MOREHEAD CITY, N.C. (WNCT) — If you have ever taken a look at the ocean at night, there’s a chance you could see it light up in different colors like neon green or blue. Well, this is by no mistake.
It’s called bioluminescence and it is simply a chemical reaction happening amongst organisms that causes them to give off light. Colors like neon greens and blues can be seen near the shore especially after storms happen which cause more algal blooms and iron in the water which makes way for the light show.
This natural phenomenon doesn’t just happen in rare places across the world, it occurs in all oceans, including those in the Outer Banks!
Some businesses even offer bioluminescence tours.
Doctor Daniel Rittschof is a professor at the Duke University Marine Laboratory and he says it comes down to the process of repairing molecules in animals that use photosynthesis.
“Animals that can use photosynthesis to make their own food, have to have a way of catching light,” said Dr. Rittschof. “One of the things that happens when you catch light is you can use it to make food but also because you’ve raised the energy state of the molecules, they can break.”
When organisms work to repair those breaks, if there are disruptions like waves crashing, for example, it causes that light to be emitted.
As mentioned, the light can especially be seen after storms because that is when the iron is increased in the water making way for more organisms that can emit light.
“If there is a huge algal bloom like after a rain when there’s lots more iron in the water and things like that or you have a big algal bloom, it can be spectacular,” said Dr. Rittschof.
The light is also not just transmitted from microorganisms, it can be from animals too that are larger in size. For example, Parchment Tube Worms that can be found in the Outer Banks also bioluminesce when they are touched or disrupted.
It is not widely known if bioluminescence has a purpose but Dr. Rittschof says it could be a way of the animals warning off predators or making themselves known.
If you would like to see this natural phenomenon, the good news is that it can happen in any ocean and at any time. It all depends on how visible it is to the human eye, so usually after storms have gone through is when the lights can be more widely seen at the shore.
Dr. Rittschof also explains that shores tend to see variations of neon blues and greens. However, he explains if you were to be in the deeper parts of the sea, there are a variety of colors to the point where sometimes you can’t even see what would be considered natural light.