We all know there is magic all around us, but some of it we got used to. The sun seems forever to be setting or about to rise, and over the years you spend on this planet you simply cannot be awestruck twice each day.
But then, there is the other kind of magic: things that are rare, along with being extraordinary: like falling in love, rainbows, or, in this case, bioluminescence.
For those of you who skipped biology class, bioluminescence is the production and emission of light by a living organism. It occurs widely and most often in marine life, but also in some fungi and terrestrial invertebrates like that classic crowdpleaser, the firefly.
The selection of glowing wonders on this list takes you around the world in search of magic, and may just make you feel differently about that good old sunset, too. Speaking of which, keep in mind that most places on this list are best to visit during new moon, so that there’s nothing to distract you from the glow.
1. Mudhdhoo Island, Maldives
Photo Source: Nature Picture Library / Alamy
The first entry is somewhat of a special case among these already special cases: while bioluminescent phytoplankton usually emit light for no longer than a second, these creatures shine for a minute or even longer when touched or moved. The (somewhat complicated) reason for this is that the light is produced by a type of crustacean, not a mere plankton.
The jet black water melds into the night here as long as you don’t stick your hands in, when suddenly hundreds of little glow-in-the-dark dots illuminate around you.
2. Mosquito bay, Vieques, Puerto Rico
Photo Source: Puerto Rico Tourism Company
Don’t let the unattractive name put you off: This Puerto Rican bay is one of the most famous places to get the glow. Each gallon of Mosquito Bay water holds some 750,000 dinoflagellates (i.e. the glowy things) and holds the Guinness Book record for brightest bioluminescence measured anywhere on the planet. Bring bug repellent and take a kayak cruise, along with long-exposure photos, of course.
3. Springbrook Park, Queensland, Australia
Photo Source: Cassie Warner
If you’d rather stay on land, you can hike through this gem of a national park in search of the arachnocampa flava fly larvae adorning the walls of the Natural Bridge cave. To see thousands of little bugs glow, best go after sunset and during the rainy season, as the little guys thrive on darkness and moisture.
The best policy for almost anything in nature applies here as well: look, but don’t touch. The larvae generate bioluminescence to lure prey and then trap them with long, sticky threads, sort of like spiders do.
4. Ha Long Bay, Vietnam
Photo Source: Jon Mullen
If you haven’t heard of Halong Bay, chances are you’ve seen it in the movies: a calm bay with giant rocks raising out of the water. According to local legend, gods sent dragons here to help the Vietnamese in defending their country. The dragons spat out jewels and jade to form a barrier and planted the rocks to wreck intruder ships.
Should the views alone not be enough, the bay also gets its fair share of nocturnal light: come at night to see the plankton illuminate the water around your paddle and take care not to wake the dragons. Tip: come late at night when the boats turn off their lights.
5. Big South Fork, Tennessee/Kentucky, USA
Come here around the second week of June to see not just any firefly congregation, but a symphonic show. The little glowplugs come together in hills of Tennessee and Kentucky in way you are not likely to see anywhere else.
The first few fireflies start lighting up as if to signal the curtain call, and soon, more and more join in to finally light in a synchronised pulse. There are also luminescent fungi here, the glowing cherry on the sundae.
6. Toyama Bay, Japan
Toyama bay is one of the richest fishing areas in Japan, supplied with water by the melting snow from the Tateyama Mountain Range. The bay is home to large numbers of firefly squid.
These tiny, three inch invertebrates emit a deep blue light, and while they live a thousand feet underwater, the waves in the bay push many of them to the surface from March to June. That’s it for the good news. The bad news is that they are edible.
7. Sam Mun Tsai Beach, Hong Kong
Photo Source: Tyrone Siu
This tranquil fishing village transforms into a dayglo fairy tale at night. But this fairy tale has a downside: The gorgeous glow is a result of harmful algal bloom created by something called called Sea Sparkle, a misleadingly whimsical name.
These little things feed on phytoplankton and then excrete ammonia into the water, which in turn can make survival difficult for other marine residents. That being said, it looks lovely.
7. Pandangbai Port, Bali, Indonesia
Bali is the perfect place to get your bioluminescence fix if you’re a snorkeler. One of the busiest bays on the island, its wonders are hidden from people boarding ferries in the daytime. Come here when the crowds wane to enjoy the show.
If you’re not big on snorkelling, take a boat tour and swish those paddles around – the more the water moves the more lights turn on. If you’re not a water person, the surrounding beaches light up beautifully where the water breaks.
8. Indian River Lagoon, Florida, USA
Photo Source: Edie Widder
This busy water spot has all kinds of sea residents bathed in light to see. Fish just going about their business look like a science fiction movie, and you can follow the graceful movements of manatee in the otherwise dark water, or watch dolphins thread the needle in a pool of shine.
This place is incredible and well known for it, so try to head out on weekdays for some peace and quiet. Take a kayak or a boat, but don’t be tempted to swim, as alligators are most active at night.
9. Holbox, Quintana Roo, Mexico
Photo Source: Riviera Maya
If you’re the adventurous type, you will love the little island of Holbox. The water here glows like the water elsewhere on this list, to be sure, but only here can you swim with the whale shark and glow together, like inter-species friends. Their name may not have the best reputation, but these gentle giants are harmless.
The glow-in-the-dark water is separated from the mainland by a shallow lagoon home to flamingoes and pelicans, so you’ll have beautiful things all around you. This small fishing village is still an undiscovered gem and the no cars policy is bound to keep the pesky tourists away.
10. Waitomo Caves, New Zealand
Photo Source: Waitomo Glowworm Caves
Last but certainly not least, this entry is the ideal choice to witness nature at its best. In an underground cave system of over 300 caves lies a special grotto named after its most famous resident: the glowworm cave.
Take a boat ride and admire the ceiling filled with fireflies – the only light source in the cave. Better than your garden variety lava lamp, don’t you think? This place also, unbelievably, has a cathedral were performances are held regularly, which is almost as impressive as the natural light show.