What is bioluminescence on ocean beaches: 18 places with glowing water, waves, & algae

The pictures of glowing plankton on a beach across the world are stunning. It looks magical, like it gained inspiration from a Disney movie. 

As the light glows in the middle of the night, it’s something out of this world. Small sparkling lights illuminate the dark night, twinkling as the waves roll in. 

However, what is it, and what causes it? 

In this article, we’ll look at what bioluminescence is on an ocean beach and where you can see it. 

Bioluminescence at night, Jervis Bay, Australia

We’ll look at where you can go to see it and what time of the year is best. Maybe you’re hoping to go and see it for yourself. We get it. It’s a beautiful sight!

What is bioluminescence & what causes it?

When you see the glowing light in the ocean’s water and waves, it’s what we call bioluminescence. Living organisms emit light biochemically. The sparkling and glowing effect is made by something alive. 

A chemical reaction is happening in living organisms’ bodies, causing the phenomenon. 

It’s a type of chemiluminescence. It means it’s a chemical reaction causing the phenomenon, and the result is light production. 

It’s also a process that produces cold light. Cold light means less than 20% of it generates thermal radiation. It means no heat is generated. We’ll get into that later, which means the light is white and blue.

There are many places to go and see it happening, with many places in the United States. It’s common to occur in the oceans, and standing on the beach and seeing it is magical. Puerto Rico is just one place you can go to see it.

How does bioluminescence work?

Bioluminescence at night

Let’s delve deeper into what’s going on in the whole process. 

For the process to happen, the species must have luciferin. When it meets oxygen, light is produced. Various things can intensify the phenomenon, such as luciferase. It’s a catalyst that speeds up the reaction. 

The animals

It’s not just a few animals in the ocean that can produce light – there are many of them. It’s even across a range of animals that include:

  • Shrimp
  • Squid
  • Fish
  • Jellyfish
  • Sea stars
  • Sea cucumbers
  • Marine worms
  • Phytoplankton

The photophore is the special organ that contains most cells, where the process happens in different animals. Some animals will have a more widespread glow. It can even come from algae!

For the process to happen, two molecules must be present: 

  • Luciferase
  • Luciferin

The colors

The light that is produced can have a range of different colors, including:

  • Violet
  • Blue
  • Green
  • Yellow
  • Red
  • White

It will usually be blue-green when you see it from the beach. Water is best capable of transporting the wavelength of light of these colors. If you ever wondered why the ocean has the color it has, it’s the same reason. 

The animals can actively control the process that’s going on. The movement of oxygen is moved into cells containing either of the two molecules mentioned. The light can also be bad news for fish as it typically means oxygen levels are low in the water.

The purpose

Some animals need to eat bioluminescent organisms for the process to happen. Others can produce luciferin or luciferase by themselves. 

Others interact with the bioluminescent bacteria in a symbiotic way. The host animal might shelter and even feed them. They then provide light when light is needed. 

Prey can be attracted to light. However, different animals use it for different reasons. 

Some fish are sneaky. They’ll lie, dangling the light in front of their face. Their toothy mouths are ready to grab smaller fish as they inspect the dangling light. It’s an easy meal for the anglerfish!

Other fish use the light defensively. A predator may chase them. However, they attract even bigger predators when the lights come on, and these then chase away their predators! It’s quite smart. 

Other fish glow on their bellies. Hatchetfish is one example. Living in the twilight zone, they’re used to very little light. As fish look up, they see lighter water. However, the hatchet fish lights up on the belly to avoid being a dark spot when looking up. The light actually helps them blend in. 

Others can scare off predators with the help of flashing lights. Deepwater shrimp releases glowing mucus, and predators won’t know what to make of it. 

Sea cucumber and brittle stars do something unique. When threatened, they can let go of a glowing body part. The predator then goes after this body part, not realizing they’ve been fooled. At the same time, the animals are ready to get away.

On the other hand, some animals use light for mating. It’s believed to attract mates. While scientists wish to study them more, it can be hard to do. Many of the animals are transparent and black, and they’ll often get scared off when someone shines a light on them.

Glowing beaches

There are few things as special as seeing this glowing light as you’re out on a beach, and there are quite a few places to go and do it. Let’s walk you through some of the places where you can go and see this beautiful phenomenon. 

Best places to watch the bioluminescence beachesCountry/StateProbability
Mosquito BayPuerto RicoVery high
Laguna GrandePuerto RicoVery high
La PargueraPuerto RicoVery high
Bay ViequesPuerto RicoVery high
Indian River LagoonFloridaHigh
Merritt IslandFloridaHigh
San DiegoCaliforniaModerate
Newport BeachCaliforniaModerate
Tomales bayCaliforniaModerate
Port GambleWashingtonHigh
HawaiiHigh
Saint CroixUS Virgin IslandsModerate
Manasquan beachNJModerate
Grand CaymanCayman IslandsRare
JamaicaHigh
Costa RicaHigh
MudhdhooMaldivesHigh
AucklandNew ZealandModerate
Puerto EscondidoMexicoHigh

World’s brightest bioluminescent bay – Mosquito Bay in Puerto Rico

How about we start with the most significant sight of them all? Yes, there’s one bay that has the record as the world’s brightest bioluminescent one. 

It’s Mosquito Bay. In 2006, it was recognized by the Guinness World Records for what it is. 

Traveling to Puerto Rico to see Mosquito Bay in Vieques is worth it. The beauty and pristine setting may cause you never to want to leave again. 

There’s a large concentration of dinoflagellates that allow the beautiful view. The number has only doubled since Hurricane Maria, leaving scientists speechless and surprised. No one can explain it!

In every gallon of water, it’s possible to find between one and two million dinoflagellates. In addition, the place is great because of its light pollution. It’s a natural spectacle you won’t see in many other places, and it’s a true wonder!

Bioluminescent beaches in the US

Suppose you’re a visitor from the United States – welcome! We’ve created a list of places you can go without even going very far. Maybe it’s time to take a summer vacation with your loved ones to one of these destinations. 

Laguna Grande in Fajardo, Puerto Rico

When it comes to seeing bioluminescence, Puerto Rico is very high on the list. Laguna Grand is one of our top recommendations in the country, east of San Juan. Fajardo is a beautiful town that is visiting and only 40 minutes from the San Juan airport. 

La Parguera, Puerto Rico

It’s a great bay to visit, where you’ll have an amazing bioluminescent experience. It’s on the southwest side of Puerto Rico.

Bay Vieques, Puerto Rico

Head to the island of Vieques, which is famous for its bioluminescence. You’ll see the dinoflagellate come out and produce a marvelous light show when agitated. 

Indian River Lagoon, Florida

Florida’s also a place you could go and see it. The neon blue-green light is worth going to the eastern part of Florida for. When you’re there, you can also visit Orlando, which is nearby. 

Merritt Island, Florida

There are great tours around Merritt Island in Florida, and they’ll take you to some places where you can see marvelous light. It’s also not far from Indian River Lagoon.

San Diego

Bioluminescence at San Diego Coast

San Diego’s not always a great place to see the phenomenon. However, it is possible. You should just know it only happens once every few years. 

Newport Beach, California

Newport Beach is a place that gets bioluminescence. It’s also a wonderful place to go and be a tourist.

Tomales Bay, California

After the sun goes down, you can see a light show at Tomales Bay in California. However, ensure you go there during the right season to see it. 

Port Gamble, Washington

Going kayaking at Port Gamble, Washington at night is an amazing experience. It’ll give you an experience you’ll never forget. 

Hawaii

A bioluminescent beach stroll is a great way to spend a night in Hawaii. Take someone you love with you and walk barefoot in the sand. 

Saint Croix, US Virgin Islands

Going on a guided kayaking tour in the middle of the night is how summer nights should be spent. It’s yet another place where you can see the blue light. 

Manasquan Neach, NJ

Go to Manasquan Beach in New Jersey to experience glowing algae. The red and blue colors on the beach are phenomenal. The summer months are the best time to go, specifically between July and September. It’s when you’ll get the best show. 

Outside the US

an amazing bioluminescence in Tasmania, Australia

Grand Cayman, Cayman Islands

Start at the Cayman Islands Yacht Club to go and see it. You can either go by boat or snorkeling. 

Jamaica

Jamaica also has a beautiful place to go and see it. If you go to Luminous Lagoon, you’re sure you won’t be disappointed. 

Costa Rica

Are you traveling to Costa Rica? You’ll need to stop by Punta Cuchillos or Golfo Dulce Bay, where the light can be seen year-round. The best time to go is when the skies are dark. More specifically, that happens five days after the full moon. 

However, you can see it at any point if you go. 

Mudhdhoo, Maldives

You’ll want to go between the months of June to December as the plankton volumes are greater then. 

Auckland, New Zealand

If you’re going to New Zealand, you’ll want to spend some time in Auckland. Visible algae during the day mean there’s a good chance you’ll see a blue light at night. However, it’s no guarantee. 

The Caves of Waitomo are a great place to go and see bioluminescent activity!

Puerto Escondido, Mexico

Are you traveling to Mexico? Puerto Escondido is probably the best spot for you to find the glowing waves!

The best time for bioluminescence in Florida

For the best time, you’ll want to go in the peak of summer. Stir the water with your hand or paddle, and you’ll see it light up where there’s bioluminescence. However, you can go between May and November, and you should still be able to see it. 

Is bioluminescence hot?

We won’t encourage you to swim in bioluminescent water, but it’s not because it’s hot. It’s cold light, which means less than a fifth of the light creates heat.