Bioluminescent plankton are second only to the Northern Lights on my list of natural phenomenon that simply defy explanation. I mean yes there is a perfectly logical reasoning behind the appearance of both but taken at face value they create the same sort of awe and wonder as must once have inspired reverence in our early ancestors.
In the case of plankton, its ethereal blue glow or “sparkle” has increasingly been recorded off Welsh shores in recent years. Since 2016 planktonites (a term I’ve just invented but one which will surely catch on) have been lining the tidelines of beaches after dark up and down the country, with particular focus on Aberavon and Penmon. Being notoriously unpredictable hit rates have been low with our own attempts back in 2018 resulting in only the most tantalising of glimpses. However, with our seas slowly warming blooms do seem to be increasing in both regularity and intensity with this summer being a particular high point. Night after night hundreds if not thousands of people have been striking gold, or indeed blue, with truly fantastic photographs hitting both social media and the press. Obviously we were keen to try our luck too and back at the beginning of July rolled up in Port Talbot just before midnight.
What greeted us was a scene more reminiscent of midday than the early hours with fellow hunters creating a proper party atmosphere. Campfires had been lit here and there, an enterprising kayaker was already on the water with numerous others paddling or swimming nearby. Being of the less adventurous persuasion we found a clear spot on dry land and prepared to wait.
But not for long!
Within ten minutes we saw our first blue tinged wave roll into the bay, soon followed by several more, each a line of bright neon blue stretching across our field of view. In truth I hadn’t expected the colour to be quite so vivid in real life without any camera trickery involved so was quite unprepared for the experience. As a result I had no tri-pod or camera settings dialled in so didn’t manage to capture the waves themselves. Perhaps more impressive though was the spectacle unfolding at our feet where each incoming wave filled tide-line depressions with a concentration of plankton whose movements resembled almost perfectly the flow of mercury. It was stunning and thankfully this time I did manage to get something on record.
An hour or so after the display had begun it was all over, with only the barest of sparkles detectable. Still amazed at what we’d seen we were tempted to try our luck along the Gower coast but the arrival of heavy rain put paid to that idea and we instead decided to call it a night. What a truly remarkable natural event, the result of Phytoplankton, or more specifically noctiluca scintillans, a photosynthesising micro-algae which were it not for its light emitting properties none of us would even know was there.