When Oceans Glow In The Dark

Oct 24, 2011 By Deepa Gopal

For nearly 400 years, mariners have talked about oceans turning milky, blue or red as their ships sailed thought the waters of the Pacific or Indian Ocean. The phenomenon even appears in Jules Verne's "20,000 League Under the Sea"! Last month, surfers off the coast of California caught pictures of blue and red ocean waves. 

Scientists now know that these glows are caused by "bioluminescent" bacteria known as dinoflagellates. When billions of these creatures join together, the oceans may turn brown during the day, but they are a sight to behold at night time. 

What is bioluminescence?

Bioluminescence is the ability of a living organism to emit light. The most common color of bioluminescent light produced by marine organisms is blue, which is also the color that penetrates farthest through water. In "milky seas," this light appears white because the human eye cannot discriminate colors at night time. 

Scientists had not understood what exactly causes these bacteria to glow, until now. When there is any movement in the ocean water -- say a wave or a surfer swimming through the waters, the disturbance sends little electric pulses through the cells of the bacteria. This causes the release of luciferase, a protein in the cells, that produces light. 

Are there other such glowing creatures?

Many of you may have seen fireflies or glow worms at night. However, most bioluminescent creatures live in the oceans, in the poorly lit twilight zone. In some parts of the ocean, these glowing creatures are the only source of light.

Why do these creatures glow? It may be to find food, find a mate, attract prey, communicate or as a self defense. One theory suggests that when small fishes eat a bioluminescent plankton, it emits a light to attract larger fish that might prey on the smaller fishes!

Researchers have been exploiting the fluorescent nature of the bacteria to develop living ink -- a way to encode secret messages and for anti-counterfeiting. Simple messages can be encoded by genetically engineering bacteria to produce different fluorescent colored proteins, which can then be observed under the correct wavelength of light. 

Here is a wonderful video on some amazing deep-sea creatures that exhibit bioluminescence.

 
BladeNinja   31 weeks ago

thats cool how the ocean water lights up!

ciaobella   31 weeks ago

That looks cool! Maybe I'll see that sometime. I'm going to Atlanta!

JENNAH H_C   2 years ago

isn't that sky and not ocean in the 1st pic

Rachel Catherine   2 years ago

I've seen this before in California. It was so beautiful! :)

JENNAH H_C   2 years ago

i like this article. it is such a cool article. was the bacteria from the fish and stuff?

devaughnb   2 years ago

Thats realy cool I wish I could see it.

felixn   2 years ago

i learned that there are creatures that glow in the dark

Writerstime   2 years ago

that is sooo cool!

paulkim   2 years ago

That cool!Glow in the the dark backteria must be the most unique type of bacteria

Caramel-Marek   2 years ago

Glow in the dark water... that reminds me of 'Nim's Island.'

lona   2 years ago

I would have never thought that an ocean would glow in the dark. Talk about amazing. I would love to surf in a glow in a dark ocean. My biggest dream!!!!

quandale   2 years ago

I hate bacteria but liked the way they explained the ships. I liked the picture it looks beautiful

sadie   2 years ago

For nearly 400 years, mariners have talked about oceans turning milky, blue or red as their ships sailed thought the waters of the Pacific or Indian Ocean. The phenomenon even appears in Jules Verne's "20,000 League Under the Sea"! This is very interesting and maybe I will see it sometime.That is amazing, just imagine how many other creatures are out there right now that we have not discovered yet!

Clara1   2 years ago

Maybe i will see that some day...

Clara1   2 years ago

I love this!! It is so interesting!!

patienceh   2 years ago

I bioluminescent comb jellyfish in Block Island, Rhode Island. It was really cool! This sounds awesome, too, though.

diamond   2 years ago

I have never seen the oceans glow before. I have seen fishes that have the colorful antenna that flashes. i thought it was a chemical component that was creating the light.

evan4   2 years ago

i didnt know that red tide was deadly wow that is amazing that so cool like to see it one time

quinnb (not verified)   2 years ago

Really bacteria? wow, loved the video and article!!!  <(*_*<)

5thAngel   2 years ago

Okay, Now a couple of things first: I thought that red tide was poisonous. And second: I read Dark Life, and in it they eat the bioluminescent fish and they get a shine. (which everyone wants to just stare at Ty (main character) for)

Editor   2 years ago

You are absolutely right about red tides -- they are caused by algae blooms. The reason they are dangerous is because algae remove oxygen from the water and release toxins that can be harmful to humans.

owenh   2 years ago

That is amazing, just imagine how many other creatures are out there right now that we have not discovered yet!

jackm   2 years ago

i know. it is amazing

AnikaP   2 years ago

I have seen the water light up sometimes and I have always wondered why. It is so fascinating! Maybe people can start using water for new purposes other than hydroelectric power.

chingling   2 years ago

I live near the ocean and there are bioluminescent jelly fish! Whenever you move anything around in the water ( like what the article said) they light up :) It is really cool and they are completely harmless.

Really cool article! Love the video.

Hummingbirdy22   2 years ago

Yeah, the jelly fish are so weird!!! And they fall apart when you pick them up. Gross :)

chingling   2 years ago

haha yep Do you think they have any feeling since they are pretty much just bioluminescent blobs.

Tessa   2 years ago

Cool, I have done some research on deep sea creatures and they are reallly awsome! Boy, that would be so weird and cool, having the water light up under you wherever you go!!!

Sammy02   2 years ago

I hope I am lucky to see such a spectacle some day.

Clara1   2 years ago

I agree!

18tessacliffe   3 years ago

That is so cool! I would like to see that some time.

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Fast Fact

Bioluminescence is a hybrid word originating from the Greek bios for "living" and the Latin lumen "light". 

For more on bioluminescence, here is a wonderful resource

UCSB's Biolum Web Page