The most magical night swimming in bioluminescent plankton

It was only when I powered up the camera and saw the images on the rear LCD that the previous night felt real and I could firmly pen a tick on another bucket list item - swimming in bioluminescent plankton.

Bioluminscent plankton at Three Cliffs Bay, Swansea

Bioluminscent plankton at Three Cliffs Bay, Swansea

PLEASE NOTE: The rip tide at Three Cliffs Bay is known to take lives. There are lifeguards present at certain times only.

It was one of those things I never thought I'd experience without travelling half-way across the world but my home country Wales continues to blow me away. I knew it was frequently spotted up North over the years on the coast of Anglesey, but when photographer Kris Williams caught some in a timelapse at Three Cliffs Bay during the summer of 2016 I just had to hunt it down and see it for myself. 

When looking into it further, nearly all the sightings here in Wales were during the nights of incredibly warm summer days. It's difficult to work out whether the hot weather is what makes them come to the shore or whether its just more likely that people will be on the beach during warm weather and hence all the spottings.

To try to boost my chances of witnessing it and getting the kind of shot I wanted I waited for some abnormally hot summer weather (hot weather during Welsh summer can be referred to as abnormal right?) on a night close to new moon. This would give the darkness needed for a good shot of the faint glow and also play nicely for capturing the Milky Way at the same time, as Milky Way season peaks during summer for the northern hemisphere. 

To tell the truth, it wasn't to be my first time swimming in bioluminescent plankton. It's frequently seen in Kabak Valley in Turkey where I spent a lot of my summers, but it was more of a white sparkle than the Avatar-esque blue glow you see in the likes of Tasmania. A couple of visits saw nothing, but you can never go wrong with a night under the Milky Way.

Some weeks earlier at Three Cliffs Bay, Swansea, when the plankton didn't show.

Some weeks earlier at Three Cliffs Bay, Swansea, when the plankton didn't show.

As the adage goes, third time lucky, I finally caught a glimpse of the blue glow from up on the cliffs. It's at that moment the adrenaline starts rushing and an amble turns into a sprint. I bolted down the dunes, tripod and camera over my shoulder and made my way to the beach. I was soon faced with two options; cross the estuary or take the long way round? I couldn't wait. From previous visits I knew the estuary gets waist deep, so I stripped off my lower half but before I could take my first step into the water I stopped to work out why the river bed was moving so much... Crabs. Lots and lots of crabs! I'm talking a crab every 20cm. 

First glimpse of the plankton from the cliffs

First glimpse of the plankton from the cliffs

I glanced at the long way round, back to the estuary and back to the long way round. I didn't want to waste any time so I took my first steps into the water, lighting up the way with my head-torch terrified (not of the pain of being pinched, but of killing one of the poor unsuspecting creatures). Thankfully I made it over unscathed, all toes in tact and all crabs safe and sound.
 

I set the tripod up as quickly as possible and began snapping away. The plankton only glows when agitated so as the waves broke a blue glow would grow and spread across the shore.

 

I very quickly tired of moving my bag 50m further ashore and running back into the sea to adjust the camera and try to get a steady shot on the ever sinking sand, so after a few shots I considered myself happy, put my possessions at a 'safe distance', stripped off naked and immersed myself in the enchanted waters. Swimming past midnight in Wales and not being cold was enough of an experience in itself, but being surrounded by the blue glow and sparkle of bioluminescent plankton whilst underneath the grace of the Milky Way was one of the most surreal and magical moments of my life.

I lost track of time before scrambling back to the shore, hunting for the red light of my headtorch where I had left my stuff. I got there in the nick of time, my clothes having been washed by the incoming tide but my camera and equipment were just about safe. Phew.

I later checked out satellite imagery from the days and weeks before and was shocked to see the plankton bloom visible all the way from space! Something I'll now probably check quite regularly as I'm not sure the novelty of such magic would wear off if I was lucky enough to catch it again...

Satellite imagery from 26th May 2017 showing the plankton bloom off the coast of Wales

Satellite imagery from 26th May 2017 showing the plankton bloom off the coast of Wales

 

PLEASE NOTE: The rip tide at Three Cliffs Bay is known to take lives. There are lifeguards present at certain times only.