Sea Fire on the Outer Banks

Photo and feature photo above by Mickey McCarthy

An evening walk on the beaches these September nights can take you to another world. This has proven to be even more true this past week as many people stumbled upon the rare and ethereal occurrence that is bioluminescence. The word  “bioluminescence,” which comes from “bio,” meaning life, and “lumin,” meaning light. This is produced by tiny organisms that are a type of dinoflagellates called Noctiluca or also known as “sea sparkle” or “sea fire”.

They surprisingly do not get larger than 1 millimeter and will cast a beautiful blue-green glow in the ocean surf as the waves churn towards the shorelineNoctiluca are harmless as they only feed on algae, plankton and bacteria. However, they do produce a good amount of ammonia which can be harmful to other sea life. Noctilucchemically produce a beautiful glowing light in response to nearby movement in the water and also as a defense mechanism. Their alluring glow attracts larger predators which will consume the first predator. There are many factors that play into why these single celled little firefly like organisms give us this visual light show. Some of the factors will depend on the temperature of the water, nutrients, currents and whether or not the seas are calm.

jordan-montgomery1

Photo by Jordan Montgomery

So at the same time when you are relaxing to the peaceful sounds of incoming and receding tides, while the sand exfoliates your toes with each leisurely step forward, you also get a visual show – a colorful array of sea candles. This phenomenon naturally romances the Outer Banks with every blue green foot step you make. ♦

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