These photographers hunt bioluminescence in New Zealand

On hot, moonless nights in New Zealand, they fan out on the beaches in search of an elusive, glistening quarry. They are not hunters, b...


On hot, moonless nights in New Zealand, they fan out on the beaches in search of an elusive, glistening quarry.

They are not hunters, but photographers in pursuit bioluminescencea natural phenomenon in which glowing seaweed gives crashing waves an ethereal electric blue aura.

New Zealand is a particularly good place to “hunt organic”, as the enthusiasts say. Even so, it’s notoriously difficult to predict where and when bioluminescence will appear. And photographing it in near total darkness – at 3 a.m., while standing knee-deep in the surf holding a tripod – presents additional hurdles.

“It’s very, very hard to see, and sometimes it just comes down to blind luck,” said one enthusiast, Matthew Davison, 37, who lives in Auckland and sometimes stays out until dawn. sun by shooting bioluminescence.

“But part of the appeal and part of the adventure is that because it’s so difficult, that’s what makes it exciting,” he added. “When you find it, when you hit blue gold, it’s such a good feeling.”

Bioluminescence is relatively rare on land but very common in the ocean. About four in five animals that live 200 to 1,000 meters (650 to 3,300 feet) below the surface are bioluminescent, according to The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The glow comes in different colors on land, but in the oceans it usually appears blue-green because that’s what passes through seawater best.

Bioluminescent organisms — from fireflies to anglerfish — create light from the energy released by chemical reactions inside their bodies.

Even though many scientists, including Aristotle and Darwin, have been fascinated by bioluminescence over the centuries, the behavioral motivations still remain a mystery, said Kenneth H. Nealsonprofessor emeritus at the University of Southern California who has studied the phenomenon for decades.

Scientists generally think that organisms light up to communicate with each other, attract or detect prey, or warn or escape predators.

The most popular explanation for why algae glows in the oceans is the ‘burglar alarm’ hypothesis, Prof Nealson said. He argues that organisms glow when large fish swim in order to scare away small fish that eat algae.

Coastal waters turn blue during times when algae, which live near the surface of the oceans, grow in particularly nutrient-rich waters. The specific flashes of blue-green light occur in response to the pressure changes the waves create as they crash.

Waves pose no threat to algae, Prof Nealson said, but algal blooms light up anyway because algae are programmed to respond to changes in pressure that fish create when swimming in the open. sea.

“This luminescence is probably of no help to the algae that are at the tip of the wave and are emitting light,” Professor Nealson said. “But if they were back a little further offshore, that could be a really good behavioral mechanism” because it could help them scare off predators.

Photographers who hunt bioluminescence in New Zealand, many of whom have day jobs, say summer is usually the best time to spot it. (Summer runs from December to March in the Southern Hemisphere.) Nights after thunderstorms are best, they say, because water flowing from land into the ocean often includes materials rich in nutrients that attract algae.

Mr. Davison, a product developer for a technology company, has a method for finding bioluminescence. He first studies satellite imagery to identify algal blooms off the coast. Then it combs through other indicators, such as wind direction and tidal patterns, to predict where the waters may shine.

There is an exception, however. Other photographers rely mostly on a mix of luck, intuition, and the occasional tip from neighbors who spot sparks of blue while strolling the beach.

“If I’m being perfectly honest, probably eight out of 10 times I catch it’s either by chance or just a hunch that he might be there,” said Grant Birley, 48, who works in the film industry. orthopedics and often stops to photograph. bioluminescence during its two-hour journey along the coast of New Zealand’s North Island. “That’s not an educated guess at all.”

An intelligence source is a private Facebook group which was created two years ago for people in the Auckland area to discuss bioluminescence sightings. It now has more than 7,000 members and welcomes about 2,000 new ones every summer, said Stacey Ferreira, one of the group’s administrators.

Ms Ferreira said she created the group so others could “tick the beautiful phenom off their bucket list”, as she did in 2020. “It was awesome!” she wrote in an email. “People from all walks of life joined – talented photography enthusiasts, bioluminescence researchers, scientists, families, and everyone in between.”

For “biohunters,” finding the glow is just the start of the process of capturing a memorable image. After arriving at a beach, they typically set up tripods in the surf and spend hours filming, sometimes in near total darkness, as flecks of blue flicker intermittently on the shore. Sometimes the flicker dies down after a few minutes and they go home empty-handed.

When “bio” is present, a major challenge is deciding how long to expose an image. Mr Birley said the times could range from one second to nearly two minutes and it could be difficult to check on the fly – by looking at a small camera screen – to see if the exposure times are correct.

Another challenge is that bioluminescence images sometimes include details that weren’t visible when the shutter clicked. Indeed, a camera sees much more than the naked eye, especially during long exposures at night.

“In the daytime you look and say, ‘There’s a tree and a sunset and a cliff and I’m going to move to the left,'” said Alistair Bain, 38, a secondary school teacher who lives near of Mr. Birley in the suburbs. Whangaparaoa Peninsula, north of central Auckland. “You don’t have any of that at night.”

For all the challenges, photographers say the hunt for bioluminescence is rewarding in part because the phenomenon is endlessly surprising.

On a clear night, Mr. Bain traveled about 40 miles to a beach where he hoped to photograph the Milky Way galaxy. When he arrived, he saw not only a sky full of stars but a glowing shore. “It was a special case met by accident,” he said.

Another time, Mr. Davison got out of his car on a beach with little expectation. It was raining, and he assumed that would be a problem because heavy rain usually ruins a bioluminescence show.

But in this case, the rainfall was mild enough to activate glowing algae on the surface of the ocean as far as he could see. So he took his camera and started filming.

“Unless you’re there, unless you capture it, no one would believe – couldn’t even imagine – what you’re witnessing,” Mr Davison said. “That’s why I love taking photos and videos of this. The best way to share what you’ve seen is through the power of an image.

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