You’re Not Dreaming, This Is A Real Place

Photo: Wei Hung He.
As if the islands of the Maldives weren’t already heaven on earth, come night time, Vaadhoo Island reveals another mystical surprise: Glowing blue waves, lapping the sandy shore, like something out of a fantasy land. Where? On Vaadhoo Island, one of the islands of Raa Atoll in the Maldives. It’s a teeny, tiny island with just over 500 inhabitants, but its Sea of Stars phenomenon has firmly planted it on the global map.

Plankton Plankton!? How?

Okay, so it’s a natural chemical reaction with a fancy name, bioluminescence, which takes place when the water is disturbed by oxygen. Phytoplankton, the marine microorganisms in the water have a blue luminescence that occurs as they produce toxins that are harmful to fish, humans and other creatures, so though they look all pretty and magical, they’re actually not so friendly. The phytoplankton’s blue glow is like a defence mechanism which wards off other marine organisms from eating them. The phytoplankton will continue to glow inside the fish that eat them, which means, in turn, they will make bigger predators go after them. It's a catch 22 situation. As for how the bioluminescence occurs, that’s where it gets complicated… As the phytoplankton float, movement in the water sends electrical impulses around a proton-filled compartment inside them; electrical pulses open the voltage-sensitive proton ion channels into scintillons (the flashing unit inside them.) The pH in the cytoplasm changes, creating a series of chemical reactions, which activate a protein called luciferase. When luciferase is mixed with oxygen, the neon blue light is created.
Photo: Doug Perrine/Getty Images.
Is there anywhere else in the world quite like it? Dinoflagellates — the ultra specific type of phytoplankton at Sea of Stars — aren’t the only ones to produce this beautiful bioluminescence. Other marine animals like krill, deep-sea squids, and anglerfish are also able to produce light. Within the Maldives you can see something similar on the islands of Mudhdhoo and Rangali. Similarly, bioluminescence has been seen on the shores of the Lakshadweep Islands in India, Mosquito Bay in Vieques, Puerto Rico, and on the coast of Leucadia in California. I need to see it… To the Maldives you go! Vaadhoo Island is a 15-minute speedboat ride away from the main international airport of Malé. Whilst the Maldives ain’t cheap, a sight like this is pretty damn priceless, right?

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