Bioluminescence in San Diego

Imagine how cool it would look if someone emptied out a million glow sticks into a swimming pool. Now imagine that a mad scientist found a way to make the glow sticks inactive until the water was disturbed – in other words, the water would look like normal water until something moved it. Drop a penny in the pool, and it will glow like a comet all the way to the bottom. Well, nature is better than even the maddest scientist out there, and has, over the course of millions of years, cooked-up a natural phenomenon just like the spectacle described above… but on steroids and sprinkled with fairy dust.

The Bioluminescent Waves & Beaches in San Diego

A bioluminescent beach in San Diego, La Jolla
A bioluminescent beach in La Jolla. Photo by BommaritoArt.com.

These natural phenomena are called bioluminescent waves, and if seeing these waves in person is not on your bucket list then you either do not know what they are or you are more boring than Ben Stein giving a lecture about the impact stamp collecting has on liquidity in the municipal bond market. Fortunately, you do not need to travel the world over to experience this awe-inspiring site for yourself because it is right in your own backyard. It is not that hard to find a bioluminescent beach in San Diego.

What Is Bioluminescence in San Diego?

Chances are, that even if you have never been to a bioluminescent beach in San Diego, you are already familiar with at least one bioluminescent phenomenon: fireflies. Bioluminescence simply refers to any organism that produces light. There are many different organisms that are capable of bioluminescence, and they can be quite different from one another – for instance, the bioluminescent plankton in San Diego are entirely different from the bioluminescence of fireflies. People travel the world to catch a glimpse of this natural phenomenon, but the chances are that there is a bioluminescent beach in San Diego near you right now. Before we get into that, however, let’s start with the basics.

What Is a Natural Phenomena 

First, the grammar nerd in me is just screaming to point out that, even though most people say “a natural phenomena,” it should actually be “a natural phenomenon” because “phenomena” is the plural form of “phenomenon.” Okay, I feel better now that I got that out there. In any event, regardless of how you choose to say it, there is still the question of what exactly natural phenomena are.

The dictionary definition is that a phenomenon is simply something that can be seen, heard, felt, etc.; however, in practice, it usually means something that is exceptional or unusual that can be seen, heard, felt, etc. So natural phenomena are simply things that occur in nature that are interesting and exceptional – think a solar eclipse, a cicada emergence, or a tornado.

Is There Still Bioluminescence in San Diego?

The short answer is “it depends.” The presence of bioluminescent algae in San Diego can change drastically from even one day to the next, but they are most common during the spring and summer months. To get an exact answer as to if you can see them right now, your best bet is to look at resources that are updated from one minute to the next. Places like Reddit, news outlets, Facebook, and surf cams are all good bets. Another resource that might be helpful is UC San Diego’s Scripps Institute. They study red tides (which cause bioluminescent waves) and are even working on a forecasting tool so that soon they will be able to predict when the next one will be near you.

 Where to See Bioluminescence in San Diego?

When the San Diego bioluminescent waves are in town, you can likely see them along most of the coast. That said, the best place to see bioluminescence in San Diego is at a beach with as little man-made light as possible. The darker out it is, the better you will be able to see the bioluminescent lights San Diego style. Some good spots would include Torrey Pines, State Beach, Sunset Cliffs, and Solana Beach in San Diego’s North County.

If you would like to learn more about the beaches near you, these links have oodles of information that will help you figure out just where exactly you would like to have your mind blown: La Jolla beaches, Del Mar beaches, Coronado beaches, and Mission beaches.

Bioluminescent waves in San Diego
Bioluminescent waves in San Diego. Photo by BommaritoArt.com.

Are Bioluminescent Algae Still in San Diego?

Well, the fact is that there are always some bioluminescent algae in San Diego – it is just that there are not usually enough to put on a show. The kind of algae we want are called dinoflagellates, and, just like all plankton, they are much happier when there is plenty of food and nutrients around for them to gobble up. The nutrients they like can come from currents, upwellings, storms, and even man-made waste.

When the algae find a source of food, they reproduce like bunny rabbits. Their numbers increase so rapidly that they frequently turn the water a reddish color, and for this reason when their population explodes people call it a “red tide.” There are a number of websites that track the water quality of local beaches, and these will tell you if there is a red tide in the area. If there is a red tide, the odds of finding bioluminescence in San Diego go through the roof.

What Is the Best Time to See Bioluminescence in San Diego?

The spring and summer months are the times when it is most likely that you will be able to see bioluminescent waves in San Diego. Bioluminescent algae like warm water, so if you want the very best chance possible, shoot for late summer.

How Long Does Bioluminescence Last in San Diego? 

The length of time the bioluminescent algae in San Diego stick around depends on how long the nutrients they like to munch on last, which, depending on their source, can be anywhere from a week to a month or more. 

How Often Does Bioluminescence Occur in San Diego?

Bioluminescence in San Diego usually happens once every few years. There have been times, however, when bioluminescence in San Diego has happened in sequential years. Though this used to be a rare occurrence, the odds of it happening are actually increasing quite rapidly because of climate change. It is kind of like the consolation prize we humans get for doing such a great job of ruining our atmosphere.  

Bioluminescence is a natural phenomena in San Diego
Bioluminescence is one of many natural phenomena in San Diego. Photo by BommaritoArt.com.

A Few Tips

While it is almost impossible to not have a jaw-droppingly memorable experience if you get a chance to witness bioluminescence in San Diego, there are a few things that you will want to consider before heading out. Chief among these is safety. Remember that you are going to purposely try and find beaches that are dark and isolated. 

To make sure that you know where you are going, it is a really good idea to scout out the area you plan on visiting ahead of time in the daylight. Many of the paths along the shore with the best views also just happen to be terrifyingly close to cliffs and bluffs. Just because you put seeing bioluminescence in San Diego on your bucket list, that does not mean that you want to kick the bucket right after you see it! Scouting the area will also help you get to know the best route to take so that you do not get lost.

Assuming you figure out where you are going and how to safely get there, you will almost certainly want to take pictures. I mean, let’s be honest – if you are going to go around telling people you saw the ocean come alive, sparkle, and turn neon blue in the middle of the night, you will probably want proof. 

To get a good picture, you will need to do better than just using the standard settings on your phone. While almost any bioluminescent beach in San Diego is likely to be absolutely spectacular in person, the amount of light that the bioluminescent waves put out is less than your phone is meant to capture. Ideally, you will be able to bring along a standalone digital camera, but whatever you use to take the pictures, the key will be to use a longer-than-normal exposure time. This will allow the camera to collect enough light to truly showcase the beauty of the bioluminescent waves. Just be sure to keep your camera as still as possible because the longer exposure time makes it very easy to get a blurry picture if your camera moves even the slightest bit.

Bioluminescent waves in San Diego are the kind of natural phenomena that people spend thousands of dollars and travel the world to see, so don’t under-appreciate just how lucky you are to get the chance to visit a bioluminescent beach in San Diego. Take your time and soak it in. It is a spectacle that will not only leave you in awe of its beauty, but will also remind you just how amazing this world we live on truly is – and that is something we could all use.

About the author: Ethan Margolis is an academic research librarian and freelance author. He is also a lifelong musician who loves writing and playing all types of music, and especially enjoys the classical guitar.

Photo credit: The beautiful photos of San Diego bioluminescence, including the banner photo, on this page are from local photographer Jeff Bommarito. Check out his website at BommaritoArt.com.

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