Exploring San Diego


Bioluminescent waves captured along North San Diego County coast

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Posted at 1:44 PM, Nov 23, 2021
and last updated 2021-11-23 16:44:42-05

SAN DIEGO (KGTV) – Locals have been heading to San Diego's coast each night hoping to catch a glimpse of the blue bioluminescent waves.

“Yes, [red tide] has been around for the last few months, with some days more concentrated than others ... It seems to of taken hold again, and I also hear reports on others seeing bioluminescence,” Melissa Carter of Scripps Institution of Oceanography, UCSD said.

Clarissa Anderson, Executive Director of Southern California Coastal Ocean Observing System, added that the group's robotic microscopes at Del Mar mooring and Scripps Pier have shown an L. poly bloom the last two to three weeks.

L. poly, short for "Lingulodinium polyedra," is a dinoflagellate that can cause red tides.

The blue, neon glow of the tide is created when algae bloom, also known as red tides are filled with phytoplankton called “dinoflagellates” They crash into the tide, react and cause bioluminescence are jostled by moving water.


San Diego photographer Steven Philbrick said the hardest part of getting photos this month was finding the right spot to begin with.

"If you don’t live by the beach, then you usually need to hear about it via friends, social media, or news outlets. Unfortunately, by the time the phenomena hits the media the peak brightness has often already passed. Just driving by the beach often fails to reveal the magical blue light because it’s only visible when a wave is breaking in an area where the algae are clustered," Philbrick said via email.

Philbrick said he captured the neon blue waves between 6 p.m. and 8 p.m. on Nov. 17 and 18.

"Conditions were a little bit challenging as a full moon was rising, which helps with illuminating the foreground rocks and lifeguard towers but also lights the water, giving less contrast for the bioluminescence to really stand out. The marine layer was also forming, dissipating, and reforming, which would reduce clarity. The blue in these waves, just like surfing, was representative of the best sets and would typically roll through once every 10-15 minutes," he added.

Philbrick said for those trying to catch a glimpse of the spectacle this year, don't expect the same conditions seen in 2020.

For those interested in catching a photograph of the bioluminescent waves, Philbrick offers the following tips:

  • Bring a tripod and plan to do long exposure
  • White balance to avoid things like streetlights, passing car lights, and reflective mist from altering your photos
  • Use the landscape and elements to enhance the photo
  • Ask friends near the beach to give you a heads up if they see the neon blue waves
  • Be patient, don't give up, and have fun

Researchers said it isn’t clear how long the red tide will last, but the algae blooms have lasted between a week and a month in previous years. Most photos posted on social media recently show a stronger occurrence of bioluminescence in Los Angeles and Orange Counties.