Tim the Yowie Man: Sparkling sea

[Australia] This column receives many remarkable nature reports, none more so than the ‘sparkling sea’ James Harrison, of Torrens, and his family spotted during a recent camping trip to Cape Conran Coastal Park in East Gippsland, Victoria.

“We have been there a couple of times before and as usual went for a stroll down the beach after dinner to have a look at the night sky,” reports Harrison, who was “amazed to see the waves ‘glowing’ along the beach intermittently as they crested before breaking.”

For Harrison and his two girls Augusta, 6, and Annabelle, 10, the scene was as mesmerising as it was dazzling. “At times the glow was quite bright, as if someone was holding a lantern under the wave!” exclaims Harrison.

Algal bioluminescence captured on film in Tasmania. Photo: Leanne Marshall

Returning the next night Harrison reveals he “could have stood watching for hours but the girls were so spooked that after fifteen minutes or so they wanted to go back to the cabin.”

Upon returning to Canberra, Harrison googled ‘glowing waves’ and discovered that rather than it being “some sort of supernatural occurrence” as his girls has speculated,” that it “looked like a case of bioluminescence caused by algae in the water.”

“How common is this glowing?” asks Harrison, whose two girls wonder “if any other Canberrans have spotted this phenomena when on holidays at the coast?”

As marine science isn’t your Akubra-clad columnist’s area of expertise, upon receiving Harrison’s report, I promptly tracked down Professor Gustaaf Hallegraeff, regarded one of the world’s foremost experts on the spectacle.

Hallegraeff, an aquatic biologist at the University of Tasmania’s Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies, confirmed it was highly likely the young family had indeed witnessed algal bioluminescence, but that it isn’t as rare as many expect.

“The bright glow is caused by billions of single-celled algae or plant plankton called Noctiluca scintillans,” explains the aquatic biologist, adding “when disturbed by waves or currents, the tiny cells flash causing an illumination in the water around them which is deployed to scare off predators.”

Hallegraeff reports that the phenomena, “commonly referred to as ‘sea sparkle’ has expanded a great deal since first reported in Sydney Harbour in 1860.”

“In the 2000’s we saw it really move southwards and now it’s permanently in Tasmania,” explains Hallegraeff, adding “we have some evidence that ocean currents and the warming of the oceans have contributed to it — it’s definitely a species that is showing a spectacular range expansion, especially in the last 20 years.”

In fact, so prevalent are blooms in Tasmania that the good professor believes “there may even be potential to develop a tourism industry from people coming to see and photograph it.”

One shutterbug who would agree with Hallegraeff is Leanne Marshall who snapped a series of incredible photos of sea sparkle at Rocky Cape National Park, in north-west Tasmania earlier this year.

“I wasn’t looking for bioluminescence but when we arrived early in the afternoon we noticed a lot of pinkish/brown stuff in the water which we suspected was the bioluminescence,” says the photographer who posted images of her chance encounter on her instagram account (@leannemarshall.

“In the day time it looks like a pinkish brown slime, but at night, once disturbed, it looks just like in the photos,” she says.

According to avid nature photographer Peter Blunt, of Theodore, you don’t have to travel to Gippsland or Tasmania to witness the dazzling phenomena.

Blunt, whose work “for many years involved snorkelling around Booderee National Park” has witnessed the stunning spectacle at Jervis Bay, describing it “as if the waves were on fire”.

“It looks just like an array of stars underwater,” marvels Blunt, adding “the aesthetics and excitement of seeing this underwater and then lifting your head up to view the Milky Way above is unforgettable.”

One night while kayaking on Jervis Bay during a heavy algae period Blunt recalls “there were streams of silver trailing out from the bow of the kayak and lighting up with each paddle dip,” adding “on putting my hand into the water it emerged clustered with diamonds like Michael Jackson’s famous glove.”

Wow, isn’t nature amazing.

 

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