It’s a memorizing sight that has drawn inquisitive spectators to local beaches after sundown to watch as red waves turn a neon blue hue, lighting up the dark ocean with glowing whitewash on beaches across Southern California.
But what makes this phenomenon, which rarely happens and is turning out to be one of the largest plankton blooms in a decade, so special?
Tracking the red tide as it turns waves electric blue is no easy feat, but seeing it is something you’ll never forget. If you’ve had the chance to see it, or simply want to know more about what makes it happen, here’s seven things to know about bioluminescent waves:
Tracking the red tide isn’t easy as currents can push it offshore or to different areas of the coast within hours.
When it first showed up nearly three weeks ago, it was mostly visible in Newport Beach, then it moved up to Huntington and the South Bay. Most recently, the red tide has been thick off South Orange County in areas of Laguna Beach, Dana Point, including the harbor, San Clemente and further south in Oceanside and areas of San Diego.
But be warned: Recent beach closures and parking restrictions have made it tough to get a glimpse of the ocean. Some beaches are still shut down, so know what the rules are before you go.
Some areas have been crowded with people trying to get a glimpse at the phenomenon, so make sure you keep your distance and wear a face mask.
Scientists at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego are among top experts on the subject. Bioluminescence expert Michael Latz, a scientist at Scripps, gave some info on the science of the phenom:
“The red tide is due to aggregations of the dinoflagellate Lingulodinium polyedra, a species well known for its bioluminescent displays. Each microscopic cell contains some ‘sunscreen,’ giving it a reddish-brown color,” he said. “On sunny days, the organisms swim toward the surface where they concentrate, resulting in the intensified coloration of the water – and the reason for the term ‘red tide.’ At night, when the phytoplankton are agitated by waves or other movement in the water, they emit a dazzling neon blue glow.”
There is no red tide monitoring program, but the Southern California Coastal Ocean Observing System at Scripps Oceanography performs weekly sampling for potential harmful algal toxins.
The Scripps Shore Stations Program also collects daily water samples and performs plankton analysis twice a week.
Latz said that local red tides of L. polyedra have been known since the early 1900s, thanks to observations by Scripps scientists. And today, there are several Scripps scientists sampling the red tide we’ve been seeing with the hopes of learning more about the organisms’ genetics and metabolic characteristics.
Scientists do not know how long the current red tide will last, as previous events have lingered anywhere from one week to a month or more.
If it continues for the next week, it will be a month-long event. The last time a red tide lasted that long was in 2011, and in 1995 prior to that.
Bioluminescent displays are viewed best from a dark beach at least two hours after sunset, though visibility is not guaranteed, Latz said.
While the thought of splashing around in neon waters is luring, make sure you know the risks.
First, it’s dark and swimming in the ocean at night comes with its own risks. And there are no lifeguards on duty.
According to Scripps, local populations do not produce yessotoxin, a compound that acts as a neurotoxin, which can happen in areas of the Mediterranean.
Some people, however, are sensitive to inhaling air associated with the red tide, “so the organisms must be producing other compounds that can affect human health,” Scripps noted. “It is personal choice whether to go in the water, but there is no public health warning associated with the red tide.”
Be warned, it can also make the skin itch and is very stinky on clothes and wetsuits.
Dolphins don’t seem to mind it, however. If you haven’t seen it, check out this video taken off Newport Beach that garnered millions of views since it posted:
If the red tide sticks around until your local beach is open again, take a jar with you to bring a specimen home. Go into a dark room and shake the jar to watch it glow.
Yes! If it is strong enough, dig your feet into the sand to make trails or footprints as you walk to make the beach glow. Pick up a scoop of sand and toss it to see it glow upon impact hitting the ground again.
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