Stunning blue hue as algae lights up Hong Kong harbor

A long exposure photo from January 22, 2015 shows the glow from a Noctiluca scintillans algal bloom along the seashore in Hong Kong.

Story highlights

  • Image shows striking blue algae bloom near Hong Kong shoreline
  • Commonly known as "Sea Sparkle," the algae is not in itself considered harmful
  • However, algae bloom is a sign of a troubled ecosystem, marine experts say

Hong Kong (CNN)The stunning photo shows a shimmering blue shoreline with the bright lights of Hong Kong in the distance.

The fluorescent blue glow is natural lighting powered by an algae bloom of Noctiluca scintillans, commonly known as "Sea Sparkle."
    The non-toxic phytoplankton is not considered harmful and is relatively common in Hong Kong. What is uncommon is capturing its iridescent glow on camera, which only appears when the water is disturbed.
    Local photographer Lit Wai Kwong also took an image of the phenomena at Tai Po in Hong Kong's New Territories.
    Lit Wai Kwong took this long-exposure photo of a glowing blue algae in the waters of Hong Kong on January 21, 2015.
    "You can see the blue light if there is a wave, a boat moving, or a stone thrown in the water," said Kwong, who used a 30-second exposure to get the shot.
    "There was no blue light when the water was calm, therefore many people threw stones into the water in order to see it."
    Despite its blue hue, the phenomena is referred to as a red tide and, according to a Hong Kong government website that keeps track of sightings, several have been reported so far this year.
    Michelle Cheung from the city's Eco-education & Resources Center said the bloom was caused by high pollution in Tolo Harbour, which was exacerbated by the slow flow of currents.
    She said nutrient levels are typically high in the region, due to restaurant waste and sewage running direct from village houses into the sea.
    Cheung added that the algae can be deadly because it deprives the water of oxygen, though the government has not recorded any evidence of fish kills.
    A swimmer heads towards a red algae bloom at Sydney's Clovelly Beach on November 27, 2012.
    "Hong Kong and the entire Pearl River Delta has a big problem with wastewater, and that is surely a factor with these plankton blooms," said David Baker from the Swire Institute of Marine Science at the University of Hong Kong.
    He said, by itself, Noctiluca scintillans doesn't represent a threat to human or environmental health, but the huge bloom does represent an ecosystem that's "out of balance."
    "I guess the analogy is they're like locusts that feed on agricultural crops. And once they find a good abundant food source they will multiply until the food source is exhausted. In Hong Kong unfortunately most of the nutrients are coming from our own sewage."
    The damage done to the environment doesn't just happen when oxygen is depleted during the algae's short lifetime.
    When the blooms die, they sink to the bottom of the sea when they decompose, consuming huge amounts of oxygen.
      "That's when we have the formation of these dead zones, where anything that's living, any fish or crab species living on the bottom, is at risk of dying from the low oxygen associated with that decomposition," Baker said.
      Hong Kong has a number of zones that suffer from persistently low levels of oxygen, which "increase in their severity and their scope whenever we have these algal blooms," he added.