If anyone happened to be on the beach after 10 p.m. during the weekend, you might have noticed something unusual about the breaking waves: some of them looked neon blue.

I was near the Scripps Institution of Oceanography pier on Thursday and Saturday night and saw waves that looked like they were lit up by some kind of Pink Floyd laser light show. Every fourth or fifth wave that crashed glowed with an otherworldly blue.

The phenomenon is caused by a species of phytoplankton called Lingulodinium polyedrum, which also make “red tides,” the toxic algal blooms that can kill marine life and create bands of red coloring in the ocean during the daytime. This species is bioluminescent at night, which means it combines oxygen with luciferin — similar to a plant’s chlorophyll — in a chemical reaction that emits light. The plankton only glow when they’re disturbed, possibly as a mechanism to warn away predators, which is why I could only see the light in the crashing waves.

The blooms of these phytoplankton are only dense enough to produce visual effects for a few days every few years. Not wanting to miss out on the opportunity, several Scripps students who were braver than me waited for dark and then ventured into the ocean on Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday. As they disturbed the water, it glowed.

“You would run your hand through the water and it would light up with a greenish-bluish color, and the more you moved, the more you lit up,” said Bonnie Ludka, a physical oceanography student at Scripps. “It was one of the coolest things I’d ever seen. It was right out of a dream.”

There’s a chance that the light show will still be going on tonight, so try heading down to the ocean for a look. Or, if you don’t want to venture onto the beach after dark, try this suggestion from Melissa Carter, a research associate at Scripps: collect some of the red-colored water in a jar and store it in a dark place for a few hours. Then shake the jar and see if you can see the glow.

For more information about Lingulodinium polyedrum, check out this news release from the last time the bloom occurred. Also see a video of the blue waves and Scripps oceanographer Peter Franks explaining the phenomenon on CBS8.


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