Bioluminescent Adventures

On Tuesday night, J. Tan and I went out to go look at the red tide at the beaches in Del Mar. Red tide is a name given to algal blooms, which occurs when algae congregate in the water and cause a color change in the surface. The algae that congregate are single-cell organisms that have chloroplasts in their cell, allowing them to produce nutrients from sunlight. These algae are called phytoplankton. Phytoplankton only light up when they are in a high enough concentration, which is referred to as quorum sensing. Their ability to produce light (bioluminescence) is only visible at night since the sun produces too much light and drowns out the light that the plankton produce. The phytoplankton are not constantly emitting light, rather they emit light when they are physically disturbed, or when they are heated up. Thus, whenever the waves crash it appears that the waves themselves are lighting up. If you were to go swimming through the water, each stroke you take will cause the plankton to light up. The plankton light up on the sand; if you stomp on the ground, you can see the sand around your feet light up. Urinating in the water will also cause the plankton to light up more than it normally would due to the heat and physical disturbance of the water…not that I would have known that from experience or anything.

You may be wondering ‘Why do the phytoplankton light up?’ There are a few theories as to why the algae bioluminesce, but most scientists believe that it is a defense mechanism. Predators do not want to eat the bacteria, and have their mouths glowing, as this will make them targets for larger predators. Other animals use bioluminescence to attract prey, such as the lantern fish in the deep ocean, while other animals use it to attract mates.

While red tide is amazing to see during the night, it makes the beaches and coast look muddy and nasty. Red tides can also be harmful, as some plankton produce toxins that can kill other organisms in the water. While it may not always cause death, filter feeder organisms like fish and shellfish that consume the plankton will accumulate the toxins in their flesh. When other organisms eat these filter-feeders, the toxins will cause a wide variety of symptoms (amnesiac, diarrheal, neurotoxic, or paralytic shellfish poisoning).

Thankfully, neither J. Tan nor I drank any sea water or ate shellfish that we found on the ground, so we were okay. After taking pictures at Del Mar, we went to the gliderport to look over Blacks, Torrey Pines, and La Jolla shores. I didn’t see any glowing waves at shores, but saw a little bit at Blacks and Pines. I heard that there is a crazy red tide going on at Solana Beach so J. Tan, B. Tang, and I went out to Solana Beach and Del Mar to take another look. While it was still awesome to see, the red tide was not as strong as Tuesday’s tide. Anyways, I hope you enjoy the photos.

Red Tide on Tuesday night

Wednesday night with J. Tan and B. Tang

If you guys have the time, head out to the beach after dark and check out this phenomenon!


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