These photographers pursue bioluminescence in New Zealand

On hot, moonless nights in New Zealand, they scatter on the beaches in search of an elusive and bright quarry.

They are not hunters, but photographers chasing bioluminescence, a natural phenomenon in which bright algae give the crashing waves an ethereal electric blue aura.

New Zealand is a particularly good place to “chase the biography,” as enthusiasts there say. However, it is notoriously difficult to predict where and when bioluminescence will appear. And photographing him in near-total darkness (at 3 a.m., as you lie on your knees surfing on a tripod) presents additional obstacles.

“It’s very, very hard to see, and sometimes it comes down to blind luck,” said one such enthusiast, Matthew Davison, 37, who lives in Auckland and sometimes stays out until the end of the year. only firing bioluminescence.

“But part of the appeal and part of the adventure is that because it’s so hard, that’s what makes it exciting,” he added. “When you find it, when you touch the blue gold, it’s such a good feeling.”

Bioluminescence is relatively rare on land, but very common in the ocean. About four out of five animals living between 200 and 1,000 meters (650 to 3,300 feet) below the surface are bioluminescent, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The glow comes in different colors on land, but in the oceans it usually appears as blue-green because it is the one that best cuts the water from the sea.

Bioluminescent organisms, from light worms to rapa, create light from the energy released by chemical reactions inside their bodies.

While many scientists, including Aristotle and Darwin, have been fascinated by bioluminescence over the centuries, behavioral motivations for it remain a mystery, said Kenneth H. Nealson, professor emeritus at the University of the South. California who studied the phenomenon. for decades.

Scientists generally think that organisms light up to communicate with each other, attract or detect prey, or warn or evade predators.

The most popular explanation for why algae glow in the oceans is the “burglar alarm” hypothesis, Professor Nealson said. He argues that organisms glow when large fish swim to scare away smaller fish that eat algae.

Coastal waters turn blue during periods when algae, which live near the surface of the oceans, multiply in especially nutrient-rich waters. The specific flashes of blue-green light respond to the pressure changes that the waves create when they crash.

The waves pose no threat to algae, Professor Nealson said, but algae blooms light up anyway because algae are programmed to respond to the pressure changes that fish create when they swim in the sea. open ocean.

“This luminescence is probably useless for algae that are at the apex of the wave and emit light,” said Professor Nealson. “But if they went back a little further into the sea, it could be a very good behavioral mechanism,” because it could help them scare away predators.

Photographers who hunt for bioluminescence in New Zealand, many of whom have day-to-day work, say summer is usually the best time to spot it. (Summer runs from December to March in the southern hemisphere.) Post-storm nights are best, they say, because water from the land to the ocean often includes nutrient-rich material that attracts algae.

Mr. Davison, a product developer for a technology company, has a method for finding bioluminescence. He first studies satellite imagery to identify algae blooms on the coast. It then reviews other indicators, such as wind direction and tidal patterns, to predict where the water may glow.

He is an exception, however. Other photographers rely primarily on a mix of luck, intuition, and occasional advice from neighbors who see blue sparks as they walk along the beach.

“If I’m perfectly honest, probably eight out of 10 times I catch it is by chance or just by an instinctive feeling that there might be,” said Grant Birley, 48, who works in the orthopedic industry and often he stops to take pictures. bioluminescence during its two-hour voyage along the North Island coast of New Zealand. “It’s not a polite guess at all.”

An intelligence source is a private Facebook group set up two years ago for people in the Auckland area to discuss bioluminescence sightings. It now has more than 7,000 members and hosts about 2,000 new members each summer, said Stacey Ferreira, one of the group’s administrators.

Ms Ferreira said she set up the group so that others could “spot the beautiful phenomenon on their wish lists” as she did in 2020. “It’s been great!” wrote in an email. “People from all walks of life have come together: talented photography enthusiasts, bioluminescence researchers, scientists, families and everyone in between.”

For “bio hunters,” finding brilliance is just the beginning of the process of capturing a memorable image. After reaching a beach, they usually set up surfing tripods and spend hours shooting, sometimes in near-total darkness, as blue spots flash intermittently across the coast. Sometimes the blink goes off after a few minutes and they head home empty-handed.

When the “biography” is present, a key challenge is to decide how long to expose an image. Mr. Birley said the time could range from a second to almost two minutes and it could be difficult to check on the fly, looking at a small camera screen, to see if the exposure times are correct.

Another challenge is that bioluminescence images sometimes include details that were not visible when you clicked the shutter. This is because a camera sees much more than the naked eye, especially in long night exposures.

“During the day you look at it and say, ‘There’s a tree, a sunset, and a cliff, and I’ll move to the left,'” said Alistair Bain, 38, a high school teacher who lives in near Mr. Birley in the suburbs. Whangaparaoa Peninsula, north of central Auckland. “You don’t have any of that at night.”

Despite all the challenges, photographers say that the hunt for bioluminescence is rewarding in part because the phenomenon is infinitely amazing.

One clear night, Mr. Bain drove about 40 miles to a beach where he hoped to photograph the Milky Way galaxy. When he arrived, he saw not only a starry sky, but a bright shore. “That was special by chance,” he said.

Again, Mr. Davison got out of his car on a beach with low expectations. It was raining and it was supposed to be a problem because heavy rain usually ruined a bioluminescence show.

But in this case, the rain was light enough to have activated bright algae on the surface of the ocean as far as he could see. So he grabbed his camera and started firing.

“Unless you’re there, unless you catch him, no one would believe, or even imagine, what you’re witnessing,” Mr. Davison. “That’s why I love taking pictures and videos of it. The best way to share what you’ve seen is through the power of an image. “

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