Locals gathered on the closed beach this past weekend to see the blue waves. (Ross Furukawa)

The unprecedented neon blue hue to local waves may be a feast for the eyes but as the phenomenon comes to a close, it’s becoming a challenge to the nose.

Local waters are currently experiencing a “red tide” caused by a massive bloom of algae. The tiny organisms have a reddish brown color during daylight hours but when agitated at night, they emit a blue bioluminescence that causes waves to glow. It’s a sight that has drawn thousands to nearby beaches despite lockdown orders but scientists said the light show will dim in coming days and the aftermath isn’t so pretty.

As the algae die, bacteria break them down causing the smell that is noticeable throughout town. The decomposition process also sucks oxygen out of the water and Emily Parker, a Coastal and Marine Scientist at Heal The Bay said that process can create localized dead zones which pose a danger to any fish trapped in the now unbreathable water.

“We’re definitely going to be hearing about the effects of the bloom for a little while,” she said. “So even once the bloom dies off, you know, we’re going to have these dead zones, we’re going to have fish kills, we’re going to have that funky smell.”

She said it’s hard to predict the exact timeline but Santa Monica beaches are about a week ahead of San Diego and that suggests the algae will start to die-off at a more rapid pace here within the next few days. While there may be some fish that die off (and then create their own decomposing stink), she said this species of algae isn’t harmful to other kinds of wildlife or humans.

Algae are neither plant nor animal but Parker said they behave more like plants and they typically occupy the bottom of the marine food chain. During normal years, they are an essential foundation of the ecosystem but huge quantities of algae don’t improve feeding options for many other species because it’s really only bacteria that exist in enough quantities to feed off the super blooms.

She said the current red tide is huge, stretching from Mexico to Monterey due to what scientists think is increased rainfall and warmer temperatures.

“I want folks to know these kinds of phenomena can be directly connected to climate change,” she said. “The temperature changes in the water are linked to extreme events, not just red tides, dead zones, fish kills, but all kinds of things that are happening in the ocean that are hard to see. We can see this immediately and when I look at this I hear alarm bells.”

She said some algae blooms are a natural part of the ocean ecosystem but its the sheer size of this event that is evidence of something amiss.

“Even in the background of a pandemic and all the craziness we’re going through now, climate change is still plugging along,” she said.


Matthew Hall

Matthew Hall has a Masters Degree in International Journalism from City University in London and has been Editor-in-Chief of SMDP since 2014. Prior to working at SMDP he managed a chain of weekly papers...

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