These photographers hunt bioluminescence in New Zealand

On hot, moonless nights in New Zealand, they navigate the beaches in search of an elusive, sparkling quarry.

They aren’t hunters, but photographers are on the hunt for bioluminescence, a natural phenomenon in which glowing algae give crashing waves an ethereal electric blue aura.

New Zealand is an especially good place to “chase resume,” say enthusiasts there. However, it is difficult to predict where and when bioluminescence will appear. And photographing it in near-total darkness — at 3 a.m., knee-deep in surfing holding a tripod — presents additional hurdles.

“It’s very, very hard to notice, and sometimes it’s down to blind luck,” said one such enthusiast, Matthew Davison, 37, who lives in Auckland and sometimes stays until sunrise emitting bioluminescence.

“But part of the attraction and part of the adventure is that, because it’s so challenging, that’s what makes it exciting,” he added. “When you find it, when you hit the blue gold, it feels great.”

Bioluminescence is relatively rare on Earth but very common in the ocean. About four out of five of the 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 this is what best penetrates sea water.

Bioluminescent organisms – from fireflies to rockfish – create light from the energy released from chemical reactions within their bodies.

Nelson, the University of Southern California professor emeritus who has studied this phenomenon, although many scientists, including Aristotle and Darwin, have been fascinated by bioluminescence over the centuries, behavioral motives for it remain a mystery. for decades.

Scientists generally believe that organisms light up in order to communicate with each other, lure or detect prey or warn or avoid predators.

Professor Nelson said the most popular explanation for why algae glow in the oceans is the ‘burglar alarm’ hypothesis. It states that organisms glow when large fish swim in order to scare away smaller algae-eating fish.

Coastal waters turn blue during periods when algae, which live near the surface of the oceans, thrive in waters that are particularly rich in nutrients. Specific flashes of blue-green light come in response to pressure changes caused by the waves as they break apart.

Professor Nelson said the waves pose no threat to the algae, but the algae reproduce anyway because algae are programmed to respond to the pressure changes that fish create when they swim in the open ocean.

“Maybe this luminescence doesn’t help at all those algae that are at the cusp of the wave and emit light,” Professor Nelson said. “But if they come back a little bit further from shore, it could be a very good behavioral mechanism” because it can help them scare off predators.

Photographers looking for bioluminescence in New Zealand, many of whom have day jobs, say summer is generally the best time to spot it. (Summer runs from December to March in the Southern Hemisphere.) The nights after rainstorms are best, they say, because the waters that flow from land into the ocean often contain nutrient-rich substances that attract algae.

Mr. Davison, a product developer for a technology company, has a method for creating bioluminescence. He first studies satellite images to determine the algal blooms off the coast. Then it combs through other indicators, such as wind direction and tidal patterns, to predict where the water might glow.

However, it is an exception. Other photographers rely mainly on a combination of luck, intuition, and the occasional advice from neighbors who spot blue sparks while walking on the beach.

Grant Burley, 48, who works in the orthopedic industry and often stops at bioluminescence photography during his two-hour trip along the coast of New Zealand’s North Island. “It’s not an educated guess at all.”

One source of intelligence is a private Facebook group created two years ago for people in the Auckland area to discuss bioluminescence sightings. Stacy Ferreira, one of the group’s directors, said it now has more than 7,000 members and welcomes about 2,000 new members each summer.

Ms Ferreira said she created the group so that others could “tick the beautiful phenom off their lists”, as she did in 2020. “It was amazing!” I wrote in a letter. “People from all backgrounds have joined – talented photography enthusiasts, bioluminescence researchers, scientists, families, everyone in between.”

For Vital Chasers, finding the glow is just the beginning of the process of capturing an unforgettable photo. After hitting the shore, they usually put their tripods into the waves and spend hours photographing, sometimes in near-total darkness, with blue spots flashing intermittently across the shore. Sometimes the flickering goes away after a few minutes, and they come home empty-handed.

When a “biography” is present, the main challenge is deciding how long to display an image. Mr Burley said the timings can range from about one second to two minutes and that it can be difficult to quickly check – by looking at a small camera screen – to see if exposure times are correct.

Another challenge is that bioluminescence images sometimes include details that were not visible when the shutter was flicked. This is because the camera sees much more than the naked eye, especially on long nighttime exposures.

“In the daytime you look and say, ‘There’s a tree and sunset and a slope and I’ll turn left,’” said Alistair Payne, 38, a high school teacher who lives near Mr Burley in a suburb. “You have nothing.” than this at night.”

Despite all the challenges, photographers say bioluminescence hunting is beneficial in part because the phenomenon is so infinitely surprising.

On a clear night, Mr. Payne drove about 40 miles to shore where he hoped to photograph the Milky Way. When he arrived, he saw not only a starry sky but a glowing beach. “This was something special that I came across by chance,” he said.

Once again, Mr. Davison got off his car on the beach with low expectations. It was raining, and I suppose that would be a problem because heavy rain usually spoils the bioluminescence display.

But in this case, the rain was gentle enough to spur glowing algae across the ocean surface as far as he could see. So he grabbed his camera and started shooting.

“Unless you’re there, unless you capture it, no one will believe—and could not have imagined—what you see,” said Mr. Davison. “That’s why I love taking photos and videos of this. The best way to share what I saw is through the power of a photo.”

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