Chasing and capturing bioluminescence around Auckland

If you’ve been keeping up with local news, you may have heard that bioluminescence has made its way to Auckland’s shores. Glowing brilliant blue when the sun goes down, it really is a sight to behold!

To help you find bioluminescence in Auckland, we’ve invited Grant Birley to join us. Chasing bioluminescence in and around Auckland (and New Zealand) has become a real passion of his. From the first time he saw it and captured it he knew it was something special. Now he’s here to share the magic with you.

This guide provides readers with an insight into Grant’s experience chasing bioluminescence in Auckland for the last 12 months.

By sharing his encounters and experiences we hope that you’ll be equipped to find, capture or simply enjoy this beautiful and rather elusive natural phenomenon in the City of Sails.

Bioluminescence lighting up the shores of Auckland with its stunning bluish lights.

Your Guide to Finding the Best Bioluminescence Auckland Has on Offer!

What is Bioluminescence?

Bioluminescence is an algal/phytoplankton bloom that is sometimes visible in the ocean.

Scientifically, it is known as Noctiluca Scintillans, and it can be quite common in warm, calm waters. If a large quantity is present it can appear as a red slick on top of the water during the day.

However, come night time that same red slick is transformed into this vibrant electric blue glow. You may hear this being referred to as blue gold or, even better, the Aurora of the sea.

This blue glow is in part a result of its biological reaction to being disturbed – a defense mechanism to protect itself. It is the glow that is referred to as bioluminescence and it is only visible at night.

Bioluminescence can appear blue or green in the water. I have personally seen both, although blue is generally the predominant colour I’ve observed in New Zealand.

Fortunately for us in the City of Sails, it would appear that Auckland’s Hibiscus coastline has idyllic conditions for this to occur.

How to Spot Bioluminescence

Is it Easy to See It?

It is not always easy to spot bioluminescence in the water.

What we see with the naked eye is not necessarily anywhere near the same as is seen and depicted in photographs.

Too many times, people have told me that they were disappointed when they eventually did see it in person as it looked nothing like the photos that they had seen before.

These photos are taken using long exposure and are able to pick up colours that the human eye struggles to see in the dark – the reality is bioluminescence is generally not anywhere near as vibrant and colourful as is seen in a lot of photographs.

In saying that, if you are one of few very fortunate enough to see a really vibrant show, the colours seen actually trump what the camera captures!

I always like to make people aware of this fact so expectations and reality can be more closely aligned.

Regardless of how bright the bioluminescence is, it definitely is worth seeing it for yourself!

When You Are Most Likely to See Bioluminescence in Auckland

Personally, I have found it to be most active on either side of high tide. I would suggest being there around 2 hours before and staying around until 2 hours after high tide.

In saying that, there is no set time or way to predict when are the best times and, which has happened to me on several occasions.

If there is a big enough concentration of it the show can last the entire evening – starting the minute it gets dark and only ending at the break of dawn. 

After all, even if you don’t get to see it, you are still able to enjoy a walk on a beautiful beach under the stars – not a bad second prize if you ask me.

A wave preparing to crash into the shore but became increasingly beautiful as it engulfs the bioluminescence making its waters glow.

Where to Find the Best Bioluminescence Auckland Has

Now, this is the million-dollar question!

The algae’s unpredictability and elusiveness is what makes it so rewarding when you do manage to find it. And even more so if you are able to capture it!

Firstly and most importantly, bioluminescence only occurs when it is dark.

The darker the better!

Signs of Bioluminescence – What to Look For

When there is visible evidence of algae during the day (like the red tide we recently experienced) there is a high probability of a bioluminescent show in the evening. Although as one would come to expect in nature, nothing is ever guaranteed.

Unfortunately, visual clues and or evidence of it being around doesn’t occur as often as one might expect. So, whilst this is a great indicator it is not very often we get the heads up. 

Don’t despair though – you may still be treated to a light show when the sun goes down!

Other clues or indicators include a good downpour of rain followed by heat and hot days. The runoff from the rain seems to provide rich nutrients that stimulate and promote these algal/phytoplankton blooms.

It is, however, worth noting that too much wind can be a deterrent. This causes the noctiluca to sink and disperse.

Where Has Bioluminescence Been Seen in Auckland?

This is a list of the places where the famed blue gold has been seen in the last 12 months in Auckland. If you dig into Google, you’ll find there are several more places around New Zealand where it has been seen too.

  • Matakatia Bay
  • Tindalls Bay
  • Little Manly
  • Big Manly
  • Arkles Bay
  • Stanmore Bay
  • Red Beach
  • Mahurangi Regional Park
  • Muriwai
  • Piha
  • Anawhata Beach
  • Bethells
  • Te Arai
  • Manguwhai
  • Ruakaka
  • Oceans Beach
  • Matapouri
The waves glowing with bluish white light while it approaches the shore due to the presence of bioluminescence in the waters.

Why have I had So much luck seeing bioluminescence in Auckland?

One of the reasons I believe I have been so fortunate in seeing it is that I am out a lot – probably way too much, to be honest!

The more you are out there the more likely you are to see it or come across it.

I have also, on a few occasions, kept an eye on the sea while driving to and from work. Sometimes I’ll notice little algal pockets in the waves and upon returning there in the evening, have been rewarded with a show. 

Get a Little Help Spotting Algae Online…

You can now find Facebook groups online that will help in your hunt for plankton.

It pays to join those as people regularly post sightings (as they happen) which makes finding it a bit easier.

Bioluminescence Hibiscus Coast has been a fantastic help in reporting recent sightings, for example.

If you’re interested in finding bioluminescence in Auckland, I suggest you join this group.

Likewise, if you find a display yourself, be sure to report it in the group and also to New Zealand Travel Tips.

Tips For When You Arrive at the Beach

Firstly, and I can’t stress this enough, light is the enemy!!

Try and get to a spot on the beach without a torch or light if at all possible.

If you need light to get to where you are going then shine it directly down on the ground and not up. Not only will this preserve the magic for those already enjoying a bio-light show, but it will also help your eyes adjust to the dark faster.

Every time your eyes are subject to light it can take between 30 and 45 minutes for your eyes to adjust and acclimatise back to the dark again.

Repeat after me – light is the enemy.

If you have a red light then that’s fine to use as it does not disrupt your night vision – but again keep it pointed down.

Looking towards the waves, you might be fortunate to spot glowing green or blue immediately. If you do, congratulations, you’ve spotted a vibrant show of bioluminescence!

If the plankton isn’t so bright you might notice the white water from the breaking waves looking a dull, off-white colour. That may well be plankton.

If you cannot see it in the waves then splash in the water or stomp on the wet sand. Sometimes there is either not enough algae around, but at other times the water movement may not be strong enough to stimulate the blue colour. That’s where you come in!

By walking on the wet sand (especially near the water line) and splashing about, you may well activate those famed sparkles.

Likewise, you can try pouring water into the sand (again, near the water line) or running your hands and feet through the water.

Whatever you do, stay for a while – it could happen at any time. In addition, I suggest you move up and down the beach -– it won’t necessarily be visible all the way along the beach so scan back and forth.

Enjoy Auckland’s Bioluminescence Safely and Respectfully

When you do find glowing plankton in the ocean, by all means, you’re able to jump on in and swim with them! Have a play in the sea but do bear in mind this is still the open ocean.

We suggest you swim with someone else on-shore observing you, whilst remaining in fairly shallow water.

Be aware of your surroundings and keep an eye out for photographers. If possible, try not to walk in front of them or play in the water in the direction they are photographing. Chances are there will be plenty of bioluminescence along the bay so there should be room for everyone to enjoy.

If you need a light to move to a new spot, again shine it to the floor and preferably away from the sea.

Whatever you do though – don’t forget to look up! If it is a clear night, then you will be adorned by millions and millions of stars.

We are one of the best dark sky countries in the world and if you are lucky enough to witness bioluminescence under a blanket of millions of stars – well, there is very little better than that in my opinion!

Did you know? For fun, you can take a glass jar down to the beach during the day. Fill this jar with sea water and take it home. At night, give the jar a gentle shake – if you’ve been lucky enough to capture enough algae, your bottle of water will glow blue – I haven’t tried this yet but will soon!

Capturing the Aurora of the Sea: Photographing Bioluminescence

Unless it is very very bright and visible to the eye, very few phones can capture bioluminescence.

Just like photographing glowworms inside caves, you’ll need a camera that has a manual function to successfully capture a bioluminescent show.

As we’ve already established, you want to avoid any form of light – this includes flash photography. Not only will it be detrimental for your own photography, but it will serve to annoy everyone around you.

As for video, again I have only been able to capture it once and that was this most recent sighting.

Unless the bioluminescence is particularly vibrant (and visible to the naked eye), video does not seem to show up.

If you have a professional video camera that allows you to manually change all the settings, you may have more luck of course.

The whole length of a wave glowing up with bluish white light due to the presence of bioluminescence while the city lights and the starry skies also light up.

Suggested Photography Setup

To successfully photograph the natural night show, you’ll need a camera that allows you to manually adjust the settings.

I use a Canon 5D Mark IV DSLR camera with a Samyang 24mm f1.4 lens, though your kit could look significantly different and still work just as well.

To give you the best shot at clear images that show the algal bloom, you will want to take the following gear to the beach.

  • A manual camera. As mentioned, you’ll need a camera that allows you to set the aperture, shutter speed and ISO manually.
  • A tripod. This is essential and the sturdier the better. If you don’t have a tripod, you can place your camera on a rock (or an alternative solid surface). Basically, it’s important your camera is not in your hands as we all shake too much for long exposure photography!
    • Be mindful of the tide and placing your tripod in the sea. The movement of the sea as well as if your tripod feet are “hit” by the incoming tide – no matter how small – your photos will be blurred. The smallest amount of motion causes a large amount of blur in long exposures.
  • A microfibre cleaning cloth. With all the moisture in the air and possible sea spray, it pays to check your lens and shots every few minutes to ensure your lens isn’t fogging up. This happens very frequently in our climate in NZ and there is nothing worse than thinking you have got ‘the shots’ only to find when you get home that they are all fogged up! I speak from experience on this one too!
  • A red light. This is completely optional but if you have one at home, it’s a good idea to pack it in with your gear. A red-light torch will allow you to check camera settings without disrupting your eyes in the dark.
  • A camera remote/shutter trigger. This optional will help prevent shutter blur.

Suggested Photography Settings

I use the following setting always as my baseline and then adjust depending on the conditions. For example, I’ll adapt my settings based on how dark the surroundings are, how vibrant (or not) the bioluminescence is, if there are lights around (or in the distance), or if there is moonlight.

To get started, you’ll want to load these settings on your camera. Remember to effectively shoot bioluminescence, you will need a camera that is capable of being set to manual.

If you already tried setting your camera for astrophotography, you can easily adjust them to suit your environment under the presence of bioluminescence.

  • First, use manual the settings on your camera – I know it is daunting but trust me on this one.
  • Turn autofocus off and set it manually to infinity.
    • If you can, aim the camera at a bright object in the distance, set the focus manually and then leave it set there. If the bright object you are aiming at is bright enough to use autofocus then do that and then switch autofocus off. It is really important that the object you are using to focus on is far enough in the distance.
    • Always check periodically through the night that your focus has not shifted. There is nothing worse than capturing something so amazing only to get home and find they’re all out of focus – trust me I have been there!
  • Set your ISO to 3,200 if it’s very dark or 1,600 if there is light in the area (from the moon or nearby street lamps). Change the ISO as required to suit your environment – I’ve had to go both higher and lower before. Do remember though that whilst a higher ISO will show up more light on your camera, it also leads to grainy photos. With this in mind, you don’t want to set it higher than you need to.
  • Set your aperture as wide as your lens will allow. eg. f/2.0 (or the lowest number possible.)
  • Set an exposure time of between 8 and 10 seconds. Depending on what type of shot you want to achieve this can be changed to suit. A longer exposure will result in a softer image, whereas a shorter exposure time will create a photograph with more detail.
    • If you’re wanting to capture some stars with bioluminescence, keep an eye on your exposure time. If you let it run too long, you’ll end up with star trails. Instead of having sharp little dots, the stars will appear like little smudges.
  • Set a timer on your camera – this helps to prevent shutter blur by delaying your photograph for a few seconds. Or even better, if you have a remote, use that.

Enjoy Auckland’s Bioluminescence!

While I cannot guarantee any sightings, I hope this guide helps you to find bioluminescence one day soon. When you do, I hope the information in this guide also helps you to just enjoy the marvel you bear witness to or capture that shot you’ve been dreaming of!

Finally, remember to enjoy the experience and take it all in.

We are all so busy these days that we sometimes forget to enjoy the experience for what it is. Take a minute to smell the flowers before attempting to capture it.

We are incredibly blessed and fortunate to live on a little slice of paradise, so let’s make the most of it.

Happy bio-hunting!

A father and child standing on the beach, gazing at the bioluminescent blue waters and the stars of the Milky Way in the night sky.

About Grant – Our Honorary Bioluminescence Guide!

My name is Grant Birley.

I am a hobbyist photographer who discovered a little while back that I had an affinity and love for capturing the night sky.

Capturing the night sky is not simply photographing the night sky.

For me, it is capturing the essence of the night and all it entails – from the night skies to landscapes at night, as well as many phenomena that only reveal themselves when the sun goes down.

The fact that I can function on very little sleep – if any at all – definitely does help.

Let’s just say that the words sleep and night photography are an oxymoron!

We’re incredibly fortunate to have some of the clearest skies in the world, right here in New Zealand.

I hope to see you out there enjoying the clear skies and amazing bioluminescence Auckland has on offer!

All photographs have been captured and supplied by Grant. Follow him to keep up with his latest adventures.

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