Red Tide—Nature’s Light Show!

Local photographer Anne Phelps took this photo of a red tide in Encinitas earlier this month. What I saw last night was a multicolored light show!

Two nights ago, an Encinitas-area friend alerted me that a red tide would be visible that night and that perhaps I would enjoy heading down to the beach to see it. She was right! I walked down to Swami’s Beach around nine o’clock and stayed for about an hour. I’d never seen a red tide before, and it was everything it was cracked up to be and more.

Standing on the beach in darkness with a handful of other onlookers, we watched as waves crashed into a reef twenty yards out, producing horizontal explosions of turquoise, red and orange. It was like watching one florescent blue streamer after another being shot out of a cannon. It was thrilling and yet peaceful all at the same time.

Here are three photos taken by my friend Christopher Gray over the last few days.

The video below of a neon blue wave was taken on a San Diego beach, about a half hour from where I am in Encinitas. Although it’s very cool, it doesn’t do justice to the colored light show we witnessed, which was off the charts. Although red tides are rare because conditions have to be just right, I’ve been told that we’ve got a couple more days to enjoy this phenomena. Sure enough, I climbed the steps to the J Street Viewpoint last night and again tonight and witnessed more spectacular shows courtesy of Mother Nature.

What is a red tide? Here’s a September 30, 2011 report on what’s been happening here in the San Diego area from The GrindTV Blog:

By day, a red tide is unsightly and uninviting, with water the color of coffee. But at night, during this unusual phenomenon caused by a plankton bloom, the waves are a brilliant, almost neon blue. This wonderfully surreal scene has played out almost nightly along San Diego beaches for several weeks, luring spectators with cameras and video recorders.

The bioluminescence is caused by a chemical reaction involving the phytoplankton Lingulodinium polyedrum, and the movement of the waves. In a Los Angeles Times story, Scripps Institution of Oceanography professor Peter J. Franks said of the phytoplankton:

“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.”

What’s unusual about the current red tide phenomenon is that it has lasted nearly a month, to the chagrin of daytime swimmers and surfers, who don’t like the color or the smell.

Though mildly toxic, the event is not harmful to humans, but a morning surf or swim is not nearly as refreshing as it can be without the plankton bloom. But at night, the glow of the waves is almost otherworldly. And of course, people are venturing out trying to ride the blue waves. (The below video shows what appears to be a largely unsuccessful attempt to surf in the bioluminescence.)

It remains unclear how long this particular event might last. Late Friday, the red tide appeared to be dissipating in some areas, while it remained strongly evident in others.

Here’s definition of red tide according to a Health and Human Services Red Tide Fact Sheet:

Red Tide is caused by a “population explosion” of toxic, naturally occurring microscopic plankton (specifically, a subgroup known as dinoflagellates). “Blooms” of the poison-producing plankton are coastal phenomena caused by environmental conditions, which promote explosive growth. Factors that are especially favorable include warm surface temperatures, high nutrient content, low salinity, and calm seas. Rain followed by sunny weather in the summer months is often associated with red tide blooms.

Water in coastal areas can be colored red by the algae, thus the term “red tide.” Although toxic blooms often turn the water reddish brown, many nontoxic species or reddish brown plankton cause the same discoloration. Conversely, toxic plankton may be numerous enough to toxify shellfish, but not sufficiently abundant to discolor water. Discolored water should always be regarded with suspicion. However, it should be noted that even during high concentrations during a red tide event caused by Alexandrium fundyense, there is no risk with regard to swimming in the water.

Click here to view all my posts about Encinitas.


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