A Carlsbad, Calif., beach during the 2005 red tide. The greenish-blue light is caused by millions of microscopic organisms (Lingulodinium polyedrum) that bioluminesce when they are disturbed (as in a breaking wave). Red tides caused by these organisms are not toxic. Photo courtesy of Wikicommons.

By David Mickey

Astronaut Jim Lovell (Apollo 13) owes his life to bioluminescence.

In 1954, flying off the aircraft carrier Shangri-La in the Sea of Japan, Lovell lost all of his cockpit lights and the plane’s directional finder.

In  total darkness, he could not tell where he was.

When his eyes had adjusted to the darkened cockpit, he looked down and saw a faint green glow in the ocean.  He knew immediately it was the ship’s propellers stirring up bioluminescent organisms in the carrier’s wake creating a telltale glow.

Bioluminescence saved Lovell’s life.

Those tiny animals known as phytoplankton, or dinoflagellates, create light not from heat but from a chemical reaction in response to movement in the water. Fireflies, or lightning bugs, have similar abilities.

In the deep ocean, bioluminescence brings light to an otherwise dark world.

In “Ocracoke Wild,” Pat Garber describes how the tiny, single-celled creatures create light using “special organs which release luciferin, a complex protein which acts as a fuel in the presence of the enzyme luciferase.”

Both words derive from the Latin name for the “light-bringer,” Lucifer.

Science fiction fans experienced dramatic bioluminescent special effects on the imaginary world of Pandora in the movie “Avatar.”  Producer and director James Cameron created a variety of plants and animals that generated their own light, including the Na’vi people.

That same glow from the wake of the Shangri-La in the Sea of Japan can be found on beaches around the world, including Ocracoke.

The best time are dark moonless nights after a sunny day during the warm summer months.

Look for the glow in the waves and footprints in the wet sand near the water’s edge.


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