The Hidden World of Bioluminescence

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Best read out loud with a British accent; think David Attenborough. 

We’re on location in Tomales Bay tonight to experience one of Nature’s greatest wonders. ​

Camera pans across the Bay. ​ 

After arriving at a musty rustic cabin run by a disgruntled caretaker, we drove to the Bay, which separates the Point Reyes peninsula from the Marin County mainland. Dusk descended as our group gathered, geared up, and is given a kayaking prep talk from three peppy guides. 

Lens view is up close and personal, from the perspective of a participant. ​ 

We slipped into the water and kayaked across the Bay at twilight, gliding past islands that we can’t discern except for the fact that they block out the stars behind them to form looming silhouettes. Once we reached the other side of the Bay, the blanket of night enveloped our expedition. ​

Time lapse footage of the sun descending, the sky darkening. ​ 

As our kayaks bobbed up against massive cliffs on the seashore, we held positions close to the edge, where shadows prevent even the stars from reflecting in the rippling, inky velvet water. 

Screen fades to black. Voice shifts to sound more clipped and scientific, while retaining friendly undertones. ​ 

Though normally invisible to the naked human eye, dinoflagellates are a type of single-celled plankton that inhabit all water bodies. 

Side note: confidently pronounce and emphasize the word “dinoflagellates.” ​ 

They exhibit some animal, as well as various plant, characteristics. The plankton have the ability to move, otherwise known as locomotion, yet are simultaneously able to take advantage of sunlight for energy via the process of photosynthesis. ​

Be cautious to not sound like a know-it-all; rather, take on the role of a passionate and engaging teacher. ​ 

These amazing dinoflagellate organisms produce bursts of light when disturbed, putting on a striking show of glowing water. This spectacular natural phenomena is called bioluminescence; light produced from chemical reactions in living organisms.​ 

Emphasize the words “wondrous” and “sparkles” with excitement. ​ 

The reaction releases energy as light to form the wondrous underwater sparkles which will be visible tonight. Scientists believe that the plankton bio-luminesce primarily for reasons of self-defense. When their cell walls detect any form of pressure, they undergo a chemical reaction that emits a glow. This flash consequently seems to deter predators from feasting upon the plankton. And now… 

Pause for dramatic effect.

…the magic is about to begin. ​

Plunge the camera view underneath the water in a flurry of bubbles to see the kayaks from below. Screen fades to black. As eyes adjust to the low light level, oars begin to stir up the dinoflagellate plankton that luminesce in trails behind the kayaks. ​The night sky is shown from the kayakers’ perspective, focusing on the Milky Way, then panning down to the circulating lights within the water. ​ 

Each stroke creates a slow-motion Milky Way, swirling to form underwater constellations. Fish become shooting stars of turquoise light. ​

Follow the path of an illuminated fish darting through the Bay. The group has stopped paddling to lean over the edge of their kayaks and closely inspect the water below. ​Soft, blurry flashing lights come into focus to reveal what the kayakers are seeing. 

Watch as I dip my hand in, leaving streaks of sparkly lights which follow my movements.

Camera follows hand movements, then reveals the expression on her face: one of amazement and glee. ​ 

This occurrence is so lovely that at times it doesn’t seem real. It’s difficult to believe that these simple, microscopic creatures have the capacity to emit such a marvelous display of light.

Transition into a thoughtful tone; allowing a moment for the viewer to contemplate. ​ 

In this regard, single-celled life forms appear more complex than us, pulsing with light from within. 

Screen fades to black. Voice hushes to a lively whisper. ​ 

All superfluous talking has ceased so that we may fully immerse ourselves in this beautiful spectacle of Nature’s light. 

The only sounds are those of oars splashing, dipping and pulling, stimulating the plankton to bio-luminesce. Show footage of bursting lights just under the water’s surface. Make the audience feel as if they are in the kayak, experiencing the phenomenon in real-time. ​ 

We paddle leisurely, drawing shimmering shapes on the water’s surface and casting handfuls of sparkling sea that splash down into bursts of bioluminescent fireworks. Moments such as this incite wonder at the beauty of Mother Earth and all of her astounding complexities. 

Screen fades to black. View of a kayak’s bow making a continuous forward progression in the water. ​The spell of watching lights streak by in the dark sea is broken by a harsh grinding noise. ​Camera suddenly stops, halting the continuous forward progression. ​ The bottom of the kayak has skidded over gravel and we’re back at the docking area. The group departs, yet we sit in silence for a while, trying to hold onto that radiant vision of glowing water for just a few…moments…longer. ​Lens moves up to focus on Tomales Bay from a bird’s eye view, showing bioluminescence from afar, and s-l-o-w-l-y begins to zoom out until Earth is but a speck of light, a single glowing dinoflagellate. Finally, screen fades into black. Credits roll.

Utah Street resident, Avalon Edwards, 16, is a junior at The Urban School