Hunting Bioluminescent Plankton

Sunday, July 22, 2018 Adam Tilt 0 Comments


P1170579 - Oxwich Bay

It probably says a lot about our lives that standing on Oxwich beach at a little after two o'clock this morning, looking for plankton, seemed perfectly normal. Others may of course choose to disagree, imagining instead some lonely vigil shunned by the greater part of society, self-elected purveyors all of the conformist message. Happily they couldn't have been further from the truth. Bobbing head torches for instance revealed one family paddling and splashing in the gently lapping water on the very same quest as ourselves whilst further along quiet chatter emanated from around a small campfire where every now and again some talented soul would attempt a spot of fire spinning. In the distance remnants of an earlier wedding party were finally dispersing and around us, Gower at its absolute best. Even at this ungodly hour it was still light enough to see the shape of Swansea Bay, the steelworks of Port Talbot burning brightly as if in competition with an orange moon only now beginning to slip behind the mass of Three Cliffs. On the lightest of breezes I caught occasional murmurs from roosting Oystercatchers unseen, their normally dominant vocalisations replaced, for now at least, by the chirping of insects. What a time to be alive.

But hang on a minute, plankton?

Oh yes dear reader, but no ordinary plankton, for this plankton was bioluminescent. 

Our search had actually started over three hours earlier, not surrounded by Gower's natural beauty but instead set against heavy industry across the bay at Aberavon. Two nights previous this had been the scene of a stunning display with the sea lit up bright blue for long stretches at a time and being something that I've always wanted to see, it was time to try our own luck. The chemical process which results in this fantastic light show is all down to Luciferin and the plankton uses it to try and attract predators towards any creature which may be, how shall I put it, tucking in. This is probably the reason why disturbed water gives you the best possible chance of seeing the phenomenon. There wasn't going to be a great deal of that around tonight however with the sea almost flat calm but already there were people out all along the beach waiting hopefully. We had a brief look ourselves but something about the place didn't scream - stand here for the next couple of hours with your camera and see what happens. Perhaps it was the large number of police cars, blue lights flashing, or continual parade of boy racers. We may never know. 

Instead we headed over to Mumbles and Bracelet Bay, then Langland and Caswell before finally arriving at Southgate. A short walk brought us to the cliff edge where down below the white outline of breaking water could just about be seen. Torches extinguished it took a while for my eyes to become acclimatised and on a couple of occasions I thought I'd seen something but couldn't quite be sure. If you've ever searched the night sky for meteors you'll probably know the feeling well. Then all of a sudden there could be no more doubt. Despite looking at numerous photos the previous day nothing could prepare me for just how bright the flash of light was. It was as if someone had switched a torch on just beneath the water's surface, only for a second, before extinguishing it and sinking away. Then came another and another, seemingly random bursts so as you never quite knew where the next would appear. 

And then just like that it was gone. The display had probably only lasted a few minutes but in that time I found myself transfixed, giddy excitement that only comes from experiencing something truly magical for the very first time and oh did I not want it to end. With energy flagging we made one last push and threw everything we had at Oxwixh which, if I'm very much not mistaken, is right about where we came in.

Alas there was to be no encore however and we couldn't get even a glimmer despite Emma's best water agitation techniques (at least she now knows her old boots aren't waterproof any more) so no photos beyond the overall scene setter above. Even so what an experience and to think that until last year I wasn't even aware that this could be seen along our coast. Needless to say I'll be back out again on Friday so fingers crossed we can do even better. If only work didn't have to get in the way.

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