Update Added: New Photos from 9/23 at end!
What started as just an adventure to finally get a seacave shot I had been chasing for nearly two years ended up with the bonus of a lifetime. The seacaves in this area are only accessible during a very low tide and that tide then needs to line up with the placement of the Milky Way. So, this doesn't happen very often. The caves can be incredibly dangerous and completely inaccessible if you're there at the wrong time. 

About two years ago, I visited the Malibu area for the first time to scout things out and then by the third time, I had the shot I hoped to capture for so long. The Milky Way from inside a huge sea cave. One of the photos ended up being featured as the NASA Astronomy Photo of the Day while others were picked up my a number of local media outlets. 

Since that visit, I had immediately had another set of caves in mind. I waited for the a similar tide, but it still didn't work out. Even though the tide was low enough the waves still brought the water too far in to the cave to allow me to shoot how I hoped.

Clouds, fog, and travels continued to get in the way of chasing after this shot, but it never left my mind. I'd be lying if I said I didn't feel discouraged or  even at points like it would never line up.  With traffic, the drive was easily over 3 and sometimes 4 hours one way, so it was pretty rough to keep failing and pulling this all together. The elements were out of my control, but it was  tough blow each time. 

Images from my first trip in 2015

On Sept 11th, I had just received my Sony A7RII back from repair (it fell in an alpine lake nearly two months prior) and I was anxious to get back out shooting with the Sigma 14mm f1.8.  I picked up my camera and decided to check the tides and weather for Malibu. It looked promising,  but it definitely wasn't going to be a sure thing. I shot a message over to my friend Mark Jacobs who had been along for a few previous failed cave attempts and said, "We can head to a new spot I scouted in the desert or we can chance the caves again." For some reason, even after our previous failed attempts, Mark left the decision up to me. 

A few hours later, we were on our way to Malibu. We arrived just in time to  see a beautiful sunset as we were grabbing coffee and then made our way to the beach. 

We made our way past a few locations I wanted to shoot at, but it was the height of low tide and I planned on heading straight to the caves. I splashed through some water and finally made it there. The tide was low and the sky was clear! Finally! 

I took a few photos here, looked everything over and then started making my way back down the beach.  I stopped in a few places I wanted to shoot or was hoping to reshoot from previous visits.  I couldn't believe how well everything was working out. Aside from the fact that by this point, I was completely soaked from getting just a little too close to a few waves. At least all my gear stayed dry on this trip! 

I hit all the spots on my list and then yelled over to Mark that I wanted to head back to the first cave. I grabbed my gear and started making my way back. I couldn't tell if the tide had changed too much, but for some reason I was hopeful it would be a bit lower. 

I got back to the double opening cave and wanted to try and take a pano, so I would need to get pretty lucky with the timing. I took a few attempts and a few quick camera grabs, but I thought I had pulled it off. Then I made my way to the larger cave and setup again to take another pano. I would take 7 vertical shots, shifting my camera just a bit after each exposure. 

That's when it happened. The sky was still clear, the tide was still low, but this time there was a blue glow in the water. 


Capturing bio-luminescence has been on my dream shot list for a while now and I already wish I would do it again. In fact, I may be heading back out to try my luck!  

Be sure to follow along on Instagram!

Click below to a see a full gallery of images from my last Malibu trip!

Update 9/23:
I ended up heading back to Malibu in hopes of perfecting my composition a bit and testing my luck at catching the bio-luminescence one more time! The tide was looking questionable at best, but I decided it was worth giving it a go.

A few other photographers, Steven J. Magner, Tracey Lee, and Chris Crosby were all headed to Malibu with the same hopes in mind so we chatted a bit while I was on my way to make plans to meet somewhere along the beach. Even with the almost non-existent cellphone service, we were all heading to the same cave so we'd inevitably find each other.

After arriving by 7pm or so, I got relax a bit and just enjoy the last few minutes of sunset. I found my composition, set up and waited patiently for the stars to come out.

The stars began to shine, the Milky Way was in place and now it was just a matter of hoping the water would begin to glow again. I let a few minutes pass between each exposure and closely checked each image.

Click, wait, nothing, repeat.

The crescent Moon was setting to the right of the cave and would occasionally cause the water to glimmer. I kept catching this from the corner of my eye and getting my hopes up.

The waves crept in closer and closer and then finally that unmistakable blue glow appeared on the back of my camera. 

I timed my photos to start just a larger wave was about to crash I'd already be shooting. I just need one strong wave to cause enough disturbance and cause the bio-luminescence to light up in the right spot. I took about 20 photos and then it happened right in the location I was hoping. 

Bioluminescence on 9/23/17

It was an incredible night that I won't soon forget. Two years ago, thoughts of catching the Milky Way from inside a sea cave and getting a photo of bio-luminescence were two separate dreams.

I never imagined that I'd be lucky enough to have it all come together in a single exposure.

Follow along on Instagram

  • David Schlacht

    on May 4, 2020

    Just came back saw the bioluminescence at Zumba beach today at 4:40 am

  • Halee Dobbins

    on September 25, 2017

    Where in Malibu is this?

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