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A Guide to Bioluminescent Waves in Southern California

Bioluminescent waves are a sight to behold. The not-so-typical tranquil Pacific Ocean transforms into a peaceful, mesmerizing canvas of lights created by breaking waves into areas of high algae.

While it has been occurring every year for the past three or four years in San Diego and other parts of Southern California, it is quite rare near the shoreline.

More commonly, bioluminescence occurs in deeper parts of the ocean in what is known as pelagic zones, where the majority of animals live at depths of 200 to 1000 meters.

What are Bioluminescent Waves?

The glowing turquoise/green wave light show, known as bioluminescence, is a chemical process in which living organisms emit light.

Various marine animals, such as fish, squid, crustaceans, and algae, can produce bioluminescence.

This phenomenon confuses predators, attracts prey, or entices potential mates.

How Bioluminescent Waves are Formed

Bioluminescent waves typically occur during an algae bloom of plankton.

The crashing of waves disturbs the living organisms, prompting them to emit light.

Conditions must align perfectly for bioluminescent waves to form, typically characterized by a calm sea and warm water temperature.

Where to See Bioluminescent Waves?

The phenomenon typically occurs in Southern California, near locations such as Laguna Beach, Huntington Beach, Newport Beach, Encinitas, Cardiff State Beach, Tomales Bay in Marin County, and even as far up as Santa Monica Bay and Point Reyes in San Francisco.

The most common places for bioluminescent waves to occur in Southern California are in San Diego, specifically at Mission Beach, La Jolla Shores, and Blacks Beach.

When Can You See Bioluminescent Waves?

This spectacle typically occurs in the spring or fall months and can rarely take place during winter, as observed this year in San Diego during the middle of February and in Long Beach at the end of December of last year.

Is It Safe to Swim in Bioluminescent Waves?

Swimming in bioluminescent waters can be problematic.

The organism Lingulodinium polyedra, which contributes to bioluminescence, can produce yessotoxin, a neurotoxin affecting the brain.

This toxin is found in parts of the Mediterranean Ocean during bioluminescent events.

While the effects of yessotoxin are not fully understood, studies have indicated its potential to cause genotoxicity.

Genotoxicity refers to the property of chemical agents that harm the genetic material within a cell, leading to mutations with the potential to contribute to the development of cancer.

According to a 2020 study by UC San Diego, the local populations of Lingulodinium polyedra, responsible for bioluminescent waves, do not contain yessotoxin.

Similarly, red tides occur when coastal regions have elevated levels of dissolved particle matter associated with increased microbial activity. Red tides paint the water a reddish color, hence the name.

It is very safe to go watch bioluminescence; whether or not you want to take a dip in it, is up to you. Be wary of the smell though. 

The Bottom Line: Bioluminescent Waves

Check social media accounts and follow your local aquariums to track and see if bioluminescent waves are occurring in your area.

If you haven't witnessed it yet, consider making a night out of it and bringing the whole family along.

It's especially captivating when you skip rocks across the surface of the water and observe it lighting up with every bounce.


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