Bioluminescent Waves

When I first moved to California from Arizona, I heard stories about waves that would glow a neon blue. It sounded like something out of a movie. It was years before I experienced the phenomenon called bioluminescence for myself. it was just as incredible as people had described. I wish everyone could experience it.

The Science Behind Bioluminescence

What is bioluminescence, and what causes it? Bioluminescent waves usually happen after a red tide, when millions of dinoflagellates, a species named Lingulodinium polyedrum, gather. They have gathered along the coast of California from Baja to Los Angeles since 1900.

The phenomenon is called red tide because of the appearance they cause during the day. The organisms are similar to plants and contain chlorophyll, so they gather together near the ocean surface to receive energy from the sun. The Scripps Institute of Oceanography at the University of California, San Diego, describes how each dinoflagellate contains a blob of red. When they gather together in large numbers, the water appears to change color. This event is called a bloom and can last for anywhere from a few days to several months.

These dinoflagellates can use flashes of light to defend against predators. They do this in two ways:

  • Intense flashes are used to disrupt a predator’s feeding behavior by temporarily blinding and startling them
  • The light signals to much larger predators that something they might be interested in eating is trying to eat the dinoflagellates

These defense mechanisms prevent the organisms from being eaten at night when they are the most vulnerable.

They also happen to be very sensitive to touch and emit a flash of light when poked. This is why they light up when the water they are residing in is disturbed.

Sea Sparkle

Understanding the science behind the bioluminescent waves can’t compare to the awesome wonder of actually seeing it. In May of 2020, I was able to see this incredible phenomenon, nicknamed “Sea Sparkle” by the locals, in Dana Point, California. It was one of the largest red tide blooms in many years and provided incredible sights and memories I will never forget.

The waves shone with bright blue fluorescence and looked like a million little glow sticks in the water. As the waves crashed on the shore, it looked like lightning was repeatedly striking inside the wave. Surfers cut brilliant lines down the waves creating a trail of blue light that slowly faded as they surfed. As we walked the beach following a wave, our footprints in the sand would momentarily glow blue.

My friends and I threw rocks into the dark water, laughing as the water splashed bright blue where the stones broke the surface. A duck quietly swimming through the water left iridescent, blue webbed feet imprints below the surface of the water as he kicked along.

Thanks to social media, everyone can catch a glimpse of the bioluminescent phenomenon. A quick online search will bring up pages of videos of the crashing blue waves. In addition, the marine life watching company, Newport Coastal Adventure, captured an incredible video of dolphins swimming next to their boat in the glowing, blue water.

Red tides typically occur in California in the early spring and late summer, along the coast between San Diego and Santa Barbara. If you are fortunate enough to be in the area at the time, I hope you can experience the bioluminescent waves for yourself. It’s an experience you will never forget!


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