If you’ve been lucky enough to wander Southern California beaches lately (when they weren’t closed), you may have witnessed a rarity: bioluminescence, or a glowing sea easily visible at night in the breaking waves (or during a night surf). Where does it all come from? It’s directly related to that red tide the region has been experiencing that seems to happen every so often (you can smell it coming). It’s a scientific wonder best explained by someone way above my pay grade:
“The red tide is due to aggregations of the dinoflagellate Lingulodinium polyedra, a species well known for its bioluminescent displays,” explains Michael Latz, a scientist and bioluminescence expert at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego. “Each microscopic cell contains some ‘sunscreen,’ giving it a reddish-brown color. On sunny days, the organisms swim toward the surface where they concentrate, resulting in the intensified coloration of the water – and the reason for the term ‘red tide.’ At night, when the phytoplankton are agitated by waves or other movement in the water, they emit a dazzling neon blue glow.”
It’s created a phenomenon that many surfers wanted a piece of (as you may have noticed on your Insty feed). But no one has gone out of their way to capture it like Bo Bridges, the legendary Manhattan Beach photographer who’s been shooting surf and ocean life for nearly 30 years. Bridges launched from King Harbor with surfers Dane Zaun and Bruna Schmitz.
“We tried to shoot the bioluminescent surf back in 2003 but those were the film days and it didn’t work,” he told us. “Even now with digital it’s not easy. But I knew I needed to be close to capture the light.”
Of course anyone who surfs the South Bay knows its inconsistencies which doesn’t always bode well for giving image makers enough time to capture the epicness: “Lining the surfers up and actually getting more than 2-3 seconds of footage in beach break would be difficult,” Bridges said. “The boat let me have a continuous flow of water and action that we could kinda control as long as we found the thicker red tide areas. But we had to travel out a ways to avoid the light pollution.”
So Dane and Bruna endured the creep-fest of swimming in the open ocean – at night. “As much as I love the ocean, I think it’s always a bit creepy at night,” Bridges said. “We were night surfing Malibu years back during the bioluminescent surf and every movement creates a blue-green streak. Something large swam under us and we never saw or heard a breath from a dolphin or seal breach. Being out a good half mile to a mile in those deep water canyons just ads a bit more wide open space with little to no time to see anything coming at you from the depths below. Bruna didn’t seem scared at all. She was making snow (water) angels for me.”
Bridges, like most business owners, has been hit in the face by the pandemic and had to close his Manhattan Beach gallery in March (he’s still working online!). But he’s gotten extremely creative: he recently launched a puzzle business with his ocean imagery and is releasing face masks featuring his photography later this week. In the meantime, he’s capturing the chaos of the world we’re living in – and the unbridled beauty.