Plankton Bloom Has Beachgoers Seeing Red

Times Staff Writer

Surfer T.K. Brimer thinks it’s a bummer when this summer’s persistent red tide turns his favorite Newport Beach surfing spot the color of root beer and leaves his wetsuit reeking. The red tide goes away for a day or two, but it always comes back.

From Santa Barbara to San Diego, a dogged red tide has clung for nearly four months to Southern California’s coastline like sticky gum on a shoe.

Surfers are tired of paddling through sludge, and beachgoers have seen enough murky water.


“I remember in the past when we had two weeks of red tide and how we were bemoaning and complaining,” said Brimer, 57, who owns the Frog House, a Newport Beach surf shop. “This is by far the worst red tide season I’ve ever seen.”

Red tides occur when microscopic phytoplankton reproduce very quickly and in large numbers, giving the water a reddish-brown hue. The annual algal blooms usually come and go every few weeks beginning in May. The blooms usually dissipate for good as water temperatures drop.

But this year, the plankton blooms have persisted almost four months, with little more than a few days respite between blooms. The seemingly unrelenting red tide, combined with a lack of big waves, has made for a dismal surfing summer.

“It’s been pretty miserable,” said Sean Collins, a forecaster for Huntington Beach-based Surfline, which publishes surf conditions online.

Orange County has seen one-fourth the number of southern swells that usually come every summer, he said. Summer surfing contests turned into waiting games as only tiny waves trickled in.

“When you take really bad surf for the last six months and compound that with horrible conditions like the red tide ... I think people are saving up for tickets to Fiji,” Collins said.


Marine biologists say that although extended periods of red tide aren’t unheard of, this year’s event is probably the most severe in recent memory.

“I don’t remember a red tide like this before, and I’ve been watching for about 31 years,” said Dennis Kelly, professor of marine science at Orange Coast College in Costa Mesa. “It’s pretty surprising to me.”

Experts are stumped. Some scientists suspect the phytoplankton are persisting this year as a result of enormous amounts of nutrient-filled runoff flushed into the ocean by last winter’s storms. Others contend the red tides are more a function of weather patterns. The algae seem to flourish after it’s been windy for a few days. The wind pushes the top layer of warm ocean water away and allows nutrient-rich cold water to come to the surface.

The algal blooms can be seen coloring the ocean for about a quarter-mile out from shore. This year’s bloom is also thicker than usual, with some red tides reaching 20 feet deep -- four times the average. The ongoing red tides may also have drawn the hordes of jellyfish to waters off Orange and Los Angeles counties in July, because jellies feed on plankton.

But if there’s a silver lining to the algal invasion, it’s that certain phytoplankton put on a light show after dusk, flashing brightly as they’re tossed in the surf.

“Boy, you can get some spectacular light shows at night. Just kicking up the damp sand makes your footprints illuminate,” Brimer said. “It’s amazing how beautiful it is at night but how objectionable it is in the daytime.”

And although a red ocean is less inviting than a blue one, the types of phytoplankton off Southern California’s shores this year don’t pose a serious human health hazard, said William Cochlan, a San Francisco-based research scientist who studies toxic red tides.

Nonetheless, some surfers say that they’ve suffered itchy eyes, sore throats and ear infections after swimming in red tide.

Tourists renting bodyboards, wetsuits and surfboards from Huntington Surf & Sport on Main Street in Huntington Beach routinely ask what’s wrong with the water. But most have no problem getting their feet wet once they’re told it’s stinky but safe.

“Their initial reaction is ‘What is that?’ but once we explain to them that it’s not raw sewage, they’re OK with it,” said Mike Sheldon, a store manager. “It’s tempting to say ‘It’s bad, don’t go in,’ to keep the water clear and not crowded, but we always tell them it’s OK.”

Sheldon, 31 and an avid surfer, says the red tide hasn’t deterred him from going in the water. But he admits it’s less than a pleasant experience.

“It’s like swimming in sludge,” he said.

But safe phytoplankton or not, others would just rather stay away. Huntington Beach resident Renee Rappa, 27, won’t let her family into the water when it’s not clear.

“We come down here and hang out, but I don’t want my niece and nephew swimming in it.”

Besides, she said, “we have a pool.”



Summer cycle

“Red tide” is produced when millions of phytoplankton--a single-celled algae--bloom and concentrate into a mass in the ocean. Scientists suspect that increased nutrients from winter runoff and ocean upwelling contribute to the phenomenon.

Red tide cycle

1. Winter rains wash nutrients, such as fertilizer, from land into the ocean.

2. Dormant phytoplankton on the ocean floor hatch into swimming cells when water temperature warms.

3. Winds blow away warm surface water, resulting in upwelling, in which cold, nutrient-rich water rises to the surface.

4. Phytoplankton feed on nutrients. Each cell multiplies exponentially. One cell can produce up to 8,000 offspring in a week. The resulting mass is “red tide.”

Sources: Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, Surfrider Foundation