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Tips on how to see the elusive bioluminescent neon waves

The biggest question about the mysterious bioluminescence that makes the surf glow a neon blue is where will it show up next?

It’s not an easy question to answer, with strong ocean currents, whipping winds and swinging tides pushing around the elusive bloom of bioluminescent phytoplankton that put on a light show when they are disturbed.

But something to put on your bucket list is watching as the white crest of the waves explode with an electric blue as they crash on shore, lighting up dark stretches of beach.



People go to great lengths to see the Northern Lights splash vibrant colors across the sky, but our version of Mother Nature’s wonder is happening right here along the Southern California coastline.

So if you really want to get up close to see the rare phenomenon, here’s what we know so you can try to track it down before it’s gone.

Where has it been?

The phytoplankton bloom growing offshore isn’t quite as big as last year’s event … yet?… and it’s unknown how long this year’s neon electric waves will stick around.

Once in awhile, like last year, it can be seen week after week. Other times, it hangs around for just a few days. Some years, it never shows up at all.

Last year, the neon waves were first documented off Newport Beach, but this year the bright blue waves were reported first off Dana Point and Laguna Beach starting about a week ago. The bioluminescence has shown up almost nightly since, some areas showing just hints of blue and other spots bright and bold.

Sightings in Los Angeles County haven’t been reported yet this year, but they were in 2020 and might still be in the works for this year.

Images last week popped up from Laguna Beach’s Crescent and El Morro beaches, as well as Salt Creek in Dana Point, and near the Balboa pier. Both Sunday and Monday nights, it was visible in the Newport Harbor and near the shoreline in Laguna Beach and Newport Beach.

If you want to add your images to a collection to help others find the bioluminescence, or want to search where it has been spotted, use the hashtag #bio2021 created by photographer Mark Girardeau, founder of Orange County Outdoors, on Instagram to search posts.

Where will it go?

It took a while last year for the phytoplankton bloom to grow, so it may continue to expand to other areas of the coast. In 2020, it eventually expanded down to San Clemente and San Diego, and then up to the South Bay.

Before it died off, the bloom spanned from Baja up to Santa Barbara, marking one of the biggest and longest lasting bioluminescent events since the mid-1990s.

One big clue on where to watch: the ocean will look a rusty red during the day. Each microscopic cell of the phytoplankton contains some “sunscreen,” giving it a reddish-brown color in the sunlight.

On sunny days, the organisms swim toward the surface where they concentrate, resulting in the intensified coloration of the water – and the reason for the term “red tide,” Michael Latz, a scientist at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego, has explained.

And if the currents or winds don’t push the red tide away by sundown, that’s where you may be able to see it best at night.

“I’d recommend just looking around because it could be at any beach in OC, since it’s definitely around,” said Girardeau.

Darker beaches without much light usually have the best glow, but use caution and judgement about where to seek out the glowing waves.

Be patient

The bioluminescence comes in waves – yes pun intended, said Patrick Coyne, a photographer from Torrance who documented many glowing nights both last year and this year.

“It can be bright one minute and dark the next. My recommendation is staying at a spot for a bit and avoid looking at your phone to adjust to the dark,” he said. “This will help spot glowing waves. This year’s event isn’t as bright, but it’s still happening.”

On Sunday, March 21, Coyne said he captured the best footage yet: each small particle glistening like glitter as he scooped it up in his hands in the Newport Harbor.

“The last five nights in a row we’ve been filming the bioluminescence and were rewarded with this incredible light show,” he wrote on Instagram. “I think part of what makes filming this so much fun is the actual chase of it. Not knowing where or when you’ll find it, but actually going out and searching as much as possible. That what makes it so special and rewarding.”

Can you surf or swim in it?

Many people can’t help but splash around or ride a few waves with the water lighting up around them.

Coyne jumped in the water for a wade on Monday evening, soaking in the rare moment.

“I had to take the opportunity to jump in and swim with the bioluminescence. Last year I didn’t and I was regretting it so much. As it was happening it felt like it wasn’t real, all of these tiny little organisms lighting up as I was moving around,” he wrote on Instagram. “It really was an incredible experience. I’m not gonna lie though, that water was ridiculously cold.”

Along with the frigid temps, be warned: some people complain red tides can cause sinus issues or other respiratory problems and other side effects.

Surfrider Foundation has surveyed people exposed to red tides, though the results haven’t been completed.


While red tides generally aren’t dangerous, for ocean recreation, people may want to avoid them as some experience uncomfortable side effects such as itchy eyes, skin rash and a cough, Katie Day, an environmental scientist, said.

Also know that surfing or swimming at night in darkness is extremely dangerous, so if you’re unsure of the safety of your location, it’s best to just kick around some water on the shoreline or see if you can make glowing footprints in the sand.

Source: Orange County Register

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