

A luminous lagoon in Northeast Jamaica stretches along the coast between the settlement of Rock and the town of Falmouth. Huge concentrations of Noctiluca dinoflagellates are found in this inland waterway with the disturbance of boats causing a beautiful illumination of the water. Accessing Luminous Lagoon is easy, with direct flights into the tourist hub of Montego Bay to the east, and then just a short minibus ride. As Luminous Lagoon is a popular destination most hotels or accommodations in the area will likely offer trusted operators for this excursion. 

4. Mudhdhoo Island, Maldives

Mudhdhoo Island  is located on Baa Atoll in the Maldives chain. This luxury resort island is renowned for its bioluminescent beach, and has garnered the nickname of ‘the most romantic beach in the world’. This is also the work of the Noctiluca dinoflagellate. Accessing the Maldives is simple, with hundreds of international flights available to the airport of Male. Mudhdhoo is approximately a 35 minute seaplane ride away from the international airport.

Want more romantic spots for you and your loved one? Here are 6 Romantic Dive Locations for Valentine’s Day.

5. Koh Rong, Cambodia

Koh Rong, a small island in the gulf of Cambodia, has notable bioluminescent displays on some of its beaches. It is best viewed on beaches with the least light pollution, away from the tourist areas. Boat trips are easily booked from tourist areas such as Koh Touch for five to ten dollars per person. The phenomenon is seen year round and getting there is simple, with five different operators for ferries from Sihanoukville that take approximately one hour to arrive at Koh Rong.

6. Vieques, Puerto Rico

Vieques in Puerto Rico is one the most well known destinations for bioluminescence on the planet. The bioluminescence here is created by a dinoflagellate but a different species (pyrodinium). Vieques achieved the Guinness world record for the brightest bioluminescent bay on the planet (2006), and is a national natural landmark in Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico is served by multiple international carriers and has plenty of accommodation options available. The bay is on the south of the Island, closest to the town of Esperanza. Tours are conducted by kayak buy local operators, with the phenomenon on show year round.

Fancy a trip to Belize? Take a look at this: Belize Blue Hole: The Ultimate Diving Guide

7. Bio Bay - Grand Cayman

Grand Cayman holds many fantastic marine life opportunities and the ‘Bio Bay tour’ is not one to miss. Situated at Rum Point on the north side of the island, this small bay has a very narrow entrance and frequently collects vast concentrations of dinoflagellates that emit their glow when disturbed. A short flight from Miami, Grand Cayman has many hotels, apartments, and condos to choose from. Some tour operators can ferry guests across from the west side, where the majority of accommodation can be found. The phenomenon can be seen year round in the Cayman islands so what are you waiting for?

Where will you go to see some bioluminescence?