What is bioluminescent tourism?

Each year, tour operators gear up for “bioluminescence season” in a handful of destinations around the world. It’s a phenomenon almost as old as time itself, but – according to a recent study by travel agency and online research system Next Vacay, which sought to determine the most popular bioluminescent destinations on Instagram – Google searches for terms like “how to see bioluminescence” have increased by up to 400% over the past year, indicating renewed interest in the natural, luminous feel.

Russell Markel, PhD, is a marine ecologist who has spent his life and career studying, exploring and sailing the coast of British Columbia, Canada. He is also the owner and operator of Outer Shores Expeditions, a ship-based educational ecotourism business that combines Markel’s experience, education, and passions to create experiences centered on education, awareness, and recreation. ‘stewardship.

Outer Shores Expeditions offers are diverse and numerous. They explore some of the most remote stretches of British Columbia’s coastline, in particular the Haida Gwaii archipelago, what is known as the Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve and National Marine Protected Areas, and the Grand Bears in Canada. Guests are invited to explore ecosystems, learn about wildlife, and address conservation questions and concerns with the help of marine ecologists, marine mammal specialists, cultural interpreters, or archaeologists coastal. They encounter tidal pools on the shore, seabirds, whales, grizzly bears, spirit bears, and, among other things, bioluminescence.

We spoke to Markel about all things bioluminescence: what it is, the best destinations to see it in action, and the perfect time of year. Below is everything you need to know before your next visit to the bioluminescent variety.

(Note that it has been edited and condensed for clarity):

What exactly is bioluminescence?

Bioluminescence is a phenomenon that occurs in a wide range of flora and fauna. It is found in microscopic algae, fungi, fish and a wide range of invertebrates (marine invertebrates, in particular, but also some terrestrial invertebrates).

Indeed, it describes the ability of the aforementioned organisms to produce cold, blue light. It’s a biochemical reaction, which results from a substrate called luciferin, being mixed with an enzyme called luciferase. When these two molecules combine with energy from animal cells, they produce light.

In fact, it is one of the few known systems where light can be produced without producing heat. Of course, all of that is changing with the latest LED technology, but nature – from fireflies to angler fish – figured this out millions of years ago. That said, most bioluminescent tours involve seeing masses of single-celled algae called dinoflagellates (of which there are many species) that produce bioluminescence.

Jervis Bay, Australia


Where is this algae most often found?

In the broader category, these single-celled algae are known as phytoplankton – or rather microscopic sea plants. Like all plants (although they are not real plants), they use the sun’s energy to produce their own energy sources. They need sunlight, along with other essential nutrients like carbon, nitrogen, and phosphorus, to survive.

Now tropical seas tend to be quite nutrient depleted. Alternatively, off the west coast of North America – from Baja to the coast of British Columbia and Alaska – the oceans are colder and more temperate. In spring and summer, winds that circulate in conjunction with the earth’s rotation cause surface waters to move away from the land’s oceans. As a result, this water that is pushed away from the earth has to be replaced, and this is done with water drawn from the depths, which happens to be extremely nutrient dense.

The whole process is called coastal upwelling and it’s a recipe for very high production, which is called primary productivity. In short, this is why bioluminescence tends to be more abundant seasonally, from spring to summer, and in areas of higher latitude.

That’s not to say that bioluminescence isn’t prevalent in the tropics – it is – but the difference is that it can be a slight pinch of light in some places in the tropics, whereas I scuba dive at night and it’s like you’re in a light snowstorm. It’s so – it’s thick, massive, shiny. Bubbles light up, every time you move you are illuminated. Everything explodes with bioluminescence, so there’s definitely a gradient.

That said, the western margins of continents above or below the equator – so the west coast of North America starting about 30 degrees north from California to British Columbia and the Alaska, or 30 degrees south off the coasts of Chile and Peru – are areas that have the most incredible upwelling systems on the planet, and therefore the highest regions of phytoplankton productivity and bioluminescence.

Yellow Sea Bioluminescent Beach

Yellow Sea Bioluminescent Beach


Does the appearance of bioluminescent light vary depending on the habitat and organism it is in?

Phytoplankton and dinoflagellates are ubiquitous in the ocean. They are everywhere, but most abundant in those areas where you are likely to get high levels of nutrients that support their productivity. That said, they are completely different from jellyfish or deep-sea fish or zooplankton.

So while bioluminescence is found in all of these different organisms, yes, it stands to reason that it would vary by habitat and organisms.

How come these simple organisms are able to do this?

From the perspective of ecological and evolutionary ecology, bioluminescence has long been a subject of interest and answers as to its origin are still varied.

In the case of phytoplankton, it is likely a defense mechanism. When zooplankton appear and start chewing on it, it flashes in hopes of scaring off predators. In other cases, such as with zooplankton, they probably blink to attract some mate. In yet other cases, it is a camouflage mechanism. Blending in with the ambiance makes it harder for predators to find them. Then there are the angling fish – complex vertebrates with small, shiny, dangling fish lures dangling from their heads – that actually use bioluminescence to attract prey.

All this to say that even in the absence of a uniform explanation for its existence, the evolution of bioluminescence is fascinating.

There is a huge conversation to be had about eco-friendly tourism and ecotourism. Is it common here? What should people pay attention to?

Much of the experience tour operators refer to comes from being on a beach at night and seeing the waves crash and light up, or walking on a beach in the dark and seeing your footprints. not light up, or to travel in a ship and see the ship’s wake light up. From a tourism and potential impacts perspective, phytoplankton are an incredibly abundant marine organism. The impact we have by waving in water or in a boat is negligible.

About Bobby F. Lopez

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