The stars above, the luminescence below

By Phil Plait | March 3, 2011 7:00 am

Sometimes the strangeness and beauty of nature come together in a scene so lovely, so surreal, that words fail. Such is the case in Phil Hart’s spectacular gallery of pictures showing bioluminescence in Gippsland Lakes in Victoria, Australia:

Oh, my. Can you believe this is real? I had to compress the file to get it to work on the blog, so please click it to see it in higher-resolution, and also look at the other astonishing pictures in his gallery.

Phil has a page describing in detail the pictures. In this case, a 1.5 hour exposure shows the glow from the trillions of Noctiluca Scintillans protists in the lake, as well as the trails of stars as they circle the southern celestial pole. That light on the horizon is not the Moon, but a house or some other man-made object. I love how the reflection curves and breaks up near the shore.

Phil’s pictures are simply breath-taking, and you just have to go and take a look. I am continually astonished at just how beautiful and surprising nature can be. It’s thrilling to see such disparate pieces superposed in this way.

Tip o’ the luciferin to Jared Hopkins. Image used with permission of Phil Hart.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Pretty pictures

Comments (30)

  1. Sam H

    “Paths that lead to the ordinary
    are marked by the obvious lights;
    In order to reach the EXTRAORDINARY,
    You must pause, and find the path to the maw of the night.”

    The glare of the light on the lake vs. the algae I saw as two paths – the glare leading to the house, but the algae leading directly to the axis of the stars rotation, which one could say even looks some kind of portal/classical sci-fi wormhole. Anyway, the poem is my take on this photo plus light pollution – you need to stop and stare a while to see the extraordinary!! :)

  2. Hi, Phil

    Just a small correction. This picture shows the glow of a Noctiluca scintillans bloom, a dinoflagellate that was thriving on the lake by feeding on the cyanobacterium Synechococcus.

  3. Nigel Depledge

    A most excellent pic!

  4. Kevin

    Wow that sure brings back memories, about 18 years ago I’ve seen this ‘live’ on the beach of one of the small islands off the north coast of the Netherlands. I remember being struck with awe seeing light comming from the breaking waves, it was as if a line of divers was illuminating the breaking waves from within the water. Luckily I was not alone at the time and two of my friends were there (being equally struck by the beauty of this phenomenon) because for a moment I thought I had lost my marbles 😉

  5. Beautiful, but as a microbiologist, I gotta fix this a bit. Syneccococcus is a cyanobacterium and not bioluminescent. Noctiluca scintillans, as you might guess from the name, makes the light. Noctiluca is a dinoflagellate that eats the cyanobacterium bloom.

  6. ASFalcon13

    The reflection of the light curving near the shore is proof that this photo is a NASA hoax, which was faked to prevent us from learning the TRUTH! This photo was obviously shot in a sound stage in Bakersfield, CA. Stars circling celestial poles? Round Earth? Unlikely! You look out at the horizon, and does it look round? No! It looks flat! The tides come in and go out, no miscommunication…you can’t explain that!

    [/tinfoil hat]

  7. D’oh! Sorry about the mixup; I wanted to make sure I got the spelling of the luminescent species correct, so I cut and pasted… the wrong name. I fixed it, thanks.

  8. MT-LA

    Any good explanation as to why the archs of the star paths seem to be oblong? I would have thought that they should be perfectly circular. Is this due to progression through earth’s orbit?

  9. Jason

    @10 The shot looks to be a fairly wide-angle shot. That is most likely caused by compression in the image from the lens used.

  10. Melusine

    Read his explanation and saw the other photos. Cool. He ended:

    If only I could order it all up again!

    Camera technology + nature surprising us through a chain of events + him getting out there at the right time = very beautiful photos. Does he really want those floods again though?

  11. Joanne

    A few years back I visited the Phosphorescent Bay in Parguera, Puerto Rico. We took the night tour into the bay. All lights were out, new moon, clear skies. I was at a loss, do I watch the water, or Crux and Centaurus overhead? Omega was an easy naked-eye target (and I had my 15×70 binos), but the water was amazing. That night will always by etched in my mind as one of the best I have ever had. These photos bring back the memory.

  12. Shawn

    For anyone else confused by Phil’s comments and/or poor black differentiation on your screen:

    The blue is the shoreline, not an unnaturally straight blue line down the middle of the lake. What appears to be the reflection of trees on the right hand side is actually, I think the line differentiating a ?sandy? beach from some grass/brush.

  13. Selina

    another quick correction to the name, Noctiluca scintillans – the specific epithet starts with a small ‘s’, not capital. Lovely pic mash-up of astronomy and aquatic ecology. Older rules of Latin grammar dictated that names of people and places were capitalised, but this has fallen by the wayside.

    In this case, the specific epithet means ‘to sparkle’, which has some poetic symmetry between the water, the algae and stars..

  14. Messier Tidy Upper

    Wow! Love this photo – although my all-time favourite of his is his Southern Cross mosaic. :-)

    By marvellous co-incidence I saw & spoke with Phil Hart in person just a couple of days ago when he was the visiting guest speaker* at the South Australian Astronomical Society meeting. He gave a great talk which my Dad** and I both really enjoyed. This was among the photos he showed. :-)


    * The exchange talk with the Astronomical Society of Victoria.

    ** My Dad has retired and is now getting into photography. It’s only about the third or fourth Astro. Society meeting he’s been to.

  15. Peter Eldergill

    Why do the paths of the stars look elliptical rather than circular?


  16. Naomi

    Beautiful :)

    Phil, would that happen to be a The Skies Above, The Field Below reference? (Explosions in the Sky would be a pretty good band for an astronomer!)

  17. Mick

    Am i doing something wrong? When I click the link, the picture is no bigger, and I can’t seem to find a link to a higher quality version…

  18. MadScientist

    I haven’t seen that phenomenon in over 20 years. I used to enjoy wading in the shallow water and stirring up the bugs. I collected great gobs of sand on a few occasions since I was determined to find the animal responsible – at the time I didn’t imagine the animals would be so small that they would not be easy to find by eye (if they are even visible to the eye except for the glow).

  19. Christopher R. Vesely, PharmD

    What a spectacular photo. Thank you, Dr Plait.

  20. Joseph G

    @Naomi: Woot, I love EITS – partly for that very reason. The name makes me think of super/novae :)

  21. @Peter (#22): You can’t have a mapping from space to the plane which maps both straight lines to straight lines and all circles to circles. Usually one prefers the former (otherwise houses, horizons and trees would look silly), except for panorama shots or ultra-wide-angle lenses. This forces circles outside the center of the picture to be imaged as ellipses. The lens used in this case might have exacerbated it (the phenomenon gets stronger with wider angles), but not necessarily.

  22. Not being facetious in the least, I find all of your comments , quite funny, and highly entertaining ! Education is interesting. The exactness and precision of definition reminds me a bit of the precision of Tool and Die. Yet, the tie between, beauty and perception of life and the universe expressed in an art form of understanding makes it all the more magnificent.
    Thank you Phil


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