water sparkles

Sea Sparkles, AKA Noctiluca Scintillans
Image: Shutterstock

Northwest waterways can be a scene of unspeakable beauty.  Picture this: The moon is full and you are out on a nighttime kayak trip.  You love the way the moon’s reflection makes the water sparkle.  You dip your kayak paddle through the saltwater of Puget Sound.  As you do so, you notice a curious phenomenon.  Not only is the moon making the water sparkle, but even the water droplets themselves seem to glisten.

You are actually in the presence of tiny animals.  Known as noctiluca scintillans, or Sea Sparkle, these marine dwellers emit their own light.  They are actually a species of dinoflagellate which emit bioluminescence when disturbed.

In other words, when you drag your paddle through a patch of these otherwise invisible organisms, they light up the water.  It’s a breathtaking phenomenon.  In fact, if you enter a cave where they are present, you can splash water on the cave wall and watch it light up.  If you have never experienced this, put it on your bucket list.  It’s totally worth it.

The diet for these single-celled organisms includes plankton, fish eggs and bacteria.  These heterotrophic, meaning non-photosynthetic, animals surround their food and eat it.  They need light, but they don’t photosynthesize since they are an animal and not a plant.

You can find noctiluca all around the world but especially near areas that get a lot of light.  They go where their favorite food sources are found.  While they are not poisonous, they love to eat phytoplankton which contributes to them developing high levels of ammonia.  In fact, noctiluca would be right at home during a red tidal bloom since they would have plenty to eat.

Don’t worry though…they are incapable of harming you.  Just stay away from the red tides.