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Glowing guide to seeing ‘marine aurora’ bioluminescence in Auckland

Glowing guide to seeing 'marine aurora' bioluminescence in Auckland
Written by Publishing Team

Footage of stunning bioluminescence at Tyndales Beach (Wangabarawa Peninsula). Video / Matthew Davison

The glowing waters around Auckland are a fascinating and elusive sight.

It’s hard to believe the Northern Lights exist until you witness the blue lights of phytoplankton, lapping at the beaches after dark.

Bioluminescence: Where can you see glowing blue waves in Auckland?
Bioluminescence: Where can you see glowing blue waves in Auckland?

Fortunately, a couple of photographers have put together a guide to help you see the phenomenon in the waters around Tamaki Makurao.

For the past two years, Grant Burley and Matthew Davison have been working on a way to find the microscopic animals that cause glow after dark. While it is difficult to do this reliably, they do have some useful pointers for hunters of phytoplankton.

On a Sunday night, they used it to track down a show in Manly Bay, Northshore.

“We’ve heard a lot of people say it’s the first time they’ve seen that,” Grant said.

Spectators in Manly Bay, north of Auckland, enjoyed a glowing show Sunday night.  Photo / Grant Burley
Spectators in Manly Bay, north of Auckland, enjoyed a glowing show Sunday night. Photo / Grant Burley

While he usually says that it is important to manage expectations and that shows are more vibrant through the use of photography, Sunday’s show was particularly bright.

This helped passersby splashed into the water, aiding the glow caused by the movement.

“It was visible to the naked eye which made it a wonderful sight,” he said.

His ten-year-old son, who was bathing in the water, stood in front of the camera.

“Every time he stood out from the water, his clothes shone a bright blue – even his face and hair.”

The best show was between 23:00 and lasted after midnight.

Swimmers returning Monday night were disappointed to discover the phytoplankton had disappeared.

“After a show like this, you’d expect the same the next night, but as is often the case with these things, it’s gone.”

Glowing wreckage in Arkles Bay, Auckland.  Photo / Grant Burley
Glowing wreckage in Arkles Bay, Auckland. Photo / Grant Burley

How and where to find bioluminescence in Auckland

Having first seen the phenomenon in January 2020, Grant said he wanted to come up with a more reliable way to track the algae flare.

“It’s a bit unpredictable, very hard to find, and even more so to photograph,” Grant says.

However, there are a few tricks he and when learned.

After the rain, come shine

Some of the strongest scenes are seen during the warm evenings after the rains.

While not good for water quality and swimming, plankton thrive after rain.

“Runoff from the land after rainfall has something to do with it as well as the following heat,” Grant said.

Although Auckland hasn’t seen a lot of rain lately, he said this weekend’s show was all about tides and hot water temperatures.

Father and son on Manawhai Beach.  Photo / Grant Burley
Father and son on Manawhai Beach. Photo / Grant Burley

Hot evenings after dark

Increasing temperatures and ambient light affect viewing.

“The less light the better,” so moonless nights are ideal.

Unusually warm waters and stable seas, such as the current marine heat wave affecting New Zealand, are prime conditions for seeing glare.

However, it is known that performances can be seen all year round.

“I came across it in July, albeit not very often,” he says.

Satellite tracking of phytoplankton hotspots around New Zealand.  Photo / Niwa
Satellite tracking of phytoplankton hotspots around New Zealand. Photo / Niwa

Look for

Twilight hunter Matthew Davidson previously used satellite imagery to try to track down the elusive phytoplankton.

“When the next focused bloom heads our way, I hope to notice it and provide some advance warning and enable more people to see the blue gold,” Matthew wrote.

NIWA reports rising sea temperatures and phytoplankton have already mapped the phenomenon to prevailing temperatures, with Auckland and the Hauraki Gulf being a particular hot spot to watch.

Although this phenomenon can be seen all over the country.

“I’ve seen liveliness as far north as Cape Renga and Totokaka,” Grant says.

Motion in the ocean: Glow events will only be shown when there are waves or motion.  Photo / Grant Burley
Motion in the ocean: Glow events will only be shown when there are waves or motion. Photo / Grant Burley

Patience is the key

The displays can be turned on at any time after dark, so patience and realistic expectations are vital.

“Unless you’re very lucky, the visual experience will be more muted than the photographic experience,” he says.

Glow is the plankton defense mechanism and will only be triggered by movement, so unless there’s some current, fish or people in the water – you may never know it was there.

However, even the faint flicker of light in water tends to excite photographers and nature watchers, which is why Grant and Matthew began their guide to glowing water.

“It’s still in its infancy but work is in progress nonetheless”

Best glowing beaches in Auckland

  • Matakatia Bay
  • Tyndales Bay
  • Little Manley
  • Big man
  • Arcles Bay
  • Stanmore Bay
  • red beach
  • Mahorangi Provincial Park
  • Muriwai
  • yard
  • Anahata Beach
  • Bethels
  • you are my opinion
  • Manguhai
  • Ruakaca
  • ocean beach
  • Mataburi

For more photos and tips on where to see phytoplankton, visit @chasing_horizonz_ on Instagram

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