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Wavescape - Surfing in South Africa

Wed, 1 February 2017

They bathed in celestial sparks of electric blue on a nocturnal hunt in the dark deep. Taun Healy, of Blue Owl Media, joins the Bioluminescent Hunters for a magical night of alien oddity.


GLOW-SHARK: From the 10 Days 10 Nights project. Photo Bryan Little & Filipa Domingues

Spotting a photo of glowing bioluminescent plankton in Hermanus on Facebook, owner of Animal Ocean Steve Benjamin rallied a team of excited "Bioluminescent Hunters": Otto Whitehead, Glenn Moncrieff, Eve Benjamin and myself. We were in before we had finished reading the invite. At 7pm last Thursday 26th January, we set off to Hermanus armed with tripods, cameras and a flask of coffee and biscuits.

We were so excited we didn’t stop for food or anything on the way, and only spoke of bioluminescent plankton and that we should get a film crew to follow us. Instead of Storm Chasers or some such name, we came up with Bioluminscent Hunters, haha.


NIGHT LIGHT: Bioluminescent plankton in Dalebrook tidal pool last year. Photo Otto Whitehead

Otto Whitehead tells us that “the creature behind this magical phenomenon is a dinoflagellate named Noctiluca scintillans. This particular species is unique from its relatives because it has special organs called scintillons. Each scintillon contains luciferin, which, when flooded with the enzyme luciferase, breaks down and releases light. These dinoflagellates will only bioluminesce when disturbed, and is a defense mechanism to attract predators of their predators”.

Steve spoke to Meaghan McCord of the SA Shark Conservancy and asked if she had any bioluminescent plankton in the shark tank at their research facility. “Yes! Come look!” she replied. “WHAAAAAAAT! No ways!” Now okes were on the edge of their car seats, frothing harder than the children on the Magic School Bus (good times).


TIGHT LIGHT: Closeup of the plankton in Dalebrook tidal pool last year. Photo Otto Whitehead

We arrived in Hermanus harbour, quickly gathered our equipment and walked down to the shark lab. I’m surprised no one took a tumble down that rocky hill, we were so excited. In the shark tank, we spotted a sea creature glowing in the dark as it moved briskly around it’s enclosure. It was an absolutely incredible and majestic sight, although I have to be honest, I envisioned a tank lit up like Tiger Tiger burning bright in the kelp forests of a Thursday night. 

It wasn’t quite the neon light show I anticipated, but it was beautiful in a unique, unexpected way. The scene was dark, quiet, magical, tranquil, as if we had jumped into another world and had discovered alien-like creatures of the night.


FREAKY FROMMEL: The team disturb the water to get the glow on. Photo Steve Benjamin

Steve, Otto and I frantically hustled to get tripods up and started shooting. We couldn’t use an external light to light the room as it’s not ideal for the shark.

After maxing out our ISO, shutter speed and F-stop, we were mostly unsuccessful in capturing the magic before us. Not even Steve’s Sony A7S2 with an ISO of 100,000 could capture a decent image of the light flickers surrounding the shark as it swam. After giving up on shooting the shark, we surrounded the tank and waved our hands around, mesmerised by the swirling, glowing water.

Otto and I appreciated the moment, and surrendered in knowing we weren’t going to get any great photos of the shark. Steve obviously didn’t give in and remained shooting. We headed outside to do night photography and create our own light show. Night photography is endless fun! We headed over to Grotto Beach, arrived to a deserted parking lot - not a car and person in sight.


BLUE LIGHTNING: Long exposure of Taun using the tools, below right. Photo Otto Whitehead

Bio-Luminescent-Hunters-January-2017-005As we walked toward the beach we stumbled upon a teenage girl, sitting alone watching the waves. Taking her chances I’d say. As I lagged behind I could hear the others shouting in the distance, “YEEEEEEW! It’s working!”. Tripods were out before I could blink. Glen brought his board in hopes of catching a blue wave, but the conditions were far from ideal for surfing, so we got a few posed shots on the beach. Nailed it.

We ventured to the cliffs, but the plankton didn’t deliver this time, so captured ‘the Dark Night Surfer’, Glen Moncrieff.

It was around 1:30am, at this stage into the adventure we were quite shattered from all of the excitement. As tired as we were, we couldn’t resist stopping at the Ficks tidal pool on our way home.


NIGHT RIDER: Surfer Glen Moncrieff captured on the beach. Photo Otto Whitehead

Steve kept the car running as Otto, Glenn and I ran down a dodgy set of stairs into the darkness. At the end of this stairway to Hell, we found the tidal pool, looking more like a disease ridden swamp.

At first glances it didn’t look like it stood a chance in producing the blue magic. We scanned the surface, looking for any signs of the glowing plankton. I noticed flicker in the shallows. “Guys, watch this,” I said as I threw a rock into the pool. Booom, an explosion of neon blue. “AAAAAAAH!” It was so bright and mind blowing! We stood there throwing a few more rocks in a trance-like state.

We eventually snapped out of it and ran back up the stairs to ‘the real world’ to call Steve and Eve. “It’s happening!” I shouted. Steve went from an exhausted corpse to a hyperactive Jack Russel. The bioluminescent plankton tends to have that effect on people. Magic I tell you.


COSMIC DISTURBANCE: Steve paddling in the pool created a mini-big bang. Photo Otto Whitehead

After capturing the blue explosions, we felt like we needed another subject. Steve asked if any of us would paddle across the pool on a surfboard. ‘LOL! We’re too young to die Steve. Look at that water, it’s filthy! You do it’.

Steve had already decided that if we weren’t keen, he was going to do it. “I’ll go!” We tried to warn him numerous times that he would probably pick up a disease and will spend a lot of time on the toilet at the very least - but that went through one ear and out the other. Secretly, we were very stoked Steve was taking one for the team. And in he went.

At around 2:30 am, after capturing Steve frolicking about in what looked like liquid death, we decided to get back in the magic school bus, and take the journey back to Cape Town.


BLUE FIRE: Walker Bay catches alight with fiery dinoflaggelates. Photo Taun Healy

We all woke up the next day thinking, “Wow, was that one awesome dream?” Steve and Glen headed Up The Creek as I made plans to go back to Hermanus with friends. Brett, Kyle, Deane, Luke and I packed a few items and headed back on Saturday, the 27th of January. We were blessed with an even brighter light show over Walker Bay, as well as an awesome washing machine of blue heaven against the rocks, behind the harbour wall.

We returned to Cape Town on Sunday. On our way back, we took the awesome Steenbras Mountain Road. We could see the red tide stretching across the ocean. “This must glow at night.”

I sent the vid to Steve and he replied with, “Awesome! Let’s go tomorrow!” On Monday, Steve and a new crew of Plankton Hunters (George Kirkinis, Katie Davies, Filipa Domingues, Brian Hope, Lisa Hodgson, Devin Trull, Jason and Dane Dodds) congregated at Steve’s pad in Kalk Bay, and drove in convoy to Gordon’s Bay. When you’re in a car packed with ocean frothers, it’s tough not to chat about ocean species, waves and evolution. Interesting stuff.


GLOW TEAM: The intrepid crew work out ways to capture the trippiness. Photo Taun Healy

Anyway, we finally arrived at the Gordon’s Bay mountain pass. We spotted blue shimmering in the distance. “Ah thank God!” Steve murmured in relief. Tripods and Lisa’s amazing brownies came out.

It was tough to leave the spot, but we knew there were better sights around the corner.

We ventured to Kogel Bay Beach and wow, were we in for a treat! The entire shore line was caked in misty blue as the waves barreled across the beach. It looked as though there were LED’s placed under the ocean’s surface, displaying beautiful waves. Nature was flaring in all her motherly goodness!


SHOT OF THE SHOOT: Tripods on the beach looking for glow sharks. Photo Taun Healy

I was borrowing a friend’s dodgy tripod, in which the tripod head fell off. So I was lagging behind and trying to reattach it eagerly, as the others shot away and played in the sand. Much to my relief I finally got it back on and snapped the photo above. Pleasantly stoked. The sand and puddles were covered in bioluminescent plankton that could only be described as a scene out of Avatar. We kicked, jumped and played like little children experiencing the beach for the first time.

It was 12am when we left Kogel Bay beach. I couldn’t help but feel burnt out from all this bioluminescent plankton goodness, but still feeling very stoked and excited. I never thought I’d feel burnt out from adventure.

Anyway, enough of the negativity, we were off to the next spot. We hunted for the tidal pool, and instead found a glowing point break and little rock pools that proved very difficult to capture on camera. You could see the blue lining the ocean’s surface with the naked eye.


HANDFUL: Devin scoops up a piece of the cosmic blue. Photo Steve Benjamin

It was getting late and the yawns were starting to be heard from the rock pools. We decided to call it a night and headed home to the soothing tunes from Ben Howard, and then the ‘keep the driver awake’ tunes from Smashing Pumpkins.

Thank you everyone for the awesome, unreal adventures! It all still feels like a dream. Until the next one! 


0 #3 nostalgiaHannah 2017-03-26 21:48
Was at Kogelbaai last year in Feb and this is exactly what happened - couldn't capture it on camera as all we had were phones, but oh my word was it phenomenal! Any idea how long the plankton stay there? Will be back in the area in late April; any chance I'll be able to see the biolum again?
0 #2 PhysioPam 2017-02-08 02:07
Absolutely fabulous, a well told adventure story with awesome photos of the brilliance of nature, caught creatively by an excited band of lovers of the power, beauty, life & science of the ocean - wow, wish I'd been there!
+2 #1 ThanksSandyT 2017-02-02 02:03
What a great article!
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