The Pacific Ocean near Big Sur has been illuminated for a few nights with a neon blue glow, bringing photographers out at night to document the bioluminescent phytoplankton bloom.
Steve Haddock, a senior scientist with the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, says the glow is caused by single-cell organisms called dinoflagellates that drift around the ocean.
“They grow into large numbers by their cells dividing,” says Haddock. “When a predator, like a shrimp, swims by to eat them, the dinoflagellates glow to shock the predator—like turning on a flashlight on a burglar. It also warns other organisms of the predator’s presence.”
The dinoflagellates are always there and always glowing, but they can’t often be seen unless conditions are right. That means calm weather and a calm sea, when nutrients are near the surface.
“We’ll usually see it in the fall or late summer, but we’re having late-summer type weather right now, so we’re seeing them," Haddock says.