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.