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What Exactly is Bioluminescence in the Indian River Lagoon? Is it a Good or Bad Sign?

“The dinoflagellate, (marine plankton), Pyodinium bahamense is what “produces the light show in the IRL.” Photo credit: https://getupandgokayaking.com

About a week and a half ago, my mother sent me an email with photos of my father and her on a kayak trip at night in the Indian River Lagoon. She had seen an article in the Stuart News about a company called Motorized Kayaks of the Treasure Coast and their trip into the light show of bioluminescence that has been occurring off our shores.

First, I thought about how cool my parents are to be going on kayak trips in their mid- seventies, and second, I thought, “aren’t these little plankton creatures a kind of algae bloom, and aren’t algae blooms bad for the lagoon in spite of bioluminescence’s beauty?”

Algae blooms have been linked to recent 60% plus seagrass die-offs, poor water quality, as well as  IRL pelican, dolphin and manatee deaths.  Super blooms, brown tides, “regular” and “toxic” algae blooms are “fed” by fertilizer, septic effluent, canal and Lake Okeechobee discharges, especially in the southern lagoon.

[caption id="attachment_2989" align="alignnone" width="300"]My father, Tom Thurlow, preparing for a kayak trip into the Indian River Lagoon to view the bioluminescent light show. (Photo Sandra Thurlow, August, 2014) My father, Tom Thurlow, preparing for a kayak trip into the Indian River Lagoon to view the bioluminescent light show. (Photo Sandra Thurlow, August 19, 2014)

Well anyway, I decided to contact Dr. Edie Widder of ORCA, the Ocean Research and Conservation Association, in Ft. Pierce, (http://www.teamorca.org/cfiles/home.cfm) and ask.

Dr Widder  is a world-renowned bioluminescence expert; she has even worked with the US Navy in the “design” of ships that would not cause bioluminescent disruption in the oceans, and thus give away their location to enemy ships.

This was my question to Dr Widder:

Dear Edie,
My parents rented kayaks to go see the bioluminescence in the IRL. It got me
thinking. Is the light caused by the same creatures that cause toxic algae
blooms in the lagoon?
Is the bioluminescence a bad sign for the health of the lagoon? Thank you.
Hope all is well.

Her response:

Hi Jacqui – It’s kind of a good news bad news story. The dinoflagellate
producing the light show, Pyrodinium bahamense, happens to be one that
produces saxitoxin. Interestingly it’s the same dino that’s responsible for
the bioluminescent bays in Puerto Rico and in those bays it doesn’t produce
the saxitoxin. Here it does. It’s not known why although I have a theory
and it has nothing to do with pollution. (It’s a long story having to do
with how their bioluminescence functions to protect them from predators
under different concentrations.)

Dino blooms are usually preceded by rain events that flush nutrients into
the water and then a series of calm sunny days that promote photosynthesis.
Blooms like the one we’re seeing now used to be routine according to some of
the older fishermen I’ve talked to. They called it fire in the water. The
fact is the water can’t be too polluted or the dinoflagellates won’t grow.
I’ll send you an article with some pictures I took.



Here is a photo Dr Widder took of bioluminescence in the lagoon I copied and a link to a remarkable video.

Bioluminescence in the IRL photographed by Dr Edie Widder.
Bioluminescence in the IRL photographed by Dr Edie Widder.

Incredible pictures of barnacles feeding on bioluminescent dinoflagellates: (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y1jG8qFZyYY)

Thank you for sharing, Dr Widder!

In conclusion, I looked up saxitoxin and learned it is a “paralytic shellfish toxin” that is found is some shellfish and especially puffer fish. It has been found in few other places in the US as well as in  the Indian River Lagoon. I guess the little dinoflagellates, the same ones that make the pretty bioluminescence light,  not always, but sometimes, will produce this toxin which gets spread to some shellfish and some fish. If such a shellfish or fish is ingested,  it will make a human very sick.  Around 2002, 28 people got so sick here, in the Merritt Island area, and in a few other areas of the county, that now there is a permanent government ban on harvesting/eating IRL puffer fish in the entire IRL.

Since I am nowhere close to a scientist, I will just share some links below and refrain from speculating what is “good or bad. ” Nonetheless, I think I can safely say that sometimes beauty and danger walk hand in hand in this magical world of our Indian River Lagoon.


Abstract, Saxitoxin in the IRL, US Food and Drug Administration: (http://www.researchgate.net/publication/250019725_Concentrations_of_Saxitoxin_and_Tetrodotoxin_in_Three_Species_of_Puffers_from_the_Indian_River_Lagoon_Florida_the_Location_for_Multiple_Cases_of_Saxitoxin_Puffer_Poisoning_from_2002_to_2004Sincerely)

Monitoring Toxic Algae and Shellfish in the IRL, FWC, (http://myfwc.com/research/redtide/monitoring/current/indian-river/)

Florida Today: Is the IRL OK for Play? http://www.floridatoday.com/story/news/local/environment/2014/06/14/indian-river-lagoon-ok-play/10527607/)

Dinoflagellate: (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dinoflagellate)

Up Close and Personal with “Clover,” the Newest Baby Dolphin, of the St Lucie River/Indian River Lagoon

Clover the baby dolphin next to mother, Shamrock, May, 2014, Crossroads, SLR/IRL. (Photo Nic Mader, Dolphin Ecology Project.)
Clover- the baby dolphin, next to mother, Shamrock, May, 2014, Crossroads, SLR/IRL. (Photo Nic Mader, Dolphin Ecology Project.)
Nic Mader, taking photos of dorsal fins to identify IRL dolphins. (Photo JTL, 2013.)
Nic Mader, taking photos of dorsal fins to identify SLR/IRL dolphins. (Photo JTL, 2013.)

Nic Mader has one of the coolest jobs in the world, and one of great importance to our St Lucie River/Indian River Lagoon. She volunteers for the Dolphin Ecology Project in conjunction with Harbor Branch’s photo ID program. She photographs the dorsal fins of all dolphins in our area. When one looks closely, each dorsal fin is unique.

S. IRL dolphins fins/names created by Nic Mader 2013.
S. IRL dolphins’ fins/names created by Nic Mader 2013.

Generally speaking,  the IRL bottle-nosed dolphins are “site specific,” they have a “territory.” Even during crisis, like heavy rains causing polluted discharges and toxic algae blooms in our river from our local canals and Lake Okeechobee, the dolphins remain in our area within a range of about thirty miles. Nic photographs these dolphins and knows them by name. Her newest dolphin is a baby named “Clover.” The mother’s name is Shamrock. Baby Clover will stay aside Shamrock and accompanying group females for up to three years.

Clover is the newest documented member of the group/family of dolphins that live in the “southern lagoon,”which includes the southern IRL and St Lucie River. There are are other groups in the central and northern lagoon as well, all the way up to Volusia County. Sometimes these different groups interact but not too often.

Also, very rarely would one go into the Atlantic ocean through an inlet or a larger oceanic dolphin come inside. The dolphins of the SLR/IRL feel protected here. The entire 156 mile lagoon has about 800-1000 dolphins.  Just over a hundred live in the southern area full time.

Even though the lagoon provides protection, there are numerous threats to Clover and her friends and family.

1. Boat hits: More dolphins are struck by boat hits in the southern IRL than any other part of the lagoon and unfortunately Clover’s mother Shamrock is raising the calf in the Crossroads area, the busiest boat traffic area in Martin County. Fishing is good in this area so Clover is being taught to fish, like her pod, in these dangerous waters. (FAU/Harbor Branch Dolphin Health and Boat Hits: (http://www.fau.edu/hboi/marine_mammals/pbbe_lab.php)

Dolphin in IRL whose dorsal fin has been split by boat hit. (Photo Nic Mader, HBOI/DEP.)
Dolphin in IRL whose dorsal fin has been split by boat hit. (Photo Nic Mader, HBOI/DEP.)

2.  Toxicity: Harbor Branch has documented that IRL dolphin have the highest levels of mercury in the southeastern US. As much as 14 times higher than “acceptable” by FDEP. In fact, it is well accepted that the first baby dolphin a mother has often dies as mothers offload acquired toxins into the first baby that are stored in the mother’s fat. Just horrific. (Dolphin and Human Mercury IRL, Schafer, HBOI, (http://www.cehaweb.com/documents/2_000.pdf)

3. Fishing line and hooks: Unfortunatley dolphins are so smart it often gets them in trouble like when they try to steal fish off a fisherman’s hook or curiously tamper with crab traps getting the band stuck over their head and neck.

4. Feeding by humans: One of the worst things that can happen to wild dolphins is for people to feed them, as this behavior teaches them not to feed themselves. (PSA,Don’t Feed Wild Dolphins: (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EjHNXbviACk)

5. Lobomycosis: Lobomycosis is a terrible skin disease only know to affect humans and bottle nosed dolphins. Harbor Branch has documented more lobomycosis in the southern IRL (17%) than anywhere in the entire IRL, west Florida,  and SE US. This is linked to polluted fresh water releases.  (Abstract “Lobomycosis,”  Dr Bossert, Harbor Branch: (http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs10393-008-0187-8)

Lobomycois in S. IRL dolphins. Photo Dr Gregory Bossert, 2011)
Lobomycois in S. IRL dolphins. Photo Dr Gregory Bossert, 2011)

6. Chemicals: Unfortunately, septic tanks do not filter drugs that we all take and these drugs, antibiotics, even caffeine, find their way into our rivers accumulating  in dolphins. Many are immune to antibiotics in the IRL. (Abstract, Anti-biotics IRL Dolphins, Dr Bossert, Harbor Branch: (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19415386)

7. Morbillavirus: Morbillavirus is like dolphin measles. Presently there is an UME or “unusual mortality event” along the east coast of the US and thousands of dolphins have died. If there were contact between a sick oceanic dolphin and our IRL dolphins, our IRL dolphins could contract the deadly disease. (Abstract, Morbilliavirus IRL dolphins, Dr. Bossert, Harbor Branch: (http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0378113509005732)

8. Tumors/Papillomaviruses: About 33% of IRL dolphins have been documented to have tumors linked to papillomaviruses.  (Abstract, Papillomaviruses IRL Dolphins, Dr Bossert, Harbor Branch: (http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0378113512003574)

Most IRL dolphins have an average life span of 25 years – and a maximum life span of about 50 years. Dolphins living in the ocean have a longer average life span by about 15 years. Seems it would be the opposite as the lagoon is a “safe haven.” (Sea World, (http://www.animalsnetwork.org/wild-world/zoo-research/indian-river-project/dolphin-56.htm)

Clover, like all new life, has a mountain of obstacles to overcome, but making  that even more difficult is that, in today’s world, especially in the St Lucie River/indian River Lagoon, bottle-nosed dolphins’ immune systems are compromised due to poor water quality.

Let’s do what we can to help out. Please slow down if you are in the Crossroads, take the time to look around and see if you can find Clover playing in the waves or learning to hunt.  And most important, let’s not  accept the above list of 1-8 as “status quo;” let’s fight to give Clover a chance for a long and beautiful life along the Indian River Lagoon.


Dolphin Ecology Project: (http://www.dolphinecology.org/FindOut/index.html) 

FAU/Harbor Branch and “Save Wild Dolphin” license plates: (http://www.fau.edu/hboi/)