On the coast of Southern California, a species of algae called dinoflagellates has been blooming since March. During the day, congregations of dinoflagellates descend to the surface of the ocean to capture sunlight, with about 20 million cells per liter. “sunscreened” cells give a reddish-brown color known as “red tide”. But as the darkness descended, the excited algae illuminated the blue in a dazzling display. These unexpected algae flowers have been seen all over the world, from the tropics to Alaska for a week to a month or more.
Although not all red tides produce bioluminescence, the recent incident in California is the largest in the region in nearly a decade. Despite state lockdown measures, many residents were able to observe the surprise despite being careful to comply with physical distance guidelines. We look back at some of the highlights from this season’s bioluminescent event, with reports that the tide has begun to decline.
California photographer Patrick Quinn was able to make these dolphins swim at night and turn on the lights when going to sea. When cascades of dinoflagellates are interrupted by waves or other movements in water from dolphins, two chemicals produced by algae (the enzyme luciferase and the compound luciferin) react in a flash of electric blue. In an Instagram post, Quinn described her experience as “the most magical night of her life.” The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department took to Facebook to share their illuminated boat patrol. Streams of bioluminescent algae left a trail on the boat as it descended ashore.
Surfer Blair Conklin skimmed the surface of the ocean at night, playing the role of a torchbearer. There is really no way to predict how long this phenomenon will last or when it will occur, according to Michael Latz, a bioluminescence expert at the Scripps Institute of Oceanography, UC San Diego associated with the condition of the column of raised and stratified water. “
Even in the sand, washed algae ignite stimulus pathways. Some red tides, especially in the Mediterranean, make bad news for marine life because they are caused by species that cause deadly or harmful toxins. In California, most algae flowers are practically harmless and even beneficial because they provide food for marine animals. As the current red tide fades, the decaying algae leave behind a strong odor because the process reduces the oxygen in the water, which can kill some fish. However, in times of darkness, the bioluminescent performance of the season has brought some necessary light into the lives of many people.