Bioluminescence is to California as the Aurora Borealis is to the Arctic—an ephemeral natural display that’s positively mesmerizing.
These events occur when single-celled organisms, known as dinoflagellates, suddenly emit a glow after being disturbed or agitated. It doesn’t take much. Predators, or even wave action, can stimulate the release of light in these tiny organisms, which grow and accumulate during red tides, an algal bloom that is noticeable by day as a reddish or brownish cast in the water.
During the darkest days of the pandemic, masses of this microscopic plankton lit up the California coast. The 2020 bioluminescence event, which lasted for about six weeks and extended from Baja California to Los Angeles, was considered the best in many years. Just ask Ryan Lawler, owner of Newport Coastal Adventure, a company that conducts small-boat whale-watching and natural history excursions out of Newport Beach Harbor.
After hearing reports about glowing waves, Lawler and a pair of videographer friends decided to go out in a Zodiac to see if they could spot dolphins glowing with bioluminescence. Which is a bit like looking for a needle in a haystack, assuming that the haystack is the size of the Pacific Ocean.
“We were on a mission,” Lawler recalls. “We knew that there were dolphins out there, we knew the red tide was probably pretty widespread. But trying to find dolphins in the nighttime? It’s like impossible.”
Nothing happened the first night. On the second night they had given up and were coming into the harbor entrance. “That’s when we saw these crazy streaks,” recalls Lawler. The video of a pod of common dolphins, glowing as if lit with neon and riding the bow of the Zodiac, went viral. It was a reminder of the splendors of nature to a locked-down world, and people quickly deluged Lawler with requests to be taken out on bioluminescence trips.
“This was something beautiful and amazing that happened on the California coast,” says Lawler. “It got people all over talking. This was a world-class event.”
Go With the Glow
If you’re interested in seeing the wonders of bioluminescence for yourself, the good news is that the displays are by no means a once-in-a-lifetime event. They’re most common in spring and into summer, especially during years with a combination of good rains and warm weather. Now the hard part: The challenge is knowing when. And where. Even the experts can’t accurately forecast bioluminescence.
“We can’t predict when they are going to occur or long they will last,” research biologist Michael Latz told the Los Angeles Times last year. “We know that they have been going on for a while. There’s been sampling and monitoring of these red tide events since 1900. Since then, there’s been at least a couple of dozen major events. This one was pretty spectacular.”
Here a few tips to help your chances of witnessing bioluminescence:
Monitor Social Media. The first reports of a bioluminescence event are likely to show up on Instagram and Twitter, which are easily searchable. You can also set up an alert on Google that will round up news coverage.
Check With Aquariums. Especially if bioluminescence is happening locally, such institutions as the Birch Aquarium in La Jolla, the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach, and the Monterey Bay Aquarium in Monterey might post updates on their websites or social media feeds.
Find a Dark Location. If an event is ongoing, try to find a stretch of coast that’s as far away from light as possible. Get out before the moon rises for the best conditions and some experts also suggest that two hours after sunset is a good bet. Give your eyes time to adjust and use your flashlight’s red beam, which will keep your vision acclimated to the darkness.
Track Hotspots. Because the best displays can vary from night to night, check again on social media for updates. While no two events are exactly alike, in 2020 beaches and coves in Orange County, especially at Laguna Beach and Newport Beach, enjoyed prime light shows. The environmental website Treehugger named San Diego one of the world’s eight best places to see bioluminescent glows. Meanwhile, north of San Francisco at Point Reyes National Seashore, Tomales Bay is a dependable spot for bioluminescence and you can go out on guided trips with Blue Waters Kayaking.