Noctiluca scintillans Makes Global Headlines for HK

As reported by Apple Daily today, a recent bloom of the bioluminescent organism Noctiluca scintillans – often known as “Sea Sparkle” – and a frequent cause of red-tides in Hong Kong (recent posts here, here and here ), has occcured in the sea near Tai Po. The bloom has attracted more and more people hoping to capture the bioluminescence on camera. Some of the images and video have even made international media reports.

But the sudden influx of night-time visitors is causing some aggravation to villagers who are complaining about the noise nuisance. Many people have also been throwing rocks into the sea to agitate the single-celled organisms into sparkling, which is harming the local ecology.  While one or two stones thrown hardly make a difference, several hundred rocks hurled into the sea does create some damage. If you are reading this and planning to go and see the blooms, please DO NOT THROW STUFF IN THE SEA, NOT EVEN STONES. If you really want to see the sparkle then wade in to use your hands or a stick to agitate the water – but I don’t advise this either.

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Some villagers have now taken to blocking beaches. Up to 100 visitors are coming to the beaches and cars are now blocking lanes causing a major disturbance to village life.

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Advice on viewing Noctiluca scintillans in Hong Kong:

1. DO NOT THROW ANYTHING INTO THE SEA. If you want to agitate the bloom use a stick or branch to swirl the water. Or just watch out for waves which will do the same.

2. Respect local villagers. Do not be noisy and obnoxious. Do not block lanes

3. DO NOT LITTER. TAKE ONLY PICTURES AND VIDEO, LEAVE NOTHING BEHIND.

4.  Use a tripod and a slow shutter speed and high sensitivity (ISO) for long exposures to capture the full sparkle.5. If you can tame your urge to see the sea sparkle in person please do, it would really help the environment (and the villagers). You can just enjoy the images and videos floating around the internet,for example this (probably copied) video:

Click here to see irresponsible behaviour in the Apple Daily article ( so you know what not to do).

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Stockings, Strainers and a jam jar – plankton fishing at Tai Long Wan

A group of Noctiluca scintillans
Source: Maria Antónia Sampayo, Instituto de Oceanografia, Faculdade Ciências da Universidade de Lisboa via Wikipedia.

The moon and stars shine dimly as the waves break on Tai Long Wan in Sai Kung on a hot summer evening, when the waves themselves light up with mini-fireworks as the waves crash on the damp sand. What is this magical display? Noctiluca scintillans (night-shining sparkling) also known as ‘Sea Sparkles’.
Sea Sparkles belong to a group of single-celled algae called dinoflagellates, that all share the same body plan: a single cell sometimes with armour plates, one long and one short hair, called flagella, that beat to move the cell along in the water or move water towards its mouth (technically a feeding groove). But Noctiluca scintillans is a bit special and here is why:

  • Its bioluminescent, that is it can make light using two chemicals stored separately in its cell, which cause light when mixed together. It’s just like a glow-stick where you bend the tube to crack an inner glass tube which releases a chemical into the rest of the tube and the two chemicals react producing light.
  • It’s not really an algae as it doesn’t photosynthesise. Instead of turning CO2 and H2O into sugars using solar-power, its more like an animal and eats other plankton both algae and animals.
  • It’s also into gardening. It likes to eat other algae, but instead of digesting them all it sometimes keeps them alive in little bubbles called vacuoles where they continue to photosynthesise. Imagine eating a potato and letting it just sit in a glass stomach to grow more potatoes and when it gets to full in your tummy, you digest a few spuds and leave the rest to grow more again….then you have the Noctiluca scintillans attitude to TV-dinners….can’t be bother to find new food all the time.

But whats all this got to do with stockings, strainers and jam jars?

Here is how I found Sea Sparkles using a home-made plankton net at Tai Long Wan (Sai Kung), and maybe you can, too:

Instructions for a make-shift plankton net
Ingredients: plastic spaghetti strainer, a pair of nylon stockings, some rubber bands and a few bits of string.
Directions: cut the strainer to leave only the circular opening as a frame for the net. Used one leg of the stocking and slip over the strainer frame and secure tightly with rubber bands. Attach string to three points on the frame and tie the ends together at  about 50cm length. Attach a rope to the knotted ends. Now cut a small hole in the foot end of the stocking and slip the stocking over a glass collection jar (clean jam jar, keep the lid for later), and secure tightly with rubber bands. Done!
Now tow it behind a kayak, dinghy or rowing boat for a couple of minutes, then gather up and remove the jar. All you need now is a magnifying glass or even better a microscope.

So when I looked at the plankton sample I gathered with this net under the microscope at home, I found Noctiluca scintillans, although it was pretty much dead at that point. It’s basically a super-thin bag jelly bag of air with two hairs coming off it. If you don’t have a microscope and are just using a magnifying glass, all you will see is round blobs up to 2mm in diameter. But if your sample is fresh and you are in a dark room or its night, give it a shake (close the lid first!) and maybe you will get some fireworks!