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‘It’s beautiful’: bioluminescence lights up ocean in Tasmania and parts of NSW in glowing end to 2023

‘It’s beautiful’: bioluminescence lights up ocean in Tasmania and parts of NSW in glowing end to 2023

Revellers along the Hobart waterfront welcomed in the new year with the glow of fireworks in the sky – and bright, blue bioluminescence lighting up the ocean.

With an easterly wind bringing the “sea sparkle” to the east coast, onlookers were treated to a truly glowing end to 2023.

“People were enjoying the fireworks and then looking for sea sparkle in between them,” said Jenny Kathy, a passionate photographer and administrator of the Bioluminescence Tasmania Facebook page.

She has been photographing the natural phenomenon for about six years, spending hours of her free time researching its history and learning where best to spot it.

The reason for her interest can be summed up in two, simple words: “It’s beautiful.”

“The photos you see, they don’t do it justice,” Kathy said. “It’s dark, you’ve got largely dark water in front of you, and then the water moves and you just start seeing this amazing blue glow.”

It was not only Tasmania that was treated to bioluminescence along its shores this new year’s period – it was also captured across New South Wales mid-north coast and in Sydney.

The Curl Curl local Lachlan Peknice made his way over to Manly beach late last week when his girlfriend spotted bioluminescence in the water from the shore, where she had been watching the sunset.

Soon there were hundreds of people there to witness the natural phenomenon.

“We’ve seen it a few times before, but this time was definitely the brightest I’ve ever seen it,” he said. “Being Manly during the holidays, being a Thursday night and having hundreds of people watching, it was pretty special.

“People were there for hours, all with their phones out taking photos and just watching it, which made it pretty special.”

Bioluminescence in Hobart. The proper term for this is noctiluca scintillans, more commonly known as ‘sea sparkles’. Photograph: Jenny Kathy

For the free diver and “mermaiding” hobbyist Vanessa Moore, it was the “chance of the lifetime” to swim amid the bioluminescence at the nearby Shelly beach in Manly.

She had been tracking it for a few days, and over the weekend drove an hour from Sydney’s inner west hoping the “sea sparkles” would again make their way to the shore.

After walking to a few different spots, with a friend and her mermaid tail in tow, they finally glimpsed the bioluminescence along the shoreline. A few initial splashes in the water drew some gasps from those gathered – with bioluminescence needing to be agitated to light up – before Moore swam a few laps in the ocean.

“Seeing it glow down my arms, I could see every single sparkle on my arms [and] I could see every part of my hands and my arms [in the dark], it was just so lit up,” she said.

“I could see every single sparkle, but I could see a whole glow around it as well – it wasn’t just the individual sparkles, it was this aura as well.”

Like most you speak to who have seen bioluminescence up close and in-person, Moore is already eager to see it again.

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“I have to do it again, but even if I don’t, that’s a dream fulfilled.”

What exactly is bioluminescence?

As Kathy explains, bioluminescence is an umbrella term for living organisms that glow in the dark. It is a natural chemical process, allowing living things to produce light in their body.

When we observe neon blue – or green and red – colours glowing in the ocean, we’re actually looking at thousands of tiny, single-cell organisms that range in size from microscopic, to half a millimetre.

Bioluminescence in Hobart, Tasmania
To see the glow in-person, the water typically needs to be moved – unless there’s a strong current bringing waves. Photograph: Jenny Kathy

The proper term for this is noctiluca scintillans, more commonly known as “sea sparkles”.

Only visible at night, bioluminescence can happen year-round but is more common during spring and summer, when the water is warmer. And it all comes down to the water conditions, tide and current because the cells cannot swim, and need enough nutrients to multiply and grow.

“The current has been strengthening, which they believe is the result of global warming, and it’s now coming down further into Tassie from what it used to,” Kathy said.

To see the glow in-person, the water typically needs to be moved or agitated – unless there’s a strong current bringing waves. Kathy carries a spray bottle to look for bioluminescence along the shore, and warned people against throwing objects such as rocks into the water.

Often rocks are there to protect the foreshore, or have insects living underneath them.

Picking up and throwing rocks in the water can “scare away the marine life”, Kathy said.

“There could be easily one hundred people coming and going and if everyone’s throwing rocks, that has a really bad impact.”

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