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Dolphins, Surfers and Waves Sparkle in Bright Blue Bioluminescent Glow Off California Coast

A rare bloom of microscopic organisms capable of making their own blue light has transformed several of the state’s beaches

An example of the blue bioluminescence produced by microscopic organisms called dinoflagellates, which can chemically synthesize their own light (Wikimedia Commons)
smithsonianmag.com

Photographers captured gorgeous images and videos of glowing, electric blue waves crashing onto Southern California’s shores after dark this month. The waves are a fortuitous byproduct of microscopic organisms called dinoflagellates that can chemically synthesize their own light—a phenomenon called bioluminescence. Not all dinoflagellates glow, but the ones that do are thought to have evolved the flashy trick to startle and scare off predators, not unlike a visual burglar alarm.

The light-yielding reaction can be kickstarted by any rough-and-tumble physical force that mimics the movements of a hungry animal, including even the harmless tumult of ocean waves, Michael Latz of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography tells Christina Bravo of NBC San Diego. When enough dinoflagellates congregate in place—as they occasionally do in warm, nutrient rich waters—entire swaths of the sea can sparkle in brilliant shades of turquoise at night.

As Matthew Davis, a marine biologist at St. Cloud University, told Smithsonian magazine in 2018, blue light is especially common among marine creatures that can manufacture a DIY glow. That’s because of its relatively short wavelength, which escapes absorption by water, which gobbles up longer wavelengths like those that appear in red.

But even in abundance, these aquamarine light shows aren’t always easy to document. Though they sometimes appear in the wake of red tide—massive blooms of dinoflagellates that stain the sea crimson—bouts of bioluminescence are often unpredictable, reports Laylan Connelly for the Southern California News Group.

This year, a group of local photographers decided to take the gamble after noting a spate of red tide off Newport Beach, which, as of April 28, is still open to the public. “We went back that night hoping to see something, and sure enough we did,” local Royce Hutain told Lauren M. Johnson and Amanda Jackson at CNN. Videos and images from the outing are now on Instagram.

Others have had luck in Huntington Beach and Sunset Beach, according to the Southern California News Group. But sightings in Newport have commanded most of the attention, including particularly stunning footage showing a pod of dolphins frolicking in the neon blue surf, captured by Hutain’s colleague Patrick Coyne on a separate outing.

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Last night was truly one of the most magical nights of my life. Capt. Ryan @lawofthelandnsea of @newportcoastaladventure invited me along to capture rare video of Dolphins swimming in bioluminescence. The first time I saw this actually filmed was a few months back while watching a Night on Earth documentary on Netflix. The second I saw that footage it became a dream of mine to one day capture something similar and that’s exactly what we did. This was by far the most challenging video I’ve shot for a number of reason. For starters the bioluminescence has sweet spots to where it shows up and then fades away so while on the water it’s impossible to just find it. Not only that but actually finding any type of animal in pitch black is just so ridiculously hard. Conditions have to be absolutely perfect for the bioluminescence to show up and to have an animal swim through it so we can film it. On top of all that just trying to nail the focus at such a wide aperture with something moving in the water was a nightmare. We were out for a few hours and on our final stretch back we finally had 2 Dolphins pop up to start the incredible glowing show. A few minutes later and we were greeted by a few more which was insane. I’m honestly still processing this all and I can’t thank @newportcoastaladventure enough for having me out because without them none of this would be possible. Be sure to check our their edit from last night as well! I hope you all enjoy this video. ——————————————————————————— Shot on a Sony a7Sii with a Rokinon 35mm Cine DS T1.5 Len. Shutter speed: 1/50 Aperture T2 ISO 80,000

A post shared by Patrick Coyne (@patrickc_la) on

The fickle nature of bioluminescence—and difficulty of capturing swimming dolphins on screen—made the video “by far the most challenging” shot of Coyne’s career thus far, he wrote on Instagram. “I’m honestly still processing this,” he wrote the next morning. “Last night was truly one of the most magical nights of my life.”

About Katherine J. Wu
Katherine J. Wu

Katherine J. Wu is a Boston-based science journalist and Story Collider senior producer whose work has appeared in National Geographic, Undark magazine, Popular Science and more. She holds a Ph.D. in Microbiology and Immunobiology from Harvard University, and was Smithsonian magazine's 2018 AAAS Mass Media Fellow.

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