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Bioluminescence: A light show by the sea

Bioluminescence: A light show by the sea

In SoCal, Mother Nature offers up an abundant mix of mountains, deserts, beaches and Pacific Ocean skies. I’m occasionally at the beach shooting big waves, surfers, fishermen, campers, sunsets, pollution, Marine Corps landing practice — it’s theater by the sea!

In late September and early October this year, the ocean offered up a performance of breathtaking visual beauty — waves that lit up in the night.

I was recently in Carlsbad and Oceanside in San Diego County gazing out at a sliver of a moon above the black water and here comes a 100-yard-wide ribbon of neon-blue rolling in from the darkness. It was an OMG moment — did you see that? All around me people were oooing and aaahing and yelling and clapping. It was like fireworks from the deep blue sea. Everybody was shooting pictures, but it’s not a point-and-shoot event. More on that in a second.

These psychedelic waves are caused by a phenomenon known as “red tide”; oceanographers would rather say “algae bloom.” In the daytime, red tide looks like a floating puddle of reddish-brown water floating just offshore. Some might call it pollution as it’s poopy-looking and sometimes stinks. But scientists say it’s a naturally occurring population explosion of tiny little phytoplankton called Lingulodinium polyedrum that give off light when they bump against each other — as in a breaking wave. Bioluminescence is the word for it. (Read Tony Barboza’s article from Sept. 30.)

An algae bloom can be caused by nitrogen-rich runoff after a rainstorm or a sewage spill or warm ocean currents — or just because.

All around me beach visitors were whooping it up and having a seldom-in-a-lifetime event. I’m shuffling across the sand lugging a tripod and Canon camera with a 70-200mm zoom, trying to line up a perspective with people, the moon and the “where the hell are they” waves. My digital camera is set to a high sensitivity, iso 1000, with the aperture wide open at f2.8, because it’s really dark. The only time you can see bioluminescence is at night. I’m muttering, “OK, folks, please don’t move, stay there, and gimme a wave right now!” The wave sets are sometimes five or more minutes apart. Then it happens: a wave the color of cobalt, turquoise, indigo and creamy white glows and pulses brighter as it breaks along the beach. Then it turns dark again. Wowzers!

Focusing is possible when someone in my sights holds up their cellphone and I squint at the pin-point of light on their screen. I wonder if their photos turn out. Others innocently trigger a flash, lighting up little more than the sand in front of them.

On the first night I went out, my pictures captured the scene, but were “noisy.” Noise is a digital term for what we used to call “grain” in the film days. So I went out the next night and set the camera at a higher iso — 1600. The moon was setting and I got nice scenes but the noise was worse. Rats! On the third night, as the crescent moon again settled on the horizon, I set the iso on my Canon 7D back down to 1000 and shot longer exposures – two to four seconds to add a little meat to the dark areas of the image. (Noise appears in the underexposed areas of a digital image.) Aaah, much better. A smoother image with noise only in the semi-gray areas.

My photos of bioluminescence are now a wonderful memory that can live on and be shared through the magic of photography.

8 Comments

  1. October 4, 2011, 9:50 am

    [...] Bioluminescence: A light show by the seaLos Angeles Times (blog)On the third night, as the crescent moon again settled on the horizon, I set the iso on my Canon 7D back down to 1000 and shot longer exposures – two to four seconds to add a little meat to the dark areas of the image. …and more » [...]

  2. October 5, 2011, 7:44 am

    Thanks so much for capturing these sights and for sharing the technical details. Other photographers – with tripods – will certainly benefit.

    Years ago on a dark night in the Gulf of Mexico off Tallahassee, I was out on my anchored boat and saw phosporous lighting when I stirred a paddle in the water or splashed with my foot or hand. Unfortunately I did not have a camera with me. As I recall it was a shimmering yellow/white light effect. Wonder if that could that have been a "red tide" too?

    Thanks!

    By: bboydsibu1@gmail.com
  3. October 5, 2011, 3:37 pm

    I'm confused. "OMG, poopy"" and " wowzers" sounds like something middle school girls would say, but it says the article was written by a Ron Bartletti. What gives?

    By: Guest
  4. October 5, 2011, 8:47 pm

    Hey Bart,
    Ooooooooo…! Aaaaaaaaaah…! Thanks for the info on settings. I think I'll head down there on Thursday night and have a look. Should be nice and clear and clean after the rain… You're the best…
    Joe Holly

    I may have sent this note twice…but that's ok, I enjoyed them that much.

    By: holly@macholly.com
  5. October 15, 2011, 10:49 pm

    More more.

    By: Steve
  6. October 16, 2011, 12:45 pm

    Bio luminescence – an amazing spectacle
    Photographic noise – amazingly annoying
    But hey, scene capturing shots are equally as important as those perfect competition images as there is much that can be learned. Actually, your last image says so much about the circumstances. Where some might think blurring an error, we photographers do understand. I have had a few early morning low-light-level experiences like that recently too.
    Oh, and I remember my first (un-photographed) experience of bio luminescence at Lough Ine is South West Ireland – just stunning! Thanks for sharing your experience with us.

    Celia Bartlett
    Ailec Photography

    By: Guest
  7. October 19, 2011, 2:33 pm

    [...] lit up with the stuff that fills glow-sticks. Here’s what those seemingly rare moments look like from a photographer who snapped a few shots in Carlsbad, CA on late October night. Today, a new [...]

  8. October 19, 2011, 6:31 pm

    [...] lit up with the stuff that fills glow-sticks. Here's what those seemingly rare moments look like from a photographer who snapped a few shots in Carlsbad, CA on late October night. Today, a [...]

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