When Patrick Coyne got word the ocean was glowing, the Torrance photographer knew he had to capture the rare sight.

Coyne jumped in his car to trek from Torrance to Newport Beach on Wednesday night to get a glimpse at a phenomenon that happens sporadically along the Southern California coast, sometimes years between sightings, when the ocean explodes with neon blue color.  

A rare phenomenon called bioluminescence created an explosion of neon blue in waves crashing onto shore in Newport Beach, a moment caught on camera by a trio of Southern California photographers who scouted out the extraordinary sight in the darkness late Wednesday evening, April 15.

It’s a sight not documented off local waters in years.

A thick red tide that turned the ocean a rusty red, documented earlier in the morning by drone photographer Royce Hutain, was a clue that the bioluminescence might show up in the evening, said Mark Girardeau, creator of the website Orange County Outdoors.

They called Coyne to come check it out, and he happily made the trek to see the mesmerizing sight.

It’s unknown if the beaches closer to his home in South Bay or Long Beach were glowing, with those beaches closed due to the coronavirus. 

“That beach (Newport) was still open ... so we weren’t doing anything illegal,” he said.

Within an hour of his arrival, the bright blues started to dull.

“That’s the game you play, it would be boring if everything was perfect all the time,” he said. “For me, it was worth it. It just so happened to be phenomenal, so I got lucky.”

Coyne has seen the phenomenon twice before in Malibu, but said Wednesday’s show in Newport was the best he’s witnessed.

“The first two times I documented it, it was amazing, but it wasn’t that bright,” said the landscape and architecture photographer, who mostly took video on Wednesday evening.

It’s rare moments like these that drive professional photographers, seeking out nature’s beauty.

“Those unique things are what drive us to go lengths,” he said. “Just the chance to go out there and get something really cool was pretty much it for me.”

Within minutes of arriving, he got amazing footage.

“You can barely make out a dark set coming in, you can’t see how big the wave is,” he said. “You can see the set coming in and as soon as the set crashes, it’s a burst of blue light.”

The audio he captures of them screaming at the sight illustrated just how excited the three photographers were.

“Being able to see it that clear and that bright is super exiting,” he said. “Especially on the bigger waves, some of it looked like it was in Avatar land, it was so blue,” Girardeau said.

Red tide doesn’t always mean the ocean will glow at night, but it can.

Bioluminescent dinoflagellates, when moved by water or waves, make the water look bright blue.

Red tides are unpredictable and not all of them produce bioluminescence. There is no red tide monitoring program, but the Southern California Coastal Ocean Observing System at Scripps Oceanography performs weekly sampling for potential harmful algal toxins. The algae creating the biolum likely wasn’t toxic, but probably smelled bad.

Scientists do not know how long the current red tide will last. Previous events have lasted anywhere from a week to a month or more, experts at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego said in a 2018 when the glowing waves were documented from La Jolla to Encinitas.

During the day, the photosynthetic organisms swim upward toward the light, creating a thin, dense layer near the surface, according to Scripps scientists. Circulation patterns create dense groups of the red tide organisms over the troughs of the waves.
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