Holidaymakers in destinations like the Maldives are sometimes treated to a natural phenomenon that turns the night-time ocean into a field of glowing stars. As waves break on the sandy shore or bare feet step into wet sand a bright green-blue glow appears. This magical effect is caused by bioluminescent plankton that often appears in warm coastal waters.

What makes bioluminescent plankton glow

Scientists have only recently discovered that this type of plankton glows when they are moved because of stress - ironic when you consider how relaxing the sight of the shimmering waves are in the dark night. Bioluminescence is used as a defence mechanism to draw predators towards the creature trying to eat the plankton. The tiny flashes of light also disorientate and surprise the predator.

These tiny organisms produce light using a chemical called luciferin. The process of creating a bioluminescent light, which is simply light produced within a living creature, differs between organisms. Some need a particular food or another creature for the effect to happen. But this type of plankton, called dinoflagellates, produce luciferin on their own. The light the tiny plankton emit is called ‘cold light’, meaning less than 20% of the light generates heat. 

Huge areas of the ocean can become populated by glowing plankton but the effect is especially common in warm-water lagoons that have narrow openings to the sea. This causes the plankton to gather and become trapped, causing the water to turn orange.

Where to see bioluminescent plankton

If you want to see the bioluminescent plankton for yourself then there are a number of locations throughout the world where they regularly appear. Just remember there is always an element of luck involved in seeing something like this. Luckily, most of the locations where the plankton appear also make good holiday destinations. The Maldives is famous for shining white beaches and teeming marine life and almost every island is visited by glowing plankton. High season for spotting the plankton is mid-summer through to winter but it can appear at any time.

San Diego is another place where locals and holidaymakers report seeing the waves glow as they break on the shore or shine as a surfboard cuts through a wake. Other countries that have reported sightings of bioluminescent plankton are Australia, Vietnam, Thailand, Puerto Rico and Jamaica.

Inspired?


Evoking images of white sands, swaying palm trees and crystal blue waters, this is the quintessential picture-perfect holiday – with an added sprinkling of something special. Far-flung and exotic, it's the ultimate luxury beach escape. We’ve been offering holidays here for over 20 years, and there’s a reason that it’s our most popular destination.

Read more about our Maldives holidays

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