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Red Tide

Updated on April 13, 2018

Blooming Algae

Blooming Algae Create Electric Blue Waves

Beautiful shots of a glowing, living ocean are quite awesome to behold! But is this really a good thing?

It depends, according to scientists, on whether you are human or fish, and how much of this glowing algae is present. It can be known to clog up the shores and choke the oxygen in the water, effectively suffocating small shellfish.

But in small quantities, such as in the videos in this lens taken off the coast of California in a Red Tide event in September, 2011, it is harmless, other than a bit of discomfort and a foul smell.

Let's take a look at what causes this mysterious glow in the waves and whether or not we need to be concerned about it.

Photo: Screenshot from video by Loghan Call. See Below

Red Tide - Bioluminescent San Diego, 2011 - by LoghanCall

Beautiful capture of the waves with Spies by Coldplay in the background - an eerily wise choice. I suspect he chose it because of this line, which is repeated throughout the song:

"and the spies came out of the water.... but you're feeling so bad 'cause you know"

What we "know" in this case is that these funky neon blue algae types are toxic.... so there is that!

The waves "disturb" the algae with their motion, which sets off a type of alarm and causes them to glow.


This is about the ones I've seen, and they are really pretty, but.....

One of the best known HABs in the nation occurs nearly every summer along Florida’s Gulf Coast. This bloom, like many HABs, is caused by microscopic algae that produce toxins that kill fish and make shellfish dangerous to eat. The toxins may also make the surrounding air difficult to breathe. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

Not all algal blooms are harmful. Most blooms are good little plants which are the main source of food for ocean animals.

Red algal bloom at Leigh, near Cape Rodney, NZ
Red algal bloom at Leigh, near Cape Rodney, NZ

Tiny Organisms

Lingulodinium Polyedrum

The blue glow is created by tiny little organisms called Lingulodinium Polyedrum. It is a chemical reaction which creates the blue glow at night, which is not visible in daylight. They are really a red color, which is why they are called "Red Tide". It's kind of yucky stuff really, and you don't really want to get it in your eyes or ears, or swallow it either. The type of phytoplankton in this "Red Tide" won't kill you but it's nasty stuff, and it has a foul smell to it.

There are some types of Red Tide which are much more harmful. Always be careful before venturing out into waters with Red Tide. Check with your local authorities to be sure it is safe.

"Marine and fresh waters teem with life, much of it microscopic, and most of it harmless; in fact, it is this microscopic life on which all aquatic life ultimately depends for food" from Harmful Algae Blooms (HAB)

Photo by Miriam Godfrey

Seriously Spectacular Flashes of Light

"When jostled, each organism will give off a flash of blue light created by a chemical reaction within the cell. When billions and billions of cells are jostled - say, by a breaking wave - you get a seriously spectacular flash of light."

Peter Franks - Deep Sea News

Experimenting with Lingulodinium Polyedrum

With a length of barely 2~3 millimeters, when external stimulus is received, it discharges a luminous substance. Our camera caught the shining of the mysterious marine blue beautifully. (loose Japanese translation of description below video)

The author filmed his hand dipped in the algae which causes red tide, and was able to show close up how they react to external stimuli.

Red, Waves and Blue

Red, Waves and Blue
Red, Waves and Blue


This microscopic phytoplankton proves that even tiny organisms, in huge numbers – often two million cells per one litre of water – can produce astonishing and fascinating results.

Kayaking the Red Tide - Tim King & Ryan Lum

Mission Bay, San Diego Sep 28, 2011

But How do they Create that Light? - What makes Lightning Bugs Light?

Lightning Bugs in a Jar
Lightning Bugs in a Jar

Apparently it is the same process in both: Bioluminescence

Here's Wikipedia's answer:

"The enzyme luciferase acts on luciferin,

in the presence of magnesium ions,

ATP (adenosene triphosphate),

and oxygen to produce light."

Okey Dokey?

Let's try it in a little more plain English:

"The cells contain a chemical called luciferin and make an enzyme called luciferase. To make light, the luciferin combines with oxygen to form an inactive molecule called oxyluciferin. The luciferase speeds up the reaction"

That's a little better! From

So Luciferase, is the light switch, that turns on the oxyluciferin. Cool!

Might make a fun science project.

Thanks for your comments - Please share any thoughts or suggestions, recommendations

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    • DreamingBoomer profile imageAUTHOR

      Karen Kay 

      4 years ago from Jackson, MS

      I see what you mean, Someone. Wonder if they borrowed the tech?

    • someonewhoknows profile image


      4 years ago from south and west of canada,north of ohio

      Reminds me of those green Halloween lights that last for hours


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