The bright blue, glowing waves are back off Southern California’s coastline, lighting up dark beaches for the past week to the delight of beachgoers who scout out the unusual sight.
The bioluminescent waves – caused by a dinoflagellate algae that turns the ocean red during the day but glows when agitated at night – have been documented in Oxnard and Malibu, in Newport Beach and Laguna Beach, and off San Diego’s coastline in recent days.
“It’s kind of sporadic along the coast, it’s not an insane algae bloom but enough where it’s in multiple spots,” said Mark Girardeau, who runs the website Orange County Outdoors and has been documenting the bioluminescent phenomenon the past few years, including several times this week.
The latest occurrence Girardeau spotted was on Wednesday, Aug. 30, when he and fellow photographer Patrick Coyne scoured Laguna Beach’s coastline. Earlier in the week, it had been spotted off of Crescent Bay, but it was only a faint blue then.
On Wednesday, they headed to Main Beach, where it was showing much brighter. The duo then found pools of water from the high night tide and splashed around in it, making their feet and the puddles of water brighten with an electric blue hue.
“It was crazy bright,” Girardeau said, noting about 20 others came over to splash around in the water.
Coyne, who traveled from Torrance to chase the glowing waves, just got back from Florida two weeks ago. He was there for a film project documenting the East Coast algae blooms that show up each summer, a more predictable occurrence where charter companies host tours for people to watch the water glow.
But here, the bioluminescence is less predictable, with winds and tides and waves making it a challenge to find each night.
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Earlier in the week, Coyne and Girardeau also documented glowing bay water in Newport Harbor. And a week earlier, Coyne had traveled up to Oxnard and saw something he had never before – thousands of little sand crabs on the water’s edge lighting up the sand as they scurried toward the sea.
“It was crazy, I was freaking out,” he said.
The photographers have been chasing glowing waves for the past three years, since a 2020 super bloom.
“You’d think we’d be tired of it,” Coyne said with a chuckle, speculating he’s filmed the phenomenon at least 300 times in recent years.
The latest sighting follows the recent release of a new study giving insight into the mega bloom off Southern California in 2020, which lingered for months and lit up much of the coastline.
The spectacle was caused by exceedingly high densities of Lingulodinium polyedra (L. polyedra), a plankton species renowned for its ability to emit a neon blue glow, the researchers said.
While it caught the public’s attention and made headlines, it was also proved harmful to local wildlife, according to the paper.
“Toxins were detected at the height of the bloom that had the potential to harm marine life, and dissolved oxygen levels dropped to near-zero as the extreme biomass of the red tide decomposed. This lack of oxygen led to fish die-offs and other destructive impacts on local ecosystems,” the researchers said.
The study, led by scientists at UC San Diego’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography and Jacobs School of Engineering, pinpoints how the plankton species — a dinoflagellate — was able to create such an exceptionally dense bloom.
“The answer lies in dinoflagellates’ remarkable ability to swim, which lends them a competitive advantage over other species of phytoplankton,” the researchers said. Their swimming ability can lead to the formation of dense blooms.
A photo taken from above shows the thick bands of red tide hanging out off the coast of San Diego. (Photo courtesy of Quinn Montgomery/Scripps institution of Oceanography)
“The idea that vertical swimming gives dinoflagellates a competitive advantage actually goes back more than half a century, but only now do we have the technology to conclusively prove it in the field,” said oceanographer Drew Lucas, senior author of the paper and an associate professor at the Scripps Oceanography and the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering at UC San Diego. “In the plankton world, they are Michael Phelps.”
Like Phelps, the bioluminescent waves are hard to catch. The No. 1 question Girardeau gets: Where will it be tonight?
That is hard to predict. The photographers have amassed a hefty network of people who alert them of the red tide or glowing waves and they also check live cameras up and down the coast and ultimately, give the time and dedication to be successful. Sometimes the bioluminescence stays for weeks, sometimes it is just days before it vanishes.
“I think the most important things is, if it’s not at one, it could be at another beach a quarter-mile away,” Girardeau said. “You can’t predict it, every night is different.”