The Fairy Tale of Glowing Dolphins, Luciferin, and Bioluminescent Algae

The Fairy Tale of Glowing Dolphins, Luciferin, and Bioluminescent Algae
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How about you navigate at night in the middle of the ocean and a couple of glowing dolphins, luciferin, or bioluminescent algae start swimming around you? Wouldn’t you think you entered the realm of a marine fairy tale? If you aren’t photographer Patrick Coyne and haven’t already seen this on Netflix, that you just might believe the fairy tale version.

But Coyne was sailing off the coast of California’s Newport beach for this exact reason: to find the glowing dolphins. Or better said, the dolphins that would turn on the light hidden in the fierce bioluminescent algae. There is no glowing dolphin, so enough with the fairy tale. What is, are algae that try to frighten the predator with luciferin.

“A few minutes later and we were greeted by a few more which was insane. I’m honestly still processing this all,” said Coyne. Luciferin is the light-emitting compound that, when excited, it generates bioluminescence in organisms. If the organism has it, that is. So, there are these algae that contain luciferin.

Glowing Dolphins, Luciferin, and Biolusminenscent Algae

When a predator, such as, let’s say, a dolphin frenetically swims through the waters where these algae live, they get excited (that is either thrilled or angry, we’re not sure) and emit light.

The light is a form of oxidation that lasts for up to 100 milliseconds. After this sudden enzyme-catalyzed oxidation and the resulting excited state, the algae go to their ground state. But with the dolphins swimming so fast through the odd plankton, it looks like a continuous light on the back of the mammals.

So, watching the dolphins swim through the waters filled with bioluminescent algae gives a false impression that it is the dolphins that are glowing. Who would think that it would be the poor algae from the plankton family too sensitive to be touched by a predator?


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