World Tour Highlights: 5 Things that Glow in the Dark

This third article in the World Tour Highlights series presents Things That Glow in the Dark, in chronological order.

1. Bioluminescent Plankton in Penang, Malaysia

We lived in George Town on the island of Penang in Peninsular Malaysia for nearly three months. You can do a lot of things in that time that you’d never think of doing on a quick visit. Sheryl had gone out one day to Taman Negara Pulau Pinang - the Penang National Park, currently the smallest national park in the world. She came back raving about the place, so we packed up some food and the tent and took the bus across the island. It’s a lovely park, but the best part was a local secret - an overgrown, scratchy, muddy and steeply dangerous track leading over a big hill and down to a long, empty, perfect beach. Sheryl’s fishermen friends found us there and shared their catch with us, grilled over a fire on the beach. We stayed there that night, feeling like we were at the end of the world. As the waves washed into shore, each one had a fringe of glowing blue. The glow came from plankton - tiny single-celled marine organisms. We ran into the water, every splash sending up a glowing spray into the air. Our heads and bodies were outlined with a shining blue slick of water, and every movement of our hands or legs underwater made glowing, swirling blue trails, and snapping our fingers or clapping our hands under the surface made soundless explosions of blue light.

2. Fireflies in Cherating, Malaysia

Cherating, on the eastern side of Peninsular Malaysia, is home to a trillion fireflies. We took a little boat up the river at night, and the fireflies all came floating out of the trees to investigate, looking like green-glowing sparks from a fire as they floated towards us in clouds. One landed on my nose. Read the full story here.

3. Fungi in Borneo

Niah Caves National Park, in the Malaysian state of Sarawak on the island of Borneo, is a strange and endlessly interesting world. Besides the caves themselves there’s an amazing swampy ecosystem. You cross the river on a little boat from the campground side to the park side, and then walk along a couple of kilometers of boardwalk over the swamp to the caves themselves. Sheryl and I sat out the sunset watching the bats emerge from the cave mouths for their nightly hunting, and it was nearly dark when we realized we’d have to rush – along the slippery, mossy boardwalk, in the dark, dodging bats – to catch the boat back before it made its last crossing of the day, if we didn’t want to swim across the river. But we just couldn’t rush, because we got to see Niah’s famous bioluminescent fungi. Tiny spots of dim green light like resting fireflies carpeted the ground and up the trunks of the trees. Tiny button mushrooms, they looked like nothing under our flashlights, but in the dark they returned the swamp to three dimensions, populating the forest with a universe of ghostly green light.

4. Glow-Worms in New Zealand

New Zealand’s glow-worms are fascinating creatures. The larvae of the charmingly-named Fungus Gnat, they’re not much to look at themselves – just a mucus-covered transparent grub. But at night or underground, they shine a soft blue-green to attract their flying prey into their dangling curtains of sticky threads. There can be thousands speckled on the roof and walls of a cave like constellations, shimmering in and out of visibility as you turn your head. Or, like in the glow-worm forest near the Fox Glacier on the South Island, there can be uncountable millions under leaves or roots, turning the forest into a spooky, otherworldly fairy landscape. Rounding a bend in the path, or pushing aside a hanging branch, you’ll be suddenly bathed in the soft light of a colony living in the upturned roots of a fallen tree. The longer you stay out in the dark with the glow-worms, the more you see, until the whole forest is glowing gently.

5. Spider Eyes in Australia

It had been a backbreaking day of hiking for Sheryl and I on the Larapinta Trail in the harsh centre of Australia – full of sharp, sliding rocks, heavy packs, flies and the punishing sun. We were exhausted, but the campsite we chose at the end of the day made it all worthwhile. It was at one end of a ridge of hills a few hundred meters above the floor of the desert. Not an artificial light in sight, and we lay back and stared up at a sky full of more stars than I’ve ever seen, and a river of sparkling white splitting the sky from edge to edge – the Milky Way. An absorbing spectacle, but when I played my light along the ground I saw little sparkling blue jewels shining back at me. You don’t spent much time in the Outback before you encounter the legends of people stumbling across a lucky gemstone find, so I went looking, zeroing in on the elusive sharp blue sparkles. When I finally tracked one down I saw – not a jewel – but a wolf spider on his nocturnal hunt, staring up at me, the reflected light shining out of his faceted eyes like tiny blue diamonds. Finding one, I found a hundred; they were all around, wherever I shone the light. I suppose that technically they don’t belong on this list, since they reflect light rather than glowing in the dark, but it was still a magical experience.


One Comment on this Dispatch:

January 19th, 2012

Wow. It all sounds amazing. Love the story about the bioluminescent plankton in Malaysia. Wish I could have been there…Are the wolf spiders dangerous?

¬ Anusia
January 20th, 2012

Thanks Anusia! Actually, wolf spiders are one of the few spiders in Australia that can’t kill you. 

¬ Chris
Chris Liberty - Dispatches from a Gentleman Adventurer
Being the internal dialog of a vagabond who chased his own tail across five continents for 4 years and 2 days from May 2008 to May 2012, in search of something that never really became clear.
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