The Red Tide Blues

In recent weeks, surfers in Southern California have been griping about the water. Not its temperature, the conditions, nor even a general lack of swell. The main source of ire lately has been the color. "It's all filthy looking and brown," said one local at Blacks last week, and a quick look around certainly confirmed that he wasn't kidding. While SoCal isn't exactly famous for its pristine aquatic environment, over the past month waves that are usually a translucent icy shade of blue have taken on the tint of a hideously maintained fish tank, a feature that has left more than one surfer skeeved and wondering what's to blame.

The culprit? Lingulodinium polyedrum, a single cell algae that when in bloom creates what is commonly known as a "red tide." According to Dr. Peter Franks, a professor of biologics at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, a red tide is a common and completely normal occurrence. "This is a perfectly natural phenomenon that has been happening here for a long time," he says. "There are records in local Indian lore of red tides, and while it is possible that human activities are affecting them somehow, right now, there is no evidence of that."

In addition to maintaining that a red tide is in no way unusual in this part of the world, Franks also emphatically states that it isn't dangerous to surfers or swimmers. "I've never heard of anybody being affected by these organisms. Sometimes I hear surfers say they're getting more skin infections, or sinus infections, or ear infections when there's a red tide, but my guess is that there is no connection at all. I think people just pay more attention to those ailments because the water is red."

But what causes the Lingulodinium polyedrum to bloom in the first place? On this subject Franks admits to being stumped. "These red tides are very unpredictable. I couldn't tell you in any given year whether we're going to have one or not, I couldn't tell you in which month it may occur, and I couldn't tell what species it may be."

Apparently red tides are so unpredictable there is absolutely no way of forecasting when or where one might appear. They aren't associated with any particular weather or ocean patterns at all. "Over the past 100 years that we've been keeping track of them at Scripps, we've seen them in every month of the year and in all kinds of years. I don't know of any correlations with anything predictive at this point. Sometimes I feel like the more I learn about them the less I know," says Franks with a good-natured huff.

The duration of this year's California Red Tide is also a mystery. There are several factors that can cause it to disperse; however, Franks admits that he cannot predict with any accuracy when they may come into play. One way to be rid of it is to wait for other microorganisms, known as Salps, to come along and eat the red algae. Wave action is another solution, most notably localized windswell. Apparently whitecaps irritate and break up the blooms, causing much of the algae to die in the process.

With that in mind, it seems for surfers at least, the solution to the red tide is to do something that comes naturally: Pray for surf. But this time, instead of asking the sea gods to conjure some monster swell in the Poles, just hope for a bit of the more mundane localized wind-driven variety. Then maybe our water color will go back to normal, and we'll find something else to gripe about while waiting between sets.