In Search of Light: Bioluminescent Organisms


“I’ve never seen so many electric jellyfish in all my life!”

The exclamation above was said by the character Ned Plimpton in Wes Anderson’s The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. It’s then explained to him that they’re not electric, they’re bioluminescent. In fact, it’s estimated that about fifty percent of all jellyfish are bioluminescent, and for many, encountering them for the first time can be just as exciting as it is in fiction.

While many bioluminescent organisms can glow in green, red, or orange, they’re typically found to emit a blue hue. This is quite the display when they gather into a beachside nightlight at certain times of year.

The same goes for certain plankton; however, for plankton, they don’t always emit light themselves. Rather, they will shoot glowing liquid into the water when disturbed. It’s believed that this behavior has evolved to cause attacking predators to be distracted and go after the flash rather than the plankton, allowing for the plankton to thrive another day and procreate. On a side note, many of the same plankton use this behavior to attract a mate. The organism which shines the brightest in the night sea gets to carry on.

What’s even cooler? We get to watch it all happen.

Right on the beach…

Or from a kayak when we want to feel like we’re traveling rapidly through space at night…

The blue glow is activated by pretty much any movement. This is because during the day they gather energy from the sun and store it for the nighttime show. Due to their circadian rhythm, the plankton don’t use their energy during the day, allowing them to use the full force of the energy at night.

Moreover, they’re all over the world. People near beaches in the Caribbean, Bahamas, Taiwan, Australia, and the United States have reported seeing the display.

Not near the water? Have a desk lamp that nobody else on your block has. Here’s how to grow you own at home!

In Taiwan, where I live and write, our outlying islands, in particular the Matsu Islands, play host to the glowing spectacle from April until August every year.

Bioluminescents on the shores of Matsu, Taiwan. Photo: Wanru Chen via Getty Images

Visitors come from all over to experience and play with the completely harmless plankton, once believed to be pollution and dubbed “blue tears” by the locals. Contrary to the initial belief, they’re now being researched as a sign of the continuing health of the waters that surround Taiwan. This is especially welcome news in a world where we’re constantly being told that everything is falling apart and we’re goners for sure.

(Side Note: Take care of your local ecosystems.)

While studies have shown that no harm is being evidenced by the “blue tears,” similar blooms, known simply as “harmful algae blooms,” are indicative of organisms thriving in an environment where there are low levels of oxygen present. These blooms, such as the green you might have seen on a lake or the Red Tide of Mexico, can cause massive fish die-offs and need to be dealt with accordingly.

That said, if you find yourself in the unique position of having found some “electric plankton,” go ahead, relax, and enjoy it.

Todd Allen Williams, Senior Editor

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