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There is something otherworldly about the glow that emanates from certain marine creatures. This phenomenon, known as bioluminescence, allows organisms to produce their own light through a chemical reaction. For French underwater photographer Laurent Ballesta, capturing images of bioluminescence has become an obsession. "I'm fascinated by the aesthetic quality of bioluminescence," he said. "It's like there are small LED lights inside the animals."
Bioluminescence serves important survival functions, allowing creatures to hunt, evade predators, and communicate. But for Ballesta, the allure is artistic. His photographs reveal a hidden world that few have witnessed firsthand. In one image, glowing plankton swirl through the inky water like stars in a Van Gogh painting. In another, a dense school of fish lights up an evening seascape with hundreds of shimmering spots. "It's like looking at a luminous galaxy surrounded by the darkness of space," described Ballesta.
To capture these shots, Ballesta and his team spent hours diving at night. They endured challenging conditions in frigid waters far from shore. But the payoff was immense. "Seeing bioluminescence is hypnotic," said Ballesta. "When you're surrounded by glowing creatures, you feel transported to another dimension."
Photographing bioluminescence requires specialized equipment. Ballesta utilizes custom strobes that emit minimal light. This prevents overwhelming the delicate glow. He also adjusted his camera's ISO to boost its sensitivity. "It's a constant battle to find the right balance between artificial and natural light," explained Ballesta. "You want to reveal the bioluminescence but also illuminate the surrounding environment."
For Ballesta, photographs represent more than art. They build awareness about fragile ecosystems. "I want people to appreciate the magic hiding below the ocean's surface," he said. "Bioluminescence shows us how much wonder still exists in nature."
Jellyfish pulsate through the seas, their translucent bells concealing a hidden universe within. Peer inside and discover intricate patterns, glowing lights, and alien forms. For Ballesta, photographing jellyfish requires getting up close and personal with these mystifying creatures.
"Jellyfish are like living sculptures," said Ballesta. "Their anatomy is incredibly complex and photogenic." To capture detail, he uses macro lenses and angles his strobes to illuminate internal structures. This reveals filigreed folds and subtle coloration within the bells. Backlighting creates dazzling rims of light around the jellyfish's periphery.
Ballesta is cautious when approaching jellies. "I have to watch my buoyancy and movements," he said. Their trailing tentacles can deliver nasty stings, even when detached. But the hazard is worth it. "The diversity of shapes and sizes is amazing," described Ballesta. Lion's mane jellies have bells over six feet wide. Moon jellies are ethereally transparent. For Ballesta, each species offers new possibilities.
Photographing bioluminescent jellies is particularly fascinating. At night, they emit eerie glows to deter predators. Ballesta captures this with long exposures while swimming alongside. The results are otherworldly, like encountering alien lifeforms. "It's mesmerizing," said Ballesta. "I feel privileged to observe their private light shows."
Other photographers share Ballesta's jelly fixation. Paul Nicklen braved freezing Arctic waters to photograph lion's manes. "I was enthralled," said Nicklen. "They moved with such grace and their bioluminescence was magical." Keri Wilk described photographing moon jellies off Hawaii. "They were like dancing fairies," she said. "I could have watched their pulsing bells forever."
Ocean explorer Jill Heinerth captured rare deep sea jellies on remote submersible dives. She was enthralled by their fragile beauty, but laments how few people appreciate these otherworldly creatures. Through photography, Ballesta hopes to inspire awe and empathy.
Coral reefs are oases of life within oceanic deserts. These vibrant underwater cities support over 25% of all marine species. But when night falls, many corals undergo an otherworldly transformation. They begin to glow with an eerie bioluminescence that reveals the hidden nocturnal side of reefs. For Ballesta, capturing images of glowing corals has opened an exciting new frontier.
"Very little research has been done on coral bioluminescence," explained Ballesta. "We're only beginning to understand this phenomenon." When Ballesta first witnessed glowing corals on night dives, he was stunned. Entire reefs appeared illuminated from within by an aqua glow. It was like discovering a secret metropolis. What purpose could this serve?
According to scientists, bioluminescence may help corals remove waste. Glowing corals have been observed releasing clouds of mucus containing toxic metabolic byproducts. The light potentially attracts zooplankton that consume the discarded mucus. This elegant solution converts waste to food. Bioluminescence might also deter predators, although further studies are needed.
For Ballesta, the opportunity to shed light on this little-known phenomenon has been thrilling. During night dives, he witnessed corals glowing in a rainbow of hues, from vibrant blue to mystical purple. Backscatter transformed laser-like beams into eerie moonbeams streaming through water. "It was one of the most beautiful things I've ever seen underwater," said Ballesta.
Capturing these images pushed Ballesta to the edge of current technology. To reveal bioluminescent details, he had to light paint subjects while photographing 30-second exposures. This painstaking process yielded images unlike any before. Says Ballesta, "It feels like we're observing a secret coral ritual few humans have witnessed."
Bioluminescent corals also appear in films by ocean cinematographers. Louis Cole filmed glowing corals off Indonesia for BBC Blue Planet. "It was like entering an alien world where reefs came alive at night," said Cole. Cristina Zenato captured bioluminescent corals blooming off the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico. She described feeling wonderment at this display nature put on when humans aren't watching.
Drifting through the ocean like a galaxy of stars, bioluminescent plankton illuminate the sea with their ethereal glow. When conditions are right, massive plankton blooms can transform nighttime seas into a magical dreamscape. For Ballesta, the opportunity to photograph these rare events has been exhilarating.
"I'm constantly on the lookout for plankton blooms," he said. "When one happens, we drop everything to go and photograph it." Such was the case in 2013, when Ballesta's team chartered a boat upon hearing reports of a massive bloom off the coast of Tasmania. Arriving after sunset, they were stunned to find the ocean suffused in an eerie blue glow as far as the eye could see.
"It was one of the most incredible things I've witnessed," said Ballesta. "We quickly suited up and jumped in the water." Submerging, they found themselves surrounded by billions of flashing blue lights. Moving gently to avoid disrupting the plankton, Ballesta photographed the cloud-like swirls and eddies of glowing organisms.
"It felt like flying through stars in space," he described. To reveal the individual plankton, he used close-up diopters attached to his camera. The results show a breathtaking diversity of bioluminescent organisms, from serene copepods to fleeing krill that trail comet-like glows.
Why do plankton glow? According to scientists, bioluminescence serves key ecological roles. Tiny drifting plankton glow to attract mates, startle predators, and illuminate prey. These purposes are why blooms often occur when plankton populations spike during breeding seasons.
For Ballesta, the opportunity to photographically explore these fleeting phenomena has been a gift. "It's humbling to witness events that so few people have seen firsthand," he said. "I strive to capture that sense of wonder." His images have also advanced scientific understanding of planktonic bioluminescence.
Other photographers also seek out these glowing events. Paul Nicklen photographed massive bioluminescent blooms off New Zealand and described feeling awestruck by their scale and beauty. Steve De Neef captured swirling plankton trails while diving Australia's Great Barrier Reef. "It was mesmerizing," said De Neef. "Like watching stars cascade through water."
The snapper family contains some of the ocean's most brilliantly bioluminescent species. For Ballesta, photographing their glowing family portraits has provided rare glimpses into the private lives of these mesmerizing creatures.
Most famous are flashlight fish, aptly named for the bright suborbital glow they generate. But Ballesta discovered that snapper relatives like ponyfish and cardinalfish also bioluminesce. What purpose could this serve? According to scientists, snapper species likely glow for intra-species communication.
By illuminating their undersides, individuals can locate mates, recognize kin, and maintain group cohesion, even in pitch darkness. "I was amazed to see entire snapper schools glowing while foraging at night," described Ballesta. To capture this, he used diffused lighting from behind, silhouetting the fish while revealing bioluminescent bellies as bright spots. The results showcase surreal swarms glowing against the blackness.
However, Ballesta's favorite bioluminescent snappers are tiny pygmy dragonets. Unlike most fish, these secretive one-inch fish glow along cigar-shaped bands on their sides. For Ballesta, photographing them has been like "finding miniature neon tetras." But whereas neon tetras glow constantly, dragonets control their bioluminescence via a light organ switch.
By quickly flipping this switch on and off, males flash seductive calls to females hidden in the reef. "I can spend hours diving with them," said Ballesta, mesmerized by their flirtatious glowing displays. Using backlighting, he captures pulses of light sweeping over the fishes' tiny bodies as they turn their bioluminescence on and off.
Other photographers are also spellbound by bioluminescent snappers. Brian Skerry spent 50 hours diving one shipwreck to capture his famed image of an illuminated cardinalfish peering from an old porthole encrusted with glowing barnacles. "It's one of my favorite pictures," said Skerry.
Paul Nicklen dove the reefs of Sulawesi to film mesmerizing footage of flashlight fish patrolling their territories at night. "It was like watching little glowsticks moving through the darkness," described Nicklen. He was intrigued to observe mated pairs swimming side-by-side, periodically flashing synchronized calls to each other.
The bobtail squid is a master of disguise that deploys sophisticated camouflage and bioluminescent trickery to hide in plain sight. For Ballesta, attempting to photograph these evasive cephalopods has been an amusing game of hide and seek.
Bobtails partner with bioluminescent bacteria that colonize a specialized light organ in their mantle. At night, bobtails can manipulate this organ to match the moonlight streaming down, perfectly camouflaging themselves against predator eyes peering up from below. "They can shift instantly from transparency to silver mirror," described Ballesta. "I"ll be inches away but unable to see them."
To reveal camouflaged bobtails, Ballesta uses strobes positioned at oblique angles. This casts a telltale glow across the squid"s exposed mantle. Ballesta then rapidly fires his camera as the bobtail switches from camouflage to transparency in an attempt to "disappear" again. The result captures a rarely-glimpsed view.
Other times, it"s the bobtails who surprise Ballesta. Selfie-photographer Edith Widder found this out when scanning reefs for bioluminescence using an underwater camera. "Suddenly two glowing eyes appeared right in front of the lens," she described. Two curious bobtails had spotted the camera and approached to investigate. Widder was able to film a humorous close-up encounter before the two "swam off discussing our strange "fish" in rapid fire flashing."
Cinematographer Mike DeGruy also played with a bobtail while filming in Palau"s Jellyfish Lake. Noticing his underwater camera"s glow attracted the squid, DeGruy began rhythmically flashing his light. Each time the squid would respond with matching glow pulses. "It was like we were communicating in some proto-Morris code," laughed DeGruy.
Bobtail bioluminescence serves key survival functions. Flashing red when threatened startles predators, allowing bobtails time to escape. But according to scientists, bobtails also glow to attract prey. Ballesta observed this firsthand when a bobtail began rhythmically pulsing after noticing some small shrimp. Lured closer by each flash, the unfortunate shrimp soon found themselves snatched up by the bobtail"s waiting tentacles.
The ocean's surface conceals a hidden world that emerges after dark, when tiny larvae migrate up from the depths to feed under cover of night. Among the legions of miniscule fish fry rising to the surface are species with an eerie blue glow, transforming the night sea into a sprite-filled realm.
"When bioluminescent larvae rise, it's like watching underwater fireflies swarming around you," described Ballesta. These glowing infants include species like lanternfish, lightfish, and cookiecutter sharks. Most glow via specialized abdominal organs that likely help larvae recognize their own kind in the darkness.
By photographing this phenomenon, Ballesta provides rare glimpses into the concealed lives of glowing baby fish. To capture their radiance, he photographs upwards during night snorkels. Backlighting from his strobes isolates each larva as a dazzling blue orb against the black water.
Other photographers also find inspiration in glowing larvae. Keith Ellenbogen photographed Metridia copepods off New Zealand, describing their bioluminescence as "tiny beacons lighting up an otherwise desolate black sea." Steve De Neef filmed clouds of lightfish larvae at night, swirling like "underwater fireflies coming out to play."
The ecological role of glowing larvae intrigues scientists. According to marine biologists, mass glows likely help larvae stay together, avoiding predators. But bioluminescence may also assist feeding. Researchers discovered that lanternfish larvae can extinguish their glow to better sneak up on plankton prey.
For Ballesta, studying why larvae glow is less important than conveying their transcendent beauty. "When photographing their luminous ballet, I feel transported to a fantasy realm. If only more people could witness this magic hidden below the surface."
The deep sea dragonfish is one of the most enigmatic creatures in the ocean. Living at extreme depths up to 5,000 feet, these ferocious predators are rarely glimpsed by human eyes. Yet their ability to illuminate the stygian darkness reveals critical insights into how life thrives in the hadal zone. For Ballesta, encountering a bioluminescent dragonfish during a submersible dive was the highlight of his career.
"I'd dreamed of seeing a deep sea dragonfish for decades," said Ballesta. "Observing one suddenly appear out of the blackness was just magical." Unlike shallow water fish that glow temporarily for mating, dragonfish constantly emit light from barrel-shaped photophores on their chin and belly. This 'headlamp' allows dragonfish to illuminate and inspect prey in the dark. It also conceals their silhouette from below. Photographing this phenomenon requires specialized equipment. On his fateful dive, Ballesta used red filters and dim, far-red lighting to avoid overwhelming the dragonfish's faint glow. He also adjusted his camera for long exposures to tease out bioluminescent details lost to human eyes. "The results reveal intricate glowing patterns we're only starting to understand," described Ballesta.
Seeing bioluminescent life thriving at such extreme depths fascinated Ballesta. How did complex creatures like dragonfish colonize this remote realm? According to scientists, bioluminescence was key. By evolving light production, organisms could illuminate the hadal darkness to hunt, lure prey, and find mates. This allowed unique ecosystems to arise in a world devoid of sunlight.
Yet significant mysteries remain regarding deep sea bioluminescence. Marine biologists are unsure how certain species recognize their own glows versus different species in pure darkness. And the specific purpose behind dragonfish headlamps is debated. "We've only scratched the surface of understanding deep sea bioluminescence," said marine biologist Edith Widder. "But each glimpse we capture informs our knowledge about life on our own planet."
Capturing these glimpses requires extensive funding and rare submersible access. Ballesta worked for years wrangling resources before his dragonfish encounter. Fellow deep sea photographer David Gruber endured 17 cold, cramped dives before finally encountering a glowing squid. "The challenges make successes more meaningful," said Gruber. Cinematographer Ray Dalio filmed ultra-rare giant squid for his Deep Ocean series only by deploying specialized cameras across remote locations for months on end.