As a Maldivian, when you hear the word “redhan” you immediately think about horror stories. Tales of fishermen and travellers lost at sea. Right before everything goes wrong the first tell tale sign of the paranormal is seeing the surface of the ocean covered in “redhan”. What we are actually witnessing is phytoplankton and more specifically bioluminescent phytoplankton spread across the surface like a thousand beautiful stars beneath the waves. On a dark night it seems almost surreal.
Even though the tales of phytoplankton are embedded in horror stories for Maldivians, it’s a whole different story for the rest of the world. Ever since a picture of the beaches of Maldives covered in bioluminescent phytoplankton spread like wildfire tourists have been coming here specifically for that reason. To try and catch a glimpse of the amazing phenomenon of our white sandy beaches lined with these beautiful creatures. Nature at its best.
True-colour image of the dynamic growth of a springtime phytoplankton bloom in the Bay of Biscay -NASA
Not all phytoplankton are bioluminescent and the ones that are, do not constantly glow all the time. Their luminescence, though mostly blue, can vary from green to even orange or red. Scientists believe that they glow as a form of defense. Some types of zooplankton don’t emit light themselves and instead squirt out globs of glowing chemicals into the water. This most likely helps them to confuse predators and escape.
Not a lot of people realize that these beautiful creatures carry a far bigger responsibility on their tiny shoulders. The majority of the oxygen that we breathe, an amazing 70%, comes directly from the ocean through phytoplankton, kelp, and algal plankton. Just like plants on land these creatures produce oxygen as a byproduct of photosynthesis.
A type of phytoplankton called Prochlorococcus, releases tons of oxygen into the atmosphere. Remarkably, it is so small that millions fit into a single drop of water but despite their size they are the most abundant photosynthetic organisms on the planet. Dr. Sylvia A. Earle estimates that Prochlorococcus provides the oxygen for one in every five breaths we take.
Here’s just one more significant reason to take better care of our oceans and protect our marine life.