Bioluminescent Display on the Outer Banks

Posted by Arlo on Sep 9, 2010 under Postcard Valet, Travel

Bioluminescent display at Nags Head

At dawn today, a light nor’easter blew in at the beach.  The surf roughed up a bit with whitecaps extending out to sea, but the waves themselves are not that large.  Still, it was a far cry from what the ocean was like just a few hours before, at 3am.

It was almost two o’clock when I when to bed last night, the last person in the cottage to turn out the lights.  Our room faces the ocean and just before going to sleep, I decided to look through the window screen at the ocean.  It had been calm all day, the waves no higher than 12-inches tall, so the whole expanse of water was simply flat and black.  A bright green wave broke on the sand bar.

I blinked.

Was that reflecting off the street lights or could it be…?

I waited through two more waves before waking up Oksana.  “Sorry, honey, but I think we might want to take a walk down to the beach.”

It was bioluminescence.  Millions of tiny dinoflagellates in the water were giving off a tiny burst of light whenever they were disturbed, in this case by the tiny waves crashing into the sand bar.  The darkness prevented us from seeing the waves approach, but when they started their curl, a green wall, no more than one foot tall, reached out to the left and right.  It was like a lightsaber coming to life, lacking only the sound effect.

The conditions that night could not have been any better for a bioluminescent show.  Barely a breath of wind, a star-filled sky sporting a perfect new moon, and the flattest, blackest ocean you can imagine.  And unlike when we visited the Bioluminescent Bay in Puerto Rico, there were places on the beach where I could set up my camera…

When Oksana went back to sleep, I hauled out my DSLR.  I really didn’t expect to get anything to show up at all, but the 5D’s full-frame sensor and high-ISO settings surprised me.  It was exceedingly difficult to set the focus and I wasn’t able to find an engaging foreground subject, but still… one or two of the photos came out worth sharing.

Bioluminescent display at Nags Head