One Fourth of July night, many years ago, I put on my wetsuit, grabbed my board and paddled out, along with hundreds of others, toward the top of the crooked T that is the Ocean Beach pier, a half-mile from shore, to watch fireworks burst overhead.
It was my first time seeing fireworks from that angle, and the sky-filling florescence and in-your-gut boom of the explosions, the kaleidoscopic reflections of light undulating on the surface of the black water made me feel like a kid again. If you’re not afraid of the ocean at night and have access to a surfboard, put this on your bucket list.
But the glow that thrilled me more, on that same night, was the mysterious blue-green luminescence of the water all around us as we paddled out, before the fireworks had even started. It was another first for me—my first red tide. Along with catching your first wave, holding a wriggly grunion in your hand and seeing the green flash, beholding the luminous glow of a red tide is one of San Diego’s ocean-specific rites of passage.
A red tide is in full bloom now and, according to Dr. Peter Franks, Scripps professor of biological oceanography, guest posting at deepseanews.com, it may stick around for weeks more, maybe months, depending on conditions. At any beach where it’s dark enough at night, you’re likely to see the neon, pulsing blue glow caused by the dinoflagellate Lingulodinium polyedrum, a microscopic phytoplankton that emits the blue light via a chemical reaction that may have something to do with protecting it from predators. When billions of these organisms get roughed up by waves, their bioluminescence kicks in. It’s called red and not blue tide because, during the day, the waters filled with the critters looks red.
The red tide is quite a spectacle, but whereas at some beaches it may seem like an anomaly, water that glows in the dark feels so apropos in Ocean Beach.
As you know, O.B. is the countercultural and free-expressional hub of San Diego, and it’s here where pioneer artist Clint Cary, aka The O.B. Spaceman, lived and painted using glowing black-light paint years before it became the staple of ’70s teenage bedroom mushroom wall displays. I recently acquired an original O.B. Spaceman painting and hung it on my wall. Then I went out and bought a black light to see Spaceman’s amazing orange moon come to life over the alien black-plant tendrils curling up toward it, pointing the way to the spaceship that he knew was behind it, ready to carry him and his personally selected companions to a better world. And consider contemporary artists like Nigel Brookes, a San Diegan who honed his skills in O.B. and carries on the Spaceman tradition, incorporating blacklight paint into his shamanistic, totemic, eerie and humorous installations.
The O.B. Spaceman probably would’ve taken the red tide as evidence that the spaceship was getting ready to start routing the people of Earth to the glow-in-the-dark wonderland where he surely now resides.
And, you know, leaving Earth doesn’t seem like such a bad idea when you consider the dark side of what the glowing ocean can’t help but bring to mind.
How can we not feel the resonance of the trope of a glowing ocean with the horrifying disaster at Japan’s Fukushima nuclear power plant? We know that excess radiation doesn’t create the visible drama of bioluminescence. But radioactivity may conjure glowing monstrousness because of the way it spooked the world as the MacGuffin in the many sci-fi flicks that have informed our collective consciousness about all things nuclear for more than half a century. We know that radiation is invisible, but we also know that it can kill.
Now, imagine if it weren’t invisible. Imagine if radioactivity were as visually compelling as a red tide. We’d probably have an “all Fukushima disaster news TV network” with “24-hour red-tide-watch”—something to catch and hold the eye is more important to sustaining interest than just plain bad news. That’s why the TV media drifted away from the nuclear disaster as it was still unfolding—it showed little promise of ever becoming more exciting to look at than the initial tsunami.
When I was a kid growing up in San Diego, there was a considerable local anti-nuclear movement connected to a larger global movement that had legs under the weight of the Cold War. The dangers of atom-splitting seemed grave, and people everywhere were demanding a nuclear-free world.
When Fukushima happened, there was a renewed global sense of urgency. But it didn’t lead to much outcry here. How could we not demand the shutdown of San Onofre now? Nobody predicted an earthquake of that magnitude to hit northern Japan. How can we be certain that a major earthquake won’t put us in the same grave circumstances?
A glowing ocean can be enjoyed on its own merits and should, but it’s also a phenomenon saturated with luminous meanings. I like to perceive it as the ocean coming to life, sirens beckoning us to come to nature’s rescue. We must glow with an inner determination to revise our course. It might seem that the world is enveloped in darkness and that it’s too late for us to make it more livable. But if it seems that way to you, try to remember that it’s never too late to learn how to glow in the dark.