Monday, September 08, 2014


In late summer and early fall, when the ocean temperature is at its warmest, you might be rewarded by encountering a delightful display of phosphorescent protists that sparkle as you wade at the ocean's edge after dark.

As Pat Garber writes in her book, Ocracoke Wild, these one-celled dinoflagellates are "among the most prolific life forms in the sea." She goes on to explain that the light, which is activated by darkness and turbulence, "is produced by special organs [actually vesicles called scintillons] which release luciferin, a complex protein which acts as a fuel in the presence of the enzyme luciferase."

My most vivid memory of Ocracoke's bioluminescence is of a late night excursion into Pamlico Sound about 25 years ago. Two other friends and I had motored out in an inflatable dingy. As our craft cut through the water a wide swath of tiny flashing lights lit up around our vessel.

We anchored between Ocracoke and Portsmouth, and jumped overboard. As we swam, the warm water of the sound came alive, completely surrounding our bodies with the sparkles of thousands of phosphorescent microscopic creatures. It was a magical evening, never to be forgotten!

Our latest Ocracoke Newsletter is the story of late 19th century steamship traffic to Ocracoke, and the large Victorian hotel that accommodated the guests. You can read the article here:


  1. It is magical even though there is a scientific explanation!

  2. Julie S.7:56 AM

    "Water fired" for you that night!

  3. Bear MacDonald8:17 AM

    It is indeed magical. The second time that I witnessed this remarkable event was on OI. As the waves broke in a lovely bright blue, I observed the most spectacular meteor shower of my lifetime. That night was an inspiration to write one of my better essays.

  4. I too have witnessed it at Ocracoke during a meteor shower. Totally magical.