Vancouver fireworks may be cancelled this year, but that doesn’t mean you can’t still take in a spectacular nighttime light show. Don’t look up, look down!

One of the most amazing natural phenomena on the west coast is right under our noses. But unless you’re a real night owl, chances are you probably haven’t seen it yet. Bioluminescence on the west coast is best seen lighting up the ocean on dark summer nights through glowing plankton. Who said Vancouver has no nightlife?

Bioluminescent creatures produce and emit light, usually to attract prey or evade predators¹. Maybe you’ve seen that Blue Planet video of the deep sea Anglerfish. You know, the one that looks like it has a lightbulb on a fishing rod stuck to its head? That’s bioluminescence!

Here’s a video of what bioluminescent plankton, or "Sea Sparkle", looks like:

I remember the first time I saw bioluminescence. My dad jumped off a dock fully clothed to show me and my brother how the water shone and glittered around him. I remember thinking he looked like he was swimming between two night skies. My complete wonder probably sounded a lot like that screaming man in the youtube video.

The critters most commonly sparkling along the shores of the Pacific Northwest late at night are a type of marine phytoplankton called dinoflagellates. Dinoflagellates are tiny marine algae part of the vast array of phytoplankton that float around near the surface of the water². Most of the time these microalgae float around and get eaten by just about anything larger than plankton, which makes them the basis of the food chain since dinoflagellates are single-celled organisms. While their main function is to feed just about everything else under the sun, they do have a few defense mechanisms and glowing happens to be one of them.

Image: Dinoflagellates

The flash is intended to invite another predator in the area over to the creature disturbing or attempting to eat the dinoflagellate, or at least to cause some distraction³. Lucky for us humans, we have a few more brain cells than plankton and are not intimidated by a flashy show – though intrigued, yes.  

That fraction of a second spark occurs through a simple chemical reaction within the body of the organism. Plankton need three things to light up: Oxygen, a compound called luciferin, and an enzyme called luciferase. The chemical reaction of these three elements produces energy, which is emitted as visible light⁴.

You don’t need to go swimming to experience its magic. Any agitation, for instance whirling a stick around in water, will cause mechanical stress and trigger luminescence. The best places and times to see bioluminescence in action locally this summer will be any beach without a lot of light pollution and around the days surrounding the new moon, when the night sky will be darker. The next new moon is tuesday, August 18th. Bioluminescence is also strongest during algae blooms, or red tides, but we don't suggest swimming then. Places west of the city, like Locarno, Jericho, Spanish Banks, or Acadia Beach (wreck) are safer bets for an easily accessible evening light show. Even better if you know some secret spots outside the city in North or West Vancouver. And if the plankton isn’t luminescing that night, hey - life ain’t so bad, you’re by the water. 

Remember:

  • Obey beach and park rules. If the park is closed after dark, please abide by local laws.
  • Make plans to explore bioluminescence with someone in your bubble. For all sorts of reasons, it’s best not to travel alone at night.
  • Use good judgement and wear a life jacket if you do choose to swim at night. If you are not a strong swimmer, wave a stick around in the water instead. Waves, currents, and hazards are extremely difficult to see at night.
  • Bring a flashlight for safety. Turn off the flashlight once you’ve arrived at your destination. Any light will lessen or completely diminish your ability to see bioluminescence.
  • Tag, mention, or dm us on Instagram, twitter, or facebook and let us know if you get lucky and spot some bioluminescence!

Sources:

  1. https://www.nationalgeographic.org/encyclopedia/bioluminescence/
  2. https://www.florida-adventurer.com/blog/fun-facts-about-dinoflagellates
  3. https://askabiologist.asu.edu/glow-dark-plankton
  4. http://photobiology.info/Branchini2.html#:~:text=In%20some%20way%20that%20has,one%20oxygen%20atom%20from%20molecular , https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/how-and-why-do-fireflies/

Thanks to our supporters

  • Lush
  • MEC
  • Patagonia
  • Smak
  • Tides
  • Sitka
  • Woodtone
  • TD Friends of the Environment
  • Telus
  • Progressive Waste Solutions
  • Ocean Ambassadors
  • RBC Blue Water Project
  • BC Hydro
  • DM Foundation
  • City of North Vancouver
  • Jack Johnson
  • Flowlink