Surfing the red tide

Phytoplankton are tiny, plant-like organisms that live in the ocean and are, basically, at the very bottom of the food chain. But, sometimes, they get their revenge. When lots and lots and lots of phytoplankton get together, they can form what we call a "red tide," a discoloration of the water at a particular point where the plankton have become densely concentrated.

Some red tides are natural. Others happen when nutrient runoff from farm fertilizers creates a massive buffet for plankton. Some red tides can kill, as the plankton can produce toxins and their deaths reduce the oxygen content of the water. And sometimes, red tides glow in the dark.

The phytoplankton in this red tide off a California beach are bioluminescent. Their cells produce a chemical reaction that creates a soft, blue-green glow. It's basically the same thing that makes lightning bugs light. In this video by Loghan Call and Man's Best Media, you can see plankton light up in the beach (and a few surfers).

Video Link

Via Jennifer Ouellette



  1. We get ride tide, here on the East Coast of Canada, once or twice a year. 
    Every other time it occurs, some tourist gets poisoned from eating clams they’ve dug up – despite the signage posted all over the place and the warnings on the radio…

  2. I took some photos a couple nights ago at the Huntington Beach Pier, where the bioluminescence has been pretty strong.

    I’d guess it’s still there, but I went three nights in a row and on the third night it was noticeably weaker. If you want to go check it out it wouldn’t hurt to try, but do it soon :)

    It wasn’t at Newport Beach, and I heard that it was happening at Huntington Beach from people from Long Beach so if I had to guess I would say that Huntington Beach, near the pier, is the best/only place to see it other than further south (such as where this video was taken).

  3. Here are some comments from Peter Franks, a biological oceanographer here at Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego, regarding the red tide…

    We’ve got a pretty spectacular red tide going in the waters off San Diego (andfarther north and south). The organism is Lingulodinium polyedrum, myfavorite dinoflagellate. Why favorite? Because it’s intensely bioluminescent. When jostled, each organism will give off a flash of blue light created by a chemical reaction within the cell. When billions and billions of cells are jostled – say, by a breaking wave – you get a seriously spectacular flash of light.

    …If you’re like me (too lazy to get up after the sun goes down) get a clear drink bottle, get a friendly neighborhood surfer to fill it for you (knee-deep water is fine), and take it home. Put it in a cool, dark place – a closet or a bathroom without windows. Then, after the sun goes down go in there and let your eyes adjust to the darkness. Then give the bottle a shake – you’ll see blue sparks from the dinoflagellate’s bioluminescence. Then start
    experimenting: try your electric toothbrush. Or pour some on your arm, or on the countertop. Let some get sucked up into a towel. Or (this is the best) try adding vinegar. The acid makes the dinoflagellates release their bioluminescence chemicals all at once, giving a show similar to the finale of a 4th of July fireworks display. Unfortunately, like the 4th of July fireworks display, it’s terminal. That’ll be the end of the fun.

    Frequently asked question number 1: Will it kill me?

    No, [nor will it make you sick].

    Frequently asked question number 2: Why do the dinoflagellates bioluminesce?

    As far as we know (which is surprisingly not very far) the bioluminescence both deters grazers of the dinoflagellates (who likes eating food that flashes in your mouth?), and also attracts the predators of the grazers which are mostly visually oriented organisms such as fish (the so-called “burglar hypothesis”).  

  4. I would surf every day if I could, and live in a tent. That’d be nice for awhile. Also, the music kind of grated on me a bit, so I muted it.

  5. When I was in high school I scuba dived in Catalina at night and the biolumenscence sparking on my mask looked like the stars  streaking by when the Millenium Falcon made the jumpt to hyperspace. It was trully one of the most beautiful things I have seen in my life and I have made it a mission to see alot of beauty.

  6.  I was on a ship about 8 miles off the coast going south, somewhere between santa barbara and cabo san lucas and dolphins rode our bow in bioluminescent waters. paramount moment 

  7. Santa Cruz gets this effect occasionally, and sometimes it’s hard to concentrate on the waves when you can simply kick your feet in the water and marvel at the sparkling colors.
    I recall surfing with a friend at night during a particular bout of bioluminescence (in SC I recall it being much more green than blue) and as I paddled back out after a wave, I saw him laying on his board as he took a wave in. 
    He waved me in and explained that as he was waiting on the next wave, the luminescent water showed something very large swimming directly at and then underneath him, at which point it turned and began to circle him at a distance of about 15-20 feet.  Sufficiently creeped out, he took the next possible wave into the beach.  Coulda been a seal, coulda been the Heavy Local–we never did find out.

  8. I’ve seen this here in Seattle  – just north of Carkeek park.  I was out fishing with my buddy and I noticed that I could see my line a little further underwater than I would expect, so I dipped the pole in and it was like moving a sparkler around in the water.  Totally blew our minds.

    When it was time to go home, we did a few tight circles with the boat (like doing donuts in your car) and it looked like we were in a hot tub, it was so bright.

    There were two kinds of plankton at work there – the sparkler kind and another type that was just more of a glow (the hot tub kind). We didn’t know it was poisonous – I guess we got lucky, because the sparkler thing worked well with your fingers too… 

    Never did catch any fish though. ;-)

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