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Glow worms: an ocean full of stars for Chris Gauntlett

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Pilot Chris Gauntlett, of Blue Water Divers, launched a Facebook group to help more people experience the wonder of Bermuda’s glow worms (Photograph supplied)

The BDA Glow Worm Society arose out of a joke.

A few years ago, boat pilot and diver Chris Gauntlett posted a question on social media, asking when the glow worms would be out.

Every month during the summer, these aquatic creatures, scientific name Odontosyllis enopla, put on a bioluminescent show as part of their mating practices. The trouble is they light up at a very specific time.

“If you are just a few minutes late, it is easy to miss them,” Mr Gauntlett said. “This couple came back and said you should ask the BDA Glow Worm Society. I said, ‘Sweet!’ Then they said, ‘LOL, it does not exist’. I said, ‘Give me a minute.”

What are glow worms?

In 1492, explorer Christopher Columbus saw glow worms on his travels to the Americas and described them as “the flame of a small candle alternately raised and lowered” under the water.

Within the span of five minutes, Mr Gauntlett had the BDA Glow Worm Society Facebook group up and running.

“I sent them an invite,” he said. “They thought that was super funny.”

Mr Gauntlett, owner of Blue Water Divers, kept the Facebook group going as a way for people to trade information on the aquatic worms, such as the best times and places to see them. The aim is for the group to be the primary source for information on them. It now has 580 members, known affectionately as “glilluminati”.

The Bermuda glow worm or Odontosyllis enopla (Photograph supplied)

Mr Gauntlett stressed that the Facebook group is not supposed to be stressful in any way.

“We try not to overwhelm anyone with posts,” he said. “There are enough Facebook groups that are streams of consciousness. We try to keep it simple and on topic. If the post is not about glow worms, find another place for it.”

Mr Gauntlett said people seem to appreciate this Odontosyllis enopla one-stop, information shop.

He sometimes meets people who have lived their whole lives in Bermuda, but have never heard of the glow worms.

One of his best glow worm experiences came unexpectedly several years ago.

“Myself and another captain took our boat around the South Shore to plan a route of night diving,” he said. “On the way back past Pompano in Southampton, we realised there were lights around the boat on the surface.”

They stopped the boat and turned off their own illumination. They found themselves surrounded by flickering blue-green lights in the water as far as they could see.

“It was just wild,” he said. “It was like an ocean full of stars.”

Mr Gauntlett said before that he would have been sceptical if anyone had told him they had seen the glow worms at that spot on the South Shore.

“I had seen the glow worms before, but always in muddy or grassy bays,” he said. “I had never seen them in a situation like that.”

Seeing them there that night spurred his interest.

The glow worms are extremely punctual. Peak glow worm watching is in the summer months, exactly three days after the full moon and 56 minutes after sunset. You can sometimes also see them on the first, second or fourth day after the full moon, but the show is not quite as spectacular.

There are short glow worm cruises offered by different entities in Bermuda, but it can be hit or miss whether you actually see them. The water needs to be dead calm for viewing, and any ambient light will spoil things.

“It doesn’t take much light to make it difficult to see them,” Mr Gauntlett said.

An enzyme is responsible for the glow worm spectacle. The female worm swims in circles, putting out a glowing chemical that encourages the males on the seabed to swim up to her. The energy emitted is cold. It will not burn you.

“It is an extremely effective form of procreation,” he said. “Forty-five to 80 per cent of glow worm eggs are successfully fertilised through this. That is pretty impressive.”

The glow worms are not unique to Bermuda. They can also be seen in the Bahamas and the Gulf of Mexico. There are also similar species in the Pacific and in caves in New Zealand.

There are also other things in the ocean that produce that greenish-blue glow, such as certain types of algae that are triggered by movement in the water. There are also fish, bacteria and jellyfish that light up.

Mr Gauntlett remembered seeing this phenomenon once while boating in Elys Harbour in Sandys as a youngster.

“I was out in my dad’s boat,” he said. “There was a barbecue mounted off the back of the boat. It was held there by a chain. Something happened to the chain and the barbecue fell in the water.”

Mr Gauntlett, a self-described “boaty kid”, jumped into the ocean, with no mask or flashlight. Underwater, he was surrounded by bioluminescence.

“It was so bright that I could see the barbecue on the bottom, perfectly,” Mr Gauntlett said. “That was great.”

This was not because of the glow worms, but more likely caused by algae. He said Paradise Lakes, Elys Harbour or any secluded bay are good places to see general bioluminescence.

“Wave your hand through the water, and you are getting trails of light,” he said. “It looks like a comet trail. When you are diving and moving around in the water it is amazing.”

His firm, Blue Water Divers, often takes people out on night dives in the summer.

“When they see that bioluminescence, they are entranced,” he said. “It is like magic.”

As a diver, he spends a lot of time in the water.

“You develop more than the average level of interest in what you are looking at in the ocean,” he said. “A lot of this stuff is simple to access, even if you are not a biologist. Going to look at the glow worms is a low-stress, low-drama activity. Go and find a quiet place after sunset, that is hopefully quite dark.”

He said you could see the glow worms while actually being in the water, but you have to be very still. It is also extremely difficult to photograph them.

The next best optimal night for viewing, according to Mr Gauntlett’s calculations, will be September 2 at 8.38pm. The next peak viewing night will be October 2, 58 minutes after sunset.

For more information, join the Facebook group BDA Glow Worm Society

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Published August 24, 2023 at 8:00 am (Updated August 25, 2023 at 7:47 am)

Glow worms: an ocean full of stars for Chris Gauntlett

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