It looks like something from the movie "Avatar": ocean waters that light
up like neon glow sticks when they splash. Beaches across southern California
have recently been alight with eerie, glowing waves. What could be causing such
an otherworldly phenomenon?
A recent report by Discovery News has provided an answer. According to
marine biologist Jorge Ribas, the glowing is caused by a massive red tide, or
algal bloom, of bioluminescent phytoplankton called Lingulodinium polyedrum. The
microorganisms emit light as a response to stress, such as when a wave crashes
into the shore, a surfboard slashes through the surf, or a kayaker's paddle
splashes the water. The result is a wickedly cool glowing ocean.
The phenomenon has actually been observed on a semi-regular basis
since at least 1901 along the beaches around San Diego, California. By day the
algal blooms give the water a soupy red coloration, which is why they're often
referred to as a red tide. But unlike some forms of red tide which can be toxic
to people and marine life, the glowing blooms occurring in San Diego waters are
For surfers who don't mind catching a wave in water teeming with a sludge
of microorganisms, the glowing ocean offers the chance of a lifetime.
Nightswimmers also often delight in the opportunity to bathe in the
bioluminescent sea. The organisms can also be present in wet beach sand, so even
beach walkers can watch as the ground sparks with every footstep.