‘Extraordinary’ bioluminescent waves thrill Northwest photographers

Night photographer describes it as "aurora in the water"

ASTORIA, Ore. — Pacific Northwest waves are coming alive with light, drawing photographers from Oregon and Washington to the coast.

Steven Smith of McMinnville is a property manager by day, photographer by night. He operates Solution 7 Media and has been capturing bioluminescence in action at the mouth of the Columbia River.

“I had kind of an educated guess that August was the time that the bioluminescence would be doing its thing,” Smith explained. “I went out to this last weekend, starting at Cannon Beach, and saw it there. The next night, I went to Fort Stevens, and at Fort Stevens there in Astoria, there’s an observation deck. When you’re up high enough there, you can absolutely see it with your eyes, and I’ve got to tell you, it was the most mesmerizing thing I’ve seen in a long, long time.”

Smith has been sharing his brilliant images on social media. He often shoots the Milky Way and has experience with the aurora borealis. This summer provided another gift from above: Comet NEOWISE. Now nature is putting on a light show in the sea.

“It was really, really extraordinary,” Smith said. “My friend Alex (Barnedt) and I kind of shoot together quite a bit lately. We’re both night photographers and we were literally jumping up and down and yelping and  yelling because we were so excited about what we were seeing.”

It was Barnedt’s first time ever seeing the bioluminescence. He runs 1987A Photography.

“The waves just started breaking and we were like little kids, literally just jumping up and down,” Barnedt recalled. “It’s like aurora in the water, basically. It’s pretty fantastic.”

Chemical reactions inside plankton produce and emit light as a defense when disturbed, such as by predators, people, or waves. Long-exposure photography helps capture the display, however these glowing waves are visible to the naked eye.

“It wasn’t just something we saw on the back of the camera. It was literally very visible to our eyes and it was really, really impressive,” Smith said. “I’ve seen the northern lights up here. In Washington, it kind of looks like some gray pillars and whatnot, and this bioluminescence kind of blew that away. My camera can see the northern lights really well, but you really can’t see them very well in Washington with your eyes, whereas this bioluminescence is completely visible to the eye.”

The trick is to stay away from light pollution and let your eyes adjust to the darkness during a certain time of night.

“You want to be there when there’s no moonlight. Through the 18th, 19th, there’s at least some part of the night every night that does not have moonlight at the beginning of the night,” Smith suggested.

Barnedt said a number of local state parks are permissive of nighttime stargazing groups so long as they stick to certain rules and areas after hours.

If you want to photograph the glowing waves, Smith recommends using a long exposure, a fast lens, and a high-end camera.

In Washington, you can experience bioluminesence on the water in Friday Harbor, where several companies operate bioluminescence-focused kayak tours.