Thursday, October 16, 2008

Light Waves

We watched a dazzling display of natural beauty last night. No, I was not prancing around on the dunes in a kilt. Be still thy beating heart.

The waves lit up like fluorescent light bulbs, all the way down the beach. Bright blue flames that licked up and down the crashing waves as they broke along the shore like an electric pipe. It was like watching a surprise meteor shower, only this was caused by living organisms.

A type of plankton known as a dinoflagellate will occasionally bloom offshore, feeding on upwellings of nutrients from deeper water. They react to being disturbed by lighting up in an electric blue display. When they're numerous enough, they turn the water red, thus providing the origin of "Red Tide."

Last night they were numerous enough to light up the surf but not yet enough to turn the tide red. I was unable to get a picture of the show, but click here to see one photographer's achievement on the West Coast from a similar display.

Unfortunately, some species of "Red Tide" dinoflagellates are toxic, and these toxins become concentrated when ingested by clams, oysters and mussels. They tend to bloom in the Fall, which is why we have the old saying, "Never eat shellfish in a month ending in 'R'."

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