Neon Glow From Below

By Ginger Bowman

red tide bioluminescent waves santa cruz

August 2, 2020, 9:00 PM

My husband Mark and I made our way down Rio Del Mar Beach in Aptos, (alifornia, late on the night of August 2, 2020 to visit the S.S. Palo Alto. Growing up in the 60s and 70s, however, I’ve just always called it “the cement boat,” and when I would pass by I would say, “Hello, old friend.”

This night was not your typical night at a california beach, for we had heard there were bioluminescent waves the night prior and hoped we many experience this for ourselves. I had only recently heard of this for the first time just the week before, and yes, I was excited to see it for myself! Earlier that day, I had planned a nap so that I could stay out all night if necessary.

I read that traffic was bumper to bumper and there were no parking spaces. We also heard there were no blue waves or if there were, they were few and light. We decided to go later with the thought that others may leave early in disappointment and give us a chance to find parking.

August 2, 2020, 10:45 PM

We made our way towards the beach; the traffic was gone and we easily found a parking space. My initial thought was, “Did people go to the wrong beach?” As we walked towards the surf, we saw people silhouetted against a tremendous crashing electric blue wave! It was absolutely beautiful. As waves crashed, you could hear children and adults both reacting in excitement. With shouts of “Wow and “there!” We all knew it would be a moment we would all remember for the rest of our lives.

santa cruz glowing plankton

August 2, 2020, 11:45 PM

I wanted to get a good photo of “my boat,” my concrete old friend of many years. By then it was 11:45. It took a lot of tries as it was dark, and I Knew I would have to wait till I got home to see if any of the photos turned out and if I’d taken the perfect shot. I was happy to say I did. I took my favorite photo of the bioluminescent blue wave in front of the S.S. Palo Alto.

blue glowing waves

We spent many years living in Texas before moving back to my home town in California. The bioluminescent critters are a great reminder that we made the right decision to return.

crashing blue wave bilouminescent algae

Bioluminescent Algae

The glow on Monterey Bay in August came from single-celled algae called dinoflagellates. When the environmental conditions are just right, the tiny algae bloom in high concentrations and deliver a stunning light show. Marine biologists theorize that the glowing effect is a way for the algae to scare predators away or to attract bigger predators that will scare their predators away.

While the dinoflagellates glow a bright blue at night, during the day they appear as a massive red cloud known as a red tide. Some species of algae produce red tides that are harmless, while others produce deadly toxins that can poison animals, including humans. According to the Ocean Data Center at the University of California Santa Cruz, the most prevalent species of dinoflagellate in the bay at the time was Akashiwo sanguinea, a plankton known to cause red tides (Akashiwo means “red tide” in Japanese). A. sanguinea was most likely drawn to the bay’s warm waters where it could quickly reproduce and create a red tide. Luckily, A. sanguinea is not toxic to humans.

glowing plankton dinoflagellate

If you are looking to experience bioluminescent algae for yourself, the first step is to find red or brown water during the day; that’s the red tide. When you come back at night, be sure to turn off all flashlights and electronics to allow your eyes to adjust and get the brightest view of the algae. And even if you think you know what kind of algae it is, be careful about entering the water. The best view is from the beach anyway!

All photos by Johnny Chien except as noted.

This article appeared in the Beachcombing Magazine November/December 2020 issue.

Read more about the causes of ocean bioluminescence ›

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