By Audrey Wilson

Whether you see it as fairy dust in the water or stars in the head, ocean bioluminescence is a fascinating phenomenon.
 
I had my most recent exposure to the remarkable phenomenon called bioluminescence during our beautiful West Coast weather last autumn. It was a crisp, clear night and we were on a mooring buoy at Newcastle Island Marine Park in Nanaimo, when my husband spoke to my love of the night sky and offered to take me for a dinghy ride to see the stars.

We wove our way through the channel between Newcastle and Protection islands to get away from the city and island lights. We made the dinghy comfortable with our portable captain’s chairs, and our small electric motor allowed us a noiseless passage at a relaxed pace. Before lying back and settling in to star gaze, I glanced forward past the bow into the black water and was amazed by another spectacular flashing display of light. This starry show was not in the sky but in the water!

Earlier that day I had noticed a very heavy coating of plankton on the surface of the water but I thought no further about it. At night, the ramifications of that heavy layer were like thousands of tiny, squirming stars in a sea of black! As the dinghy pushed through the water, it produced an explosion of dancing, squiggling light. Doing gentle “donuts,” we created a thin stream of fairy dust that swirled around us, interspersed with remarkably large pieces of bioluminescence the size of snowflakes.

I was aware of the phenomenon of bioluminescence through watching documentaries on television and through an excellent display at the Royal BC Museum in Victoria. However, I had never really taken the time to look at it closely. My glimpse last fall made me curious to understand it more fully.

Upon our return home, I began to research bioluminescence. I spoke with Dr. Dennis Thoney, director of animal operations at the Vancouver Aquarium, and he described bioluminescence briefly as “…light produced by animals by an exothermic chemical reaction that produces energy released as light.” He explained that the group of chemicals that make plankton glow are broadly termed luciferins, and the light is produced by a series of oxidation reactions set off by a catalyst called luciferase. Bioluminescence is a form of “cold light” or luminescence.

Interestingly, fish have bioluminescence which occurs in specific spots on their bodies in relation to their specific function. Fish light up in order to disappear, attract a species-specific mate, or even to defend against a predator, producing a short flash to attract another predator to the creature threatening it. In tropical waters, fish may have a little external ray or “fishing pole” that they can use as a lure for prey.


Brilliant Plankton

A vast range of plankton – both zooplankton and single-celled animal plankton – is known to be bioluminescent and occur in all the world’s oceans. The most common of these are dinoflagellates, tiny unicellular marine plankton. In contrast to fish, their bioluminescence glow fuses fully through the animal; it is usually used to escape but only lasts for a few seconds because it takes a lot of energy to produce the light.

According to Dr. Thoney, the western coasts of the world’s continents are richer in bioluminescent plankton due to greater upwelling. Winds blow from the west across the oceans, pushing surface water away so that more water rises up from beneath the surface to replace it. Sub-surface water is typically colder and richer in nutrients. These nutrients fertilize the surface waters, meaning that they often have high biological productivity. The heaviest concentration of surface life will be in the spring and late summer. Indeed, a “red tide” or plankton bloom such as I saw is rich in dinoflagellates, causing a spectacular nighttime show of bioluminescence.

This phenomenon never fails to delight the uninitiated, no matter how unconventional your first viewing is. My first glimpse of this wonder was one night while using the head! I had left the light off so as not to bother my sleeping husband, used the facilities and then, while flushing, saw an explosion of “sparklies” swirling in the bowl! My peals of giggles woke Calvin and I shared my discovery with him.

If you have never experienced bioluminescence, you may get your first glimpse of “sparklies in the head.” You could try a more conventional method and take a dinghy ride by night. You might even try a night swim or dive in search of more opportunities to see a diverse selection of animals that “light up.” However you do it, remember to stir or disturb those dinoflagellates, then sit back and watch the show!


Audrey Wilson’s first boating experience was living aboard as a child with her parents in the late’60s. She and husband Calvin bought their US Yachts 27 sailboat in 2011 and are discovering, by trial and error, the joys of sailing around Nanaimo and the Gulf Islands.

PHOTO CAPTIONS
Photo 1 - Light shows of bioluminescence in coastal waters are produced by plankton known as dinoflagellates.
Photo 2 & 3 - West Coast dinoflagellates include Ceratium furca (2) andNoctiluca scintillans or “sea sparkle”.

The Victoria Harbour Boat Show is hosted by the British Columbia Yacht Brokers Association (BCYBA) and has grown to become the largest in-the-water boat show on the west coast.    
The sun was just starting to light up the horizon ...
Beneteau America is pleased to announce the ...
PrestoMarine Lifts has announced the launch of ...
FLIR Systems, Inc. has announced the release of ...
Designed to traverse tough terrain with ease, the ...
  • Ron Huibers of Volvo-Penta with Canadian Yachting magazine's Andy Adams
  • Toronto Brigantine Sailing School with Andy Adams of Canadian Yachting
  • Raymarine at 2015 Toronto Boat Show with Canadian Yachting magazine
  • NMMA's Sara Anghel talks to Andy Adams about the Industry Day on the Hill
  • Boating Ontario's Al Donaldson on Changes to Trent Severn-Rideau System with Andy Adams
  • Rec Boat Holdings - Andy Gamble on the Merry Fisher with Canadian Yachting
  • Trent Severn Fuel Sales with Al Donaldson and Andy Adams
  • Discover Boating's Searchable Dealer Database - with Canadian Yachting magazine
  • Cruising Cape Breton and the Bras d'Or Lake Area with Greg Nicoll of Canadian Yachting
  • Ask the Expert - Marine Solar Panels: Power Considerations
  • Biltmore Fibertoon - Campion Boats - with Canadian Yachting magazine
  • Cruising in the SeaRay 310 with Canadian Yachting at the 2015 Miami Boat Show
  • Boating Simulator with John Gullick of CPS-ECP and Andy Adams of Canadian Yachting
  • Regal 2100 with Volvo-Pentas' Forward Facing Drives - Andy Adams of Canadian Yachting
  • How to Select & Install the Solar Charging System on Your Boat -  CY's Ask the Experts
  • Keeping Diesel Fuel Clean Part I: Biocide  - CY's Ask the Experts
  • Flare Disposal with CPS-ECP's John Gullick and Canadian Yachting
  • Shrink Wrapping a 16 ft Glastron Bowrider for Winter Storage
  • Mystic Seaport Museum with Canadian Yachting magazine
  • Marine Museum of the Great Lakes with Canadian Yachting magazine
  • Kingston’s Pumphouse Steam Museum with Canadian Yachting magazine
  • Antique Boat Museum Clayton NY with Canadian Yachting magazine
  • Keeping Diesel Fuel Clean Part II - Filters - Ask the Experts
  • https://youtube.com/devicesupport

Destinations

  • Prev
The sun was just starting to light up the horizon when we departed our home slips in Crystal ...
When we (an Ontario couple) both raised sailing on the Great Lakes and Lake Simcoe,  decided to ...
As an attractive destination for sailors and cruisers alike, Midland Harbour doesn’t really have to ...
We’ve bridled our bowline to a mooring ball in Trellis Bay just off Tortola in the British Virgin ...
Owning a runabout or personal watercraft enables boaters to do unique explorations not possible ...
We met Bobby Sherlock in Ucluelet on the West Coast of Vancouver Island onboard his Hunter 340, ...
We’ve dropped the anchor in the northwest corner of Pillsbury Sound, hard by a channel bisecting ...
Just across the border from Canada’s Gulf Islands – and there’s a story behind that – San Juan is ...
After being without a boat for almost a decade, I decided it was time to own one again. My wife and ...
I was ruined...completely and utterly ruined. At the young age of 22, my very first trip to the ...

Boat Reviews

  • Prev
For the Canadian Yachting readers who are not yet familiar with Beneteau’s broad range of power ...
These pictures are a sneak preview of the new Neptunus 63, which will launch in September and be ...
Bavaria Yachts pride themselves in their German traditions of craftsmanship, efficiency, and ...
As a semi-recent transplant to the Pacific Northwest from New England’s historic waters, I was ...
It is early September, a gray day with the impending threat of rain.  It’s a great day.  The wind ...
There seems to be more and more talk these days about the “bucket list” and amongst people who are ...
While the name Monte Carlo is a new marque in the Canadian marine industry, this newcomer comes ...
I have had the pleasure of going through the Cruiser's Yachts design department in Oconto, ...
The new Jeanneau 64, flagship of the Jeanneau yacht line takes things to yet another level. This is ...
The latest designs stress versatility and the brand new Chris-Craft Catalina 34 is another example ...

DIY & How to

  • Prev
Winterizing your boat in the fall is important and may be a daunting task for some boat owners.  ...
Boaters who prefer to be on the hook, such as ourselves in our Islander 36 sailboat Holole’a, ...
Will traditional paper charts soon be a thing of the past? And what will that mean for recreational ...
With built in functions for radar, weather, chart plotters, engine data, and radio controls, boat ...
Understanding how systems really work – and degrade over the winter – can help you prepare your ...
The Interlux® Boat Paint Guide has gone digital with the launch of a free app for Apple® IOS and ...
Convenient, Cool and Low-cost!From simple organizational Apps for your smart phone to complete ...
Navigation light repairs and replacements you can do yourself.In researching this article, we spoke ...
If you are new to boating, how do you start searching for the right boat at boat shows? We put the ...

Environment

  • Prev
Boating and astronomy can be a match made in the heavens. The inky black canvas above the boat is ...
The 30,000 Islands of Georgian Bay is a boater’s dream destination with crystal clear waters, ...
New rules severely restrict where and how salt-water boaters can discharge sewage. Is your boat ...
Many Canadian Yachting readers have likely experienced the beauty of British Columbia’s Gulf ...
Many newspaper headlines appeared in the spring of 2012 with these two names highlighted. The ...
Investing in a reusable winter cover is a sound environmental choice and a practical way to ...
I’m on vacation! Things can turn ugly in paradise when you finally reach that secluded anchorage. ...
I've been a pilot for 37 years and spent 28 years flying passenger aircraft for the airlines ...
There's been lots of talk about electric boats recently, but few examples are actually out on the ...
I think it’s a given that as a Canadian Yachting reader, you are passionate about ...

Lifestyle

  • Prev
An artist is able to visualize their thoughts and interpretations through their mind’s eye to ...
My early reading about sailing explorers and fur trading voyageurs gave me a desire to travel by ...
An interest to be on the water, do things on the water, and enjoy it with friends who like to do ...
You won’t find a prettier site in all of Canada (although I am sure that the west coast sailors ...
Imagine a club that has been around for 125 years, that used to rent their club house, finally ...
If you are ready to start your Holiday baking or just plain need a great chocolate fix these ...
It doesn’t seem to matter if you are on the east coast, in the Prairies, or on the west coast, ...
An easy salmon dish with homemade teriyaki sauce and a Sriracha cream sauce that will knock your ...
Soup season is in full swing and this Tomato Tortellini Soup with Pesto is just the recipe to warm ...
This flavour-infused pasta dish is terrific for any season.  It takes a little bit of prep time but ...

Marine Products

  • Prev
PrestoMarine Lifts has announced the launch of their new platform, the PML platform. The PML ...
FLIR Systems, Inc. has announced the release of the new Raymarine eS Series line of HybridTouch™ ...
Designed to traverse tough terrain with ease, the Pelican ProGear™ 45QW Elite Cooler has 8” (20 cm) ...
Jim Burgoyne and Lynne Picard launched the little company in 2011 after sailing home from Asia. ...
Cruisers Yachts, a division of KCS International, Inc., announces the 59 Cantius, setting a ...
It's great to add lighting without drilling holes, running wires or worrying about draining ...
Boat owners no longer need to think about misplaced chargers or outlet clutter. Hubbell Marine's ...
Osborne Propellers Ltd of North Vancouver has developed an innovative product for boat owners to ...
Canadian Yachting’s John Armstrong visited Neptunus Yachts in St. Catharines. Pictured is Jan ...
Pelican Products, Inc. has introduced rugged Pelican ProGear™ Voyager cases for both the Apple iPad ...