The Quest for Bioluminescence


It came to my attention a few months ago that where I live in Nagano prefecture is relatively close to Toyama Bay. “What’s so great about Toyama Bay?” you ask. The answer: bioluminescent squid! Called firefly squid in English, or hotaruika (蛍烏賊) in Japanese, these squid reach a length of around three inches (HUGE, right?) and have bioluminescent organs on their mantle, head, arms, and tentacles (two arms that are longer than the others that are used for catching prey). Lured by the prospect of seeing them lighting up the shoreline in the fantastic and unrealistic pictures I saw on Google, I informed a friend we were going on a roadtrip.

Now of course, for you to be able to see the bioluminescence in action, you have to be at the bay absurdly early in the morning. We left Nagano around 10pm and got to the Hotaruika Museum in Toyama City, conveniently located a few meters from the water, around 1am. We immediately sprinted over to the water and:

no squid. The bay was completely dark. There were still a lot of people who were standing on the edge of the water with nets trying to catch the squid, but it didn’t look like they were having much luck either. We walked around for a little while before returning to the car disappointed and driving to a dark corner of a nearby convenience store to get some sleep.

The next morning, I went on an early morning walk along the bay. The weather was gorgeous and so was the ocean: I hadn’t realized I missed it so much. It felt great to be close to the water again!

The last thing we did before heading back to Nagano was visit the museum. It’s not very big, but one of the cool things it offers is a show with live firefly squid that were caught that morning. After a video with English subtitles (woot woot!) with some facts about them, as well as the process behind catching and transporting the tiny squids to the museum, the lights were turned out and the shallow net the squids were in was shaken, causing them to emit their blue light! It was a cool sight to see and kind of a ‘duh’ moment for me — there was a part of me that was expecting to see the kind of blue I saw in the pictures online, but, of course, bioluminesence is not THAT bright, at least not without tons of squid in one place/editing software.

Another fun thing the museum has is a touch tank! That’s right, you can touch and pick up the squids! They fit nicely in the palm of your hand (if you’re able to catch them), but be careful. They don’t like to be picked up (huh, I wonder why) and will not only flare their arms out in a menacing fashion, but will also pinch your skin with their beaks if you’re not paying attention. It doesn’t really hurt, but it’s definitely enough to startle you into dropping them!


The last part of the museum, and my last chance to obtain bioluminescence, has a gift shop and cafe… where you could eat the squid! They offered a squid burger, squid fries, and squid dessert. One of those did NOT contain squid, I’ll let you guess which one 😉  I posted about this experience a few weeks ago, so click here to check it out.

A side note: after returning home, I did further research and found that unless you live near Toyama Bay, your chances of seeing the squid without going on a tour are very slim. The squids only come near the shore during certain times, and they only give off their blue light when VERY specific conditions are met. So, for anyone thinking about trying to see them, I would recommend you take the tour or just see them at the museum.

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