What a trip, the ocean water in Southern California is glowing like a neon blue glow stick... Can you imagine jumping into the ocean and causing the water that you land in to start glowing? Well, this is happening right now in Southern California!
Welcome to the world of bioluminescence science, where mother nature is not just beautiful, but also magical! The word for this is “bioluminescence,” which comes from “bio,” meaning life, and “lumin,” meaning light. Bioluminescence is the natural emission of light by a living organism such as jellyfish, fireflies, mushrooms, and in this case, ocean algae. These glowing ocean algae are called phytoplankton and they glow when they become frightened or startled. When plankton are startled by a predator, or any object for that matter, their response is quite miraculous. Each cell emits a flash of light lasting up to 100 milliseconds, almost like a burglar alarm. Like, “Yo, I’m being attacked, help a plankton out!”
Plankton eject two chemicals, when startled, that combine in the water to create a mystical glow. These are known as the enzyme luciferase and the compound luciferin, and together they cause the plankton to glow at night when they are disturbed. The largest of plankton comes in at about 1 millimeter, which is about the size of the period at the end of this sentence. But don’t write off these little guys yet, when millions of them get disturbed by a dolphin tale, or a surfer, the results are simply magical.
Although this occurrence is somewhat rare, according to the Ocean Exploration and Research group, more than 80% of all ocean animals show some form of luminescence. Plankton is found throughout the ocean, but it's less common for them to amass in large enough concentrations to be noticeable to the human eye. These supernatural ecosystems are revealed when the microscopic algae become startled.
Our easily agitated nervous friends (plankton) aren’t just a pretty face, they have also been found to help to detect disease in humans. When blood or urine from an ill person is combined with these chemicals, it will glow brightly if there are bacteria present. Both cancer cells and tissue that is damaged from heart attacks can be detected by injecting these chemicals into the suspected area of disease.
While researching this blog post, we learned that over 70 species of mushrooms are also bioluminescent. Be on the lookout for that blog post soon.
Shoutout to Patrick Coyne @patrickc_la for capturing this magical and legendary dolphin video! Check out this other legendary video of Dale Huntington night surfing in San Diego.