Photo by Aidan Wong
Biolumonescent waves in Encinitas.

Encinitas beaches are alight

May 5, 2020

Impossibly bright, fluorescent blue waves have been crashing against beaches across San Diego County over the past few weeks. You may have seen this phenomenon on video or in photos and simply wrote it off as some kind of “camera trick”, but incredibly, this occurrence is completely natural.

This bioluminescence is caused by a class of organisms called dinoflagellates. According to the Scripps Institute of Oceanography, “these single-celled organisms are common members of the plankton—tiny marine plants, animals or bacteria that float on or near the ocean’s surface… and are found in all the world’s oceans.” 

This special class of organisms are “flow-agitated”, meaning that they are sparked into emitting that fluorescent blue hue which makes this event so breath-taking from the movement of the waves.  

While the exact reason for this response is not yet completely understood, “laboratory experiments have provided insight into the role that dinoflagellate bioluminescence plays in marine ecology. Dinoflagellate flashes cause a startle response in their predators, disrupting their feeding behavior and resulting in a decrease in grazing rate by reducing the number of dinoflagellates consumed,” says the Latz Laboratory in the Scripps Institute of Oceanography. These “flashes” can also be set off by the movement of a wave, or even a late-night swimmer. 

As was mentioned before, these dinoflagellates are found in oceans across the world. These bright waves can be spotted off the coast of Australia, Malaysia, the Caribbean– everywhere. 

I have seen photos of these glowing waves online, their location identified as always somewhere fantastical and far-away, and I never thought I would be able to see such an event in this lifetime. However, after a short drive to a bluff overlooking Cardiff Beach, I got to see this phenomenon with my own eyes. 

Looking upon these waves, it is almost as if the ocean is putting on a show for us, thanking us for leaving it alone for a few weeks during this era of quarantine. It is a gorgeous scene that everyone should see in their lifetime.

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