Bioluminescence is not a word tossed about in everyday conversation among Pacific Northwesterners, but that doesn’t mean it’s absent in the waters surrounding places like Whidbey Island.
In fact, after a hot and sunny day in late summer, near the time of a new moon, the waters of Saratoga Passage come alive with a glittering aquatic light show.
You just have to know where to look and how to ignite your own personal fireworks as you glide over the water. It just so happens that South Whidbey has a crew of trained guides who unveil this aquatic netherworld occurring in the deep darkness.
This summer, Krista Loercher of Whidbey Island Kayaking, along with co-owner Jeff Jacobsen, gave dozens of islanders and visitors a chance to experience the surreal glowing phenomenon on late-night kayak journeys through Saratoga Passage.
Before sliding a gaggle of kayaks off the boat ramp at Langley’s South Whidbey Harbor, the midnight sojourners huddled in a group at Phil Simon Memorial Park while lead guide Nick Butterfield explained the phenomenon occurring along secluded shoreline strips ringing the island.
The glowing living organisms in the water are actually plankton blooms that are photosynthetic, according to Butterfield, and they exist in brackish waters in which saltwater and freshwater mix. They live year-round, but you only find them in critical concentrations on long days with abundant sunlight and can only see them at night due to their natural biological clocks that perk up about an hour after twilight.
“If you’ve visited the Midwest, you may have seen other species that are bioluminescent, such as lightning bugs or fireflies,” Butterfield said. “It’s the same chemical reaction but on land. About 80 percent of species that create bioluminescence are aquatic.”
In waters around Whidbey, the organisms are often referred to as marine dinoflagellates, also known as noctiluca. When they are disturbed, they let off a sparkling flash of greenish-blue light that many describe as an underwater version of the Milky Way.
Tabitha Jacobs, an associate guide at Whidbey Island Kayaking with a marine sciences degree from the University of Connecticut, urged the night kayakers to keep an eye out for other biological organisms that emit bioluminescence, including glow worms, fish and jellyfish.
“Those organisms contain more cells within them that give off bioluminescence, so they are able to store it longer and give off more light,” she said.
Florian Graner, a Freeland-based marine biologist, cinematographer and wildlife documentary producer for Sealife Productions, spoke of how common bioluminescence is anywhere in the Salish Sea, even though it’s almost impossible to capture the phenomenon in photos or film.
”I actually see the bioluminescent trails of animals if I switch my lights off during night dives – very cool,” he said.
Florian’s underwater cinematography assignments take him around the world, filming for National Geographic, Animal Planet, the BBC and CBC in Canada.
As the kayaks in Langley slipped into Saratoga Passage last weekend, each paddler discovered a collection of “toys” tucked into the hull or outer nets of their vessels. Items included tennis racquets, kitchen whisks and other objects with which to stir the waters and induce the flashy sprays of light.
According to lead guide Butterfield, each organism emits just one flash per night after storing the energy all day. So, when you sit in one area and stir up countless streams of glowing, sparkling light, it reveals just how many of the organisms exist beneath the water’s surface.
With twinkling skies above and a liquid “Milky Way” below, it’s easy to see why Loercher likes to call the bioluminescent kayak journey in Langley the “Stars Below, Stars Above” tour.