Sunday, July 4, 2010

Perhaps you didn’t know

But I have a real fixation with living things that light up.  Whether it’s plant or animal, anything that uses an organic process to produce that eerie glow is just fine with me. And at the most basic level, the process is pretty much the same.

The pigment Luciferin  is the standard, light producing molecule, which interacts with the protein complex luciferase and oxygen to produce a brief, calculated flash, or a sustained glow.


originally I wanted this to be my tattoo but please imagine explaining THAT to a dude in Thailand while you’re on a bender. That would have been improvident.

Although this process uses energy from various sources, such as nitric oxide or photosynthesis, the reaction does not generate significant heat, separating it from phosphorescence, immolation or combustion.  This is why people in areas with bioluminescent organisms do not have to pay higher insurance premiums. When a firefly burns down your house, it is just considered plain arson.

combustion bleak house


There are a number of common explanations for the evolution of a phenomenon this striking. Fireflies and glow worms use rhythmic arbitrary sequences of emission to attract mates and prey, and to delineate the boundaries of territory.  It’s estimated that about 90% of deep sea marine life use bioluminescence for a wide variety of pedestrian reasons, such as seducing credulous food, frightening predators, or distracting from the existence of those hideous lantern jaws that are apparently mandatory for everything below 30,000 feet.

In comparison, anything you read about the dinoflagellates of Puerto Rico is likely to sound pretty slanderous, since these micro-organisms are basically nature’s favorite party trick, the light-up asshole. In a way I think this assessment is pretty harsh, since it’s never been conclusively admitted by a dinoflagellate that this is the case, but the evidence is as follows:

Dinoflagellates emit light as a result of movement. The agitation of currents, swimming fish, or the raspy foul breath of a psychotic serial microbe murderer cause them to light up, exuding a radiant halo three times the size of the organism. My personal interpretation of this would be that it intimidates would-be predators, which frankly I can identify with because that is not a characteristic I want to see manifested in my cheerios. HOWEVER, the official explanation of the bioluminescent adaptation is that it attracts bigger predators which will then consume the impending threat. These guys are pretty much the world’s most pernicious stool pigeons. This constitutional failing, however, does not detract from the overall experience of mosquito bay on Vieques Island.

Mosquito bay (COMPLETE APTONYM) is maintained as the world’s brightest bioluminescent bay by mere fortuitous concatenation, and the pusillanimity of early Spanish explorers.

The bay is ringed by the ubiquitous red mangrove, the roots of which release vitamin B12 into the water, and the leaves of which contribute vitamin E as they rot, both necessary nutrients for dinoflagellates.  The salination of Mosquito bay is 40% higher, or 3 times saltier than the ocean. Speedboats with their fatal fluorocarbons are not allowed in the bay. And, last but certainly not least in terms of contributing factors (though perhaps not in terms of character) come the oafish parade of superstitious, cowardly pukes who thought that the devil was possessing just this part of the ocean, which is entirely reasonable, and thus walled it off, allowing the concentration of luminous dinoflagellates to increase prodigiously. Hats off to you chumps!

Mosquito bay in the daylight is a dank swamp surrounding drab, stagnant water. At night, the twisted trunks of the red mangroves loom strangely from the darkness, lowering the ceiling of sultry air that presses into your forehead. The persistent whine of insects is maddening, and the lifejackets are damp and itchy. The mud has a sulfurous smell that intensifies as subdued tour groups squelch around in the watery beams of low powered headlights, struggling to get astride plastic kayaks before the midges chew through their ankles.

Once out of the dampening clutch of the mangroves, the air cools, the clean smell of salt replaces the stink of the shallows, and you are no longer martyred by hosts of rapacious pests. The sheepish rustle of uncomfortable, slightly overweight tourists in comically short life vests gives way to the soft slap of paddles on the surface of still water. There is very little light pollution, and the unfamiliar constellations of the southern hemisphere reflect brightly in the wake of the boats.  After a short time, the ripples behind the boat become more defined and shimmer less, and the swath the paddle cuts through the water exists as a path of greenish light after the pole is lifted from the water. To dip a hand over the side is to initiate a flurry of sparkles, and for several seconds afterwards your fingers are spotted with glowing dots that slip over the surfaces of your hand in droplets.

The guides led us to the center of the bay. There was no moon, and the milky way stood out whitely against the summer sky. In the east, clouds were gathering low on the horizon, and a few stray bursts of lightening blossomed in their midst. From the deep grey of the cloud bank, the night arched above us, cloudless and dazzling.  Venus was a creamy speck.

Then I got in the water.


Pictures from the Vieques Bio-Bay are all photoshopped for a reason – it’s really difficult to get an exposure length long enough for the kind of camera you can carry on a sea kayak. Plus all the rocking. But all the light around my arms? That is not the flash.

What it actually looks like to the naked eye is astounding. Your arms and legs leave streaks in the water as you move, and splashing is an entirely new experience. 

When you lift up your hands, tiny droplets of eerie green light slide down your arms, and for a brief moment you are illuminated. Then everything is still and salty.

I can honestly count Vieques Island among the most incredible experiences of my life, and although it may not be everyone’s most cherished dream to immerse themselves in a dormant soup of glowing protists, and though you probably aren’t quite as attached to bioluminescence as I am,


It is still completely awesome.


  1. This is just one of the many reasons why I love you.

  2. Is that your bioluminescence or the radioactivity?

  3. Any idea where one might find edible, or at least non toxic, luciferin and luciferase?