Bioluminescence on the Sonoma Coast, by Jerry Dodrill


For years I’ve heard unbelievable stories about people’s surreal night time experiences in the ocean with glowing plankton blooms, but until recently I’d never seen it myself. The tip off came from Ellen Cruz, a friend from Bodega Bay who sent a note about an experience she’d just had on the Sonoma County coast:

…the ocean was illuminated as if under a black light…so awesome, cannot describe in words…no need to drop acid on this one…every white particle of wave was iridescent, florescent, glowing like you can’t believe…step on the sand and your footprint glows and sparkles… there were banks of waves coming in, white caps in the distance just glowed, and when the waves connected it was elongated strips of fluorescent green stripes across the water… whew…

This strange oceanic occurrence is likely the root of ghost stories told by early sailors who saw the mysterious green fire in the water but failed to comprehend what they were seeing. Documented as far back as 500 B.C., most bioluminescent light occurs in tiny plants called dinoflagellates which live in the sea and gain energy from the photosynthesis of sunlight. In darkness they emit a blue light in response to movement within the water. The intensity of the light peaks about two hours after dark and is simply amazing to watch. During the day they turn red and can be the source of the neurotoxin that poisons shell fish during Red Tides.

After receiving Ellen’s note, and being somewhat fascinated by natural optical phenomena, my mind immediately began pre-visualizing how I could make an interesting photograph. I often try to imagine best-case situations that might occur in nature. The trick is to carefully consider the conditions which would be necessary for a scenario to occur and then consciously reverse engineer it and attempt to put yourself on location at just the right time while being prepared to capture the moment. Something magical often ends up happening, even if it is somewhat different than what you had imagined.

As I pondered the complexity of making an evocative image of the psychedelic tides I felt that the images would look very alien if there wasn’t an earthly land form with which the viewer can easily identify. I started piecing together two ideas that I thought I could achieve in the same night. I’d seen the first sliver of a moon the night before, just after sunset, and knew that the next day it would be about fifty minutes higher in the sky. So I wanted to first make an image of the crescent moon setting at twilight above the breakers and Arched Rock near Jenner. The second image I was visualizing was a long exposure at the cusp of night where I would have just enough light to see the arch, and enough darkness for the dinoflagellates to show up in the water.

I checked the weather satellite which showed crystal clear skies, then double checked the angle of the moon relative to the arch by using a very useful software for such things called The Photographer’s Ephemeris. All the elements seemed to align and it looked like a promising evening.

I pulled up at Goat Rock Beach in Sonoma Coast State Park right about sunset, (which-oops!- is when the Park closes), geared up in rubber boots and wind gear and headed south down Blind Beach in gorgeous light that I would normally have been shooting. This time I was on a mission for something more mysterious than a sunset but at one point I did stop and made a few exposures of boney rocks protruding from the sand with crazy beams of light coming over the horizon. This was an early and unexpected bonus shot. As the light diminished I came to where the convergence of the setting moon and the sea arch were just perfect.

The first set of images were exactly what I expected. In years past I’d made similar images here with the full moon setting at sunrise into the Earth’s shadow. What I didn’t expect this time is that my camera’s sensor was picking up the Milky Way directly above the Arch! This added a layer of intrigue to the image that was far beyond what I’d imagined. Soon the starry night was fully visible to the naked eye.

If the moon had been larger or higher I believe its light would have polluted the clear, cold night sky and blown out the reflection in the water. But it was just slight enough that the relative contrast between the starlight and reflections fell into a range which could be handled if I was careful. But it was the bioluminescence that was most incredible. Each waved rolled in looking like a million neon glow sticks had been dumped into them. The blue-green light shot across the breakers as they crashed, the more wave energy released, the more light emitted. The backwash on the beach left momentary trails of light which resembled a million little galaxies.

I was in “the zone” watching wave sets, adjusting exposures as it got darker and darker, moving south down the beach as the moon traversed to the north, trying to keep my juxtaposition with Arched Rock in alignment. It was a bit ridiculous to realize a shot like this had come together: crescent moon shining through the arch under the Milky Way with the glowing ocean. Then as if in a nod to affirm all was okay in the universe, I watched in awe as a brilliant shooting star streaked across the sky above the arch while I had the shutter open. All the while I was very aware that I should not have parked my car in the heavily patrolled parking lot.

The moon was finally setting so I packed and hiked across the beach toward the car, arriving just as two park rangers stepped out of their cruiser with spot lights on. “Hello!” I called out of the darkness in attempt to not get myself Tazed as I stepped into the blinding beams with a big tripod on my shoulder. I received the full lecture from them (the park closes at sunset…we don’t want to have to come looking for you…) and apologized sheepishly. They wanted to know what I was doing out there. Still buzzing from an incredible experience, I pulled out the camera and offered to show them. The three of us huddled in the wind with our heads close to the back of my Nikon’s LCD and looked through the entire image set frame by frame while dispatch ran my plates and ID. The officers have one of the best office views in the state out their front windshield and were excited to see my photographic interpretation of what they see every day. As it turns out we share mutual friends and a deep connection for preserving California’s wild coast. I didn’t get a ticket that night. Instead I walked away with a couple of new friends, some images with which I’m really happy, and the good info on where to park the car for my next outing.

-Jerry Dodrill

Sebastopol, CA

Visionary Wild instructor Jerry Dodrill will co-lead two workshops on the California coast with Jeff Foott in 2015, among the northern Redwood Coast in June and on the Sonoma Coast in September. We hope you can join us.

More info:


Sonoma Coast State Park:



10 Responses to “Bioluminescence on the Sonoma Coast, by Jerry Dodrill”

  1. Laura Ellis said: on August 9th, 2011 at 12:35 am

    Your photos are breathtaking! I myself just heard about this phenomenon and want to witness it firsthand. Is the bloom still goning on? Or have I missed it for this year?

  2. liz said: on August 20th, 2011 at 10:04 pm

    We saw this event last year, does this occur every year?

  3. Justin Black said: on August 21st, 2011 at 12:28 am

    The dinoflagellate blooms can occur throughout the summer, but it’s hard to predict when they will be present in the surf of a particular beach. Your best bet is to do some local research and plan some post-sunset photography that doesn’t rely the glow. If it happens to turn up, you can consider yourself lucky. Jerry and I will be making local inquiries immediately prior to our Sonoma Coast workshop next in September 2012 to determine whether conditions are right for the phenomenon to repeat itself.

  4. Hans Bruhner said: on August 29th, 2011 at 6:23 am

    We have been talking about going to see the luminescent algae and we were sort of tired and I did a google search and came across this blog. I showed my family and we were in the car in two minutes. I did not actually read the blog until we were home but we had an amazing time out there. We went to three spots and we are still buzzing about it. Thanks for the beauty and the information.

  5. Diana said: on August 30th, 2011 at 4:53 pm

    love your pictures and are planning a drive out to the same spot tomorrow and would love info on where to park at night!

  6. Justin Black said: on August 31st, 2011 at 8:23 pm

    The night time parking issue stems from the fact that some Sonoma Coast beach parking lots have a gate that gets locked up at night. So long as you’re parked legally outside the gate and walk in, you’ll be fine.

  7. Heather Bond said: on September 2nd, 2011 at 4:21 am

    Absolutly Breathtaking!!!!

  8. Brian Phillips said: on September 2nd, 2011 at 5:02 pm

    Lovely pictures, I was out diving for Abalone last Sunday & 70% of the Abalone were upside down dying. The fish & game said the red tide reduces the oxygen, so Abalone cannot live. They said the racoon’s will be happy when the dead Ab’s wash up on shore due to a storm coming from New Zealand, which should clear up the red-tide.

  9. » Bioluminescent waves at Wright’s Beach in Sonoma Coast State Park said: on October 3rd, 2011 at 4:14 pm

    […] We had a wonderful dinner with salad and grilled salmon.  At one point, I noticed that I could see the crests of the waves despite the darkness.  At first I thought it was the moon reflecting onto the water, but then I remembered that the moon would have been completely obscured by fog.  We talked about it and figured it might be bio-luminescent plankton (since then, I’ve found a few great photos and information here) […]

  10. laura zaccheo said: on August 18th, 2012 at 2:14 pm

    this site is spectacular. i send it to all my friends. the pictures should be in a gallery, in poster form, made into wall paper…. and the writing is exciting and vibrant. i’ve seen this phenomenon once, but i am on a renewed mission to get my
    “glow” on again after seeing and reading this page. thank you jerry dodrill.