These photographers are pursuing bioluminescence in New Zealand

On hot, moonless nights in New Zealand, they walk the beaches in search of an elusive, brilliant career.

They are not hunters, but photographers pursuing bioluminescence, a natural phenomenon in which glowing algae give the crashing waves an ethereal, electric blue aura.

New Zealand is a particularly good place to “pursue a biography,” as enthusiasts say. However, it is extremely difficult to predict where and when bioluminescence will occur. And shooting it in almost complete darkness – at 3 am, while kneeling in the surf, holding a tripod – is an additional obstacle.

“It’s very, very difficult to see, and sometimes it comes down to blind luck,” said one of those enthusiasts, 37-year-old Matthew Davison, who lives in Auckland and sometimes stays out until sunrise, filming bioluminescence.

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

Bioluminescence is relatively rare on land, but very common in the ocean. About four in 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 radiance comes in different colors on land, but in the oceans it usually looks like blue-green, because that’s what cuts through the sea water best.

Bioluminescent organisms – from fireflies to sea devils – create light from energy released by chemical reactions in their bodies.

Although many scientists, including Aristotle and Darwin, have been fascinated by bioluminescence over the centuries, behavioral motives are still a mystery, said Kenneth H. Nilsson, an honorary professor at the University of Southern California who has studied the phenomenon for decades.

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

The most popular explanation for why algae glow in the oceans is the “burglary alarm” hypothesis, Professor Nilsson said. He claims that organisms glow when large fish swim to scare away smaller fish that eat algae.

Coastal waters turn blue during periods when algae that live near the surface of the oceans multiply in particularly nutrient-rich waters. The specific flashes of blue-green light come in response to the pressure changes that the waves create when they break.

The waves do not pose a threat to algae, Professor Nilsson said, but algae blooms are still lit because algae are programmed to respond to changes in pressure that fish create when they swim in the open ocean.

“This luminescence is probably not good at all for those algae that are on top of the wave and emit light,” said Professor Nilsson. “But if they went back a little further from the shore, it could be a very good behavioral mechanism,” because it could help them scare off predators.

Photographers who hunt bioluminescence in New Zealand, many of whom have daily work, say summer is usually the best time to spot it. (Summer lasts from December to March in the southern hemisphere.) It is said that the nights after rainstorms are best because the water that drains from land in the ocean often includes nutrient-rich material that attracts algae.

Mr. Davison, a product developer for a technology company, has a method for finding bioluminescence. He first studied satellite imagery to identify algae blooms along the coast. He then reviews other indicators, such as wind direction and tidal patterns, to predict where the water may glow.

However, he is an exception. Other photographers rely heavily on a combination of luck, intuition and random advice from neighbors who notice blue sparks while walking on the beach.

“To be completely honest, probably eight out of 10 times I photograph it is either accidental or just the feeling that it may be around,” said Grant Burley, 48, who works in the orthopedics industry and often stops taking bioluminescence during on his two-hour voyage along the North Island coast of New Zealand. “It’s not an educated guess at all.”

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

Ms. Ferreira said she created the group so that others could “mark the beautiful phenomenon from their lists,” as she did in 2020. “It was great!” She wrote in an email. “People of all backgrounds have joined – talented photography enthusiasts, bioluminescence researchers, scientists, families and everyone else.

For “bio pursuers”, finding the glow is just the beginning of the process of capturing a memorable image. Once they arrive at the beach, they usually place tripods in the surf and spend hours filming, sometimes in almost complete darkness, while blue spots flicker periodically along the shore. Sometimes the flashing goes out after a few minutes and they go home empty-handed.

When a “biography” is present, the key challenge is to decide how long to display the image. Mr Burley said the time could range from one second to almost two minutes and that it could be difficult to check on the go – by looking at a small camera screen – to see if the exposure times were correct.

Another challenge is that bioluminescence images sometimes include details that are not visible when the shutter is clicked. This is because the camera sees much more than the naked eye, especially during long night exposures.

“During the day, you look and say, ‘There’s a tree, a sunset, and a rock, and I’m going to move to the left,'” said Alistair Bain, 38, a high school teacher who lives near Mr. Burley in suburban Wangaparaoa Peninsula. Auckland. “You don’t have any of that at night.”

Despite all the challenges, photographers say that bioluminescence hunting is useful in part because the phenomenon is extremely surprising.

One clear night, Mr. Bane drove 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 coastline. “It was a special thing that happened to me,” he said.

Another time, Mr. Davison drove his car to a beach with low expectations. It was raining, and he guessed it would be a problem, because heavy rain usually spoils the bioluminescent show.

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

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

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