This is a guest post modified from two emails by professor of biological oceanography Peter Franks, reprinted here with his permission. Peter is a phytoplankton ecologist who studies how the physical processes in the ocean influence the growth and distribution patterns of phytoplankton, so he’s often the go-to guy on red tides. I have edited the emails slightly for clarity and context.
We’ve got a pretty spectacular red tide going in the waters off San Diego (and farther north and south). The organism is Lingulodinium polyedrum, my favorite dinoflagellate. Why favorite? Because it’s intensely bioluminescent. 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.
And the best part? The moon is in its “new” phase. That means that the bioluminescence will not be dimmed by moonlight for the next few days.
So please take the opportunity to go down to the beach tonight or tomorrow night to see one of nature’s most impressive light shows.
Or, if you’re like me (too lazy to get up after the sun goes down) get a clear drink bottle, get a friendly neighborhood surfer to fill it for you (knee-deep water is fine), and take it home. Put it in a cool, dark place – a closet or a bathroom without windows. Then, after the sun goes down go in there and let your eyes adjust to the darkness. Then give the bottle a shake – you’ll see blue sparks from the dinoflagellate’s bioluminescence. Then start experimenting: try your electric toothbrush. Or pour some on your arm, or on the countertop. Let some get sucked up into a towel. Or (this is the best) try adding vinegar. The acid makes the dinoflagellates release their bioluminescence chemicals all at once, giving a show similar to the finale of a 4th of July fireworks display. Unfortunately, like the 4th of July fireworks display, it’s terminal. That’ll be the end of the fun. Until you go and get some more red-tide water…
I’ve received a number of inquiries about the red tide. Frequently Asked Question #1 is (in a nutshell): will it [this red tide] kill me?
I know, I know. I’m as disappointed as you are. This species of dinoflagellate is not toxic. If it were, I’d have a lot more funding. It’s possible that it contains low levels of a toxin called “yessotoxin“, but this toxin is not one that’s tested for in the US (as far as I know), and there’s no records of it having any detrimental effects.