Bioluminescent waves light up Southern California’s coastal waters

Los Angeles — In Southern California, people are flocking to the water for what may be one of the hottest tickets in town, a light show unlike any other.

“This is something that looks like it’s out of a movie, it doesn’t really look real,” Los Angeles-based photographer Patrick Coyne said.

The star is a marine algae called phytoplankton that emits flashes of blue light when disturbed.

“This is part of a phenomenon that we call an algae bloom, or ‘red tide,'” oceanographer Drew Lucas from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography told CBS News.

Julia Beckett, 60, left, of Huntington Beach, and Christine Tuttle, 65, right, of Westminster capture the glowing blue of the bioluminescence in the crashing waves in the middle of the night on Sept. 11, 2023, in Newport Beach, Calif. / Credit: Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

Lucas explained that the flourishing algae blooms are a rust color during the day, and even though the bioluminescence emitted is blue, it all due to the red tide.

“They do really like warm temperatures, calm conditions, and we’ve had a pretty long run of that here in Southern California over the last couple of weeks,” Lucas said.

Earlier this year, scores of marine mammals — including sea lions and dolphins — were found sick or dying off California’s coastline from exposure to another kind of toxic algae. Tissue samples collected from the animals at the time determined they had domoic acid, a neurotoxin produced by the algae Pseudo-nitzschia, according to NOAA Fisheries.

However, according to Lucas, so far, this algae appears mostly safe for both animals and humans.

“It really is a spectacular display of nature, and something that you really have to see to believe,” Lucas said.

Coyne has been captivated by bioluminescence since he first saw it years ago.

“I thought it was the most magical thing I’ve ever seen in my entire life,” Coyne said. “And I’ve been chasing that since then.”

Coyne and fellow photographers, who their followers have dubbed the “bio bros,” now scour the beaches during red tides, posting the bluest waves they can find, and drawing scores of onlookers to the coast.

Coyne’s “white whale” this summer? Blue-tinged dolphins, which he first captured on video in 2020.

“I remember filming that and I actually had actual tears in my eyes,” Coyne said. “I’ve been trying to get it out here again.”

This week, that shot in the dark paid off, and he got another incredible video of blue-tinged dolphins.

“It was just like seeing it for the first time, really incredible, and something that I might not ever see again,” Coyne said.

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