Sea sparkle a.k.a. bioluminescence, a beautiful natural phenomenon that you really want to experience! And you don’t even have to go abroad for it if you live in The Netherlands. Ideal to brighten up your day! The first observations have already been reported in The Netherlands for this year. When I first experienced sea sparkle, now more than 10 years ago, I didn’t even know what the bright blue phenomenon was called. A magical moment that I will never forget. And a fantastic experience that I wholeheartedly wish everyone! A gift from nature.
Do you know that swimming scene with Leonardo DiCaprio in The Beach? That bright blue light in the sea is sea sparkle!
What is sea sparkle
Sea sparkle is a tiny, single-celled organism that – the name says it all – occurs in seawater. These organisms glow with movement and oxygen. We call this effect bioluminescence. Luminous as in bright. Bio because it is a natural effect.
Under certain circumstances, you can see a sea sparkle induced glow effect on the beach. Usually this is bright blue in color, but sometimes also purple, red, orange or green. Magic of Mother Nature! The color depends on the climatic conditions and time.
In Dutch, sea sparkle is called zeevonk or zweephaardiertje (whip hair animal). Although sea sparkle actually looks and behaves more like a plant; it is a type of seaweed or algae but not green. Its Latin name, Noctiluca scintillans, means ‘flashing night light’.
Under the microscope, sea sparkle looks like what it actually is: like a cell, a kind of empty transparent balloon, often with a tail or dark spot, no more than 1 mm in size. Sea sparkle eats, among other things, plankton, fish eggs and all kinds of bacteria.
Where do you find sea sparkle
This surreal spectacle can be found on the coast. Sea sparkle occurs in several places in the world, including The Netherlands and Belgium. Countries where the coastal water is relatively cool, but the shallow water warms up nicely in summer. Bioluminescence also occurs in subtropical areas. But you don’t have to make an exotic trip to experience sea sparkle.
Places where sea sparkle is regularly spotted in The Netherlands include (per province):
- Friesland: Terschelling
- Noord-Holland: Texel, Den Helder, Petten, Callantsoog, Zandvoort
- Zuid-Holland: Katwijk aan Zee, Wassenaar, Scheveningen, Brouwersdam (boat ramp), ‘s-Gravenzande, Ter Heijde, Ouddorp (10 min walk from Beachclub ‘t Gorsje at the slope)
- Zeeland: Zierikzee, Westkapelle, Domburg
Sea sparkle also occurs in other Dutch seaside resorts, but are reported less often there. Think of: Julianadorp, Egmond, Bergen, Castricum, Monster, Hoek van Holland, Vlieland, etc. You definitely need salt water, so go to the coast (sea). In Den Helder you can have a look at Beach Pavilion Factor 30 for instance. In Petten at the Palendorp (parking at Bergeendstraat). Egmond aan Zee near Bad Zuid. On Texel at pole 9, 15, 33 (Kaap Noord), etc.
Katwijk has an outlet for fresh water, where the Binnenwatering reaches the sea. At Petten, heated water flows from the reactor to the sea. This extra heat in the water may have a positive effect on sea spark, perhaps because it contains extra nutrients.
When can you see sea sparkle
Those sweet summer nights by the sea, they become even more beautiful if you are lucky and see sea sparkle! Be warned: sea sparkle is not easy to find, the phenomenon certainly does not occur every day. So you have to have some luck with the right conditions. And you have to stay up for a long time.
You have the best chance of seeing a sea sparkle under the following conditions:
- in shallow, warmed seawater
- after days of warm weather, preferably a few tropical days
- sometimes already at a temperature of 20-25°C
- little wind, calm sea, possibly after a heavy storm
- from dusk, usually after midnight (around 00:30h, for example, but regularly also later at night)
- little to no moonlight (shining on the water)
- as little light in the surroundings as possible
With some rippling wave movement of the sea water, especially if you make a movement in it with your hand or foot, the bioluminescence effect often brightens up extra. Last summer it was already seen around sunset. And even now, at the end of May 2021, sea sparkle has already been seen, for example in Petten.
If you have seen an orange, salmon pinkish haze (carotene pigment) in the seawater during the day, this could be an omen of sea sparkle. It regularly happens that after a (few) night(s) with sea sparkle, a thunderstorm occurs. When the sea is too rough, the sea sparkle stays away from the coast. In The Netherlands, bioluminescence are usually observed from April to September.
Is sea sparkle dangerous?
Experiencing sea sparkle, running, jumping, splashing or swimming through it yourself, makes you happy as a child. However, red-colored sea sparkles can sometimes contain too much ammonia. In exceptional cases this can lead to skin irritation and respiratory problems.
In such a case, rinse the skin well with tap water. Consult a doctor if necessary. In the summer of 2015, such a situation (during the day) led to a recommendation from Rijkswaterstaat not to go swimming in the sea at a number of South Holland seaside towns.
Photographing sea sparkle
On a warm summer night with friends at the beach, when I found sea sparkle in Egmond aan Zee, unfortunately we didn’t have a good camera with us. Photographing sea sparkle is not so easy anyway. In any case, if you have, bring a tripod and preferably a camera with different lenses. Tip: also take a head light with you.
“Last year, late at night, I spontaneously drove from Brabant to Katwijk with my brother. Photographing the sea sparkle turned out not easy. But I thought it was a special experience, which I would not have wanted to miss for the world.”Elizabeth
The M and/or MF mode on a camera can be useful, lens at infinity, shutter speed at 5 or 10 sec, shutter lag at 2 sec. 24 or 30mm, F at its lowest (e.g. f/2.8 or f/7.1), ISO 1600 or 3200, but 10,000 can also work, depending on camera and conditions. A matter of trying. Turn on auto white balance, turn off noise reduction, focus manually. Try to keep a straight horizon. Shoot in RAW and edit later in Photoshop.
But I would say: enjoy it! Leave that camera alone for a while. Walk through the shallows, and take in the visual spectacle. Go for a swim. This is a unique experience that no one can ever take away from you.
Sea sparkle elsewhere in the world
As mentioned before, sea sparkle, or bioluminescence as it’s also often called, occurs in several places in the world. This often occurs in subtropical areas. But also some more northern coastlines. Think of the following places:
- Australia (including Gippsland Lakes, Jervis Bay)
- Azië (including Bali, Koh Rong in Cambodia, Philippines, Japan, India, Thailand, Matsu Islands in Taiwan)
- Belgium (including Zeebrugge), Denmark (including Bulbjerg)
- Canada (including Vancouver Island)
- Caribbean and Central America (including Costa Rica, Jamaica, etc.)
- Maldives (including Mudhdhoo Island)
- United States (including Florida, San Diego in California)
- South America (including Colombia)
Tours around the world
Sea sparkle can therefore also give a nice sparkle to your trip to an exotic place. As soon as the weather is possible… In a number of places, bioluminescence tours are even offered. For example in:
- Belize: Hopkins
- Costa Rica: Santa Teresa, Punta Cuchillos, Puerto Jimenez
- Colombia: Cartagena
- Philippines: Coron
- India: Havelock Island
- Jamaica: Montego Bay, Ocho Rios (Luminous Lagoon)
- Japan: Mikisatocho (approx. 3 hours south of Nara), Toyama Bay
- Croatia: Drvenik at the Makarska Riviera
- Mexico: Isla Holbox, Puerto Escondido
- Puerto Rico: Mosquito Bay, Fajardo, San Juan, Vieques
- Thailand: Krabi (SUP), Hong Island (boat)
- USA Florida: Titusville, Merritt Island, Cocoa Beach
- Vietnam: Cat Ba, Ha Long Bay
You should see such a bioluminescence tour a bit like with the northern lights. With a little luck you will have the right conditions on the day of your planned tour to really see the natural phenomenon. Such tours often go by kayak, boat or sometimes with a SUP.
Nb. In some places in the world there is such a thing as glow worms, like in Waitomo Caves in New Zeeland, but that’s more of a distant cousin of sea sparkle. Also, the blue water phenomenon of the Blue Lagoon at Malta and the Blue Grotto at Capri is not sea sparkle!
Sea sparkle on Facebook
On Facebook is an active Dutch group that shares predictions and experiences with each other: Zeevonk Alert. This can be very helpful in building a picture of where sea sparkle was seen and could be expected recently or soon. There are also a few town/area specific Facebook groups on ‘zeevonk’. Fanatics even form a Whatsapp group.
Tip: Is it warm and windless for a few days, and do you not live close to the coast? Then book a hotel room in one of the mentioned seaside resorts on the Dutch coast and go out at night. Then you will be back in bed soon, reminiscing about your unique bioluminescence experience.
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I hope you found this an interesting and enjoyable article. Have you ever seen sea sparkle for real yet? Or is this – perhaps after reading this article – still on your wish list? In any case, I wish you a lot of fun during your adventure! Whether in The Netherlands, Belgium or elsewhere around the world. I will definitely go for another experience this summer. Feel free to share this article on social media and/or post a question or additional tip below.
Read more articles about The Netherlands in the Netherlands Blog Archives.
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Last Updated on 06/11/2021 by Elisa Flitter Fever
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