The Lights Above, the Lights Below

Bad Astronomy
The entire universe in blog form
July 3 2014 7:30 AM

Liquid Light Show

Star trails and dinoflagellate trails.

Photo by Alex Cherney, from the video

When you go outside at night, it’s easy to think that the big show is going on over your head. But sometimes there may be just as much going on if you look down … especially if you visit Wilsons Promontory National Park in Victoria, Australia. Tiny creatures that live in the water there are bioluminescent, giving off a blue glow when disturbed.

If you set up a camera and take a time-lapse video, as Alex Cherney did, you get a bit of magic from both directions:


The critters in this case are dinoflagellates (a type of plankton) called Noctiluca scintillans, or Sea Sparkle. They’re protists, single-celled micro-organisms, and they flourish in various places around the globe (including other spots in Australia). The bioluminescence is caused by an enzyme reaction when the dinoflagellates are disturbed.

Phil Plait Phil Plait

Phil Plait writes Slate’s Bad Astronomy blog and is an astronomer, public speaker, science evangelizer, and author of Death From the Skies!  

I’ve seen this phenomenon myself. Last year, my family traveled to Puerto Rico as a vacation/site visit for a possible Science Getaways trip (sadly, logistics precludes holding a Getaway there). On the advice of Jenny Lawson, aka The Bloggess (yeah, that link may be somewhat NSFW, which is true of everything within a three kilometer radius of Jenny), we went to the island of Vieques, which is the home of Mosquito Bay, where bioluminescent critters abound in the water. Every time we dipped our oar in the water it left an electric blue swath curlicuing its way behind us. Fish darting through the water looked like reflected meteors sparking across the sky. It was mesmerizing.

As an astronomer, I sometimes forget that as vast and sprawling as the Universe is when we look up, there is every bit as interesting and enthralling a cosmos below, too. It’s worth remembering that we lumbering humans occupy the midpoint between the vast and the infinitesimal.

Tip o’ the lens cap to Symone Reisner.



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