Fun with Tiny Glowing Creatures on Oregon Coast
(Oregon Coast) - As if you need another reason to hit the coast this weekend and coming week with the uncomfortable temps running rampant inland, there is the phenomenon of “glowing sand” - along with some other oddball things that are happening on the beaches (above: Rockaway Beach on September 7 was foggy, dark and teeming with glowing sand in spots)..
Tiny phytoplankton called dinoflagellates have been hitting the beaches along the length of the Oregon coast lately, popping up periodically just about everywhere. They give off a faint bluish, green glow when stepped on, causing hundreds of tiny flashes at night – on very dark beaches with no light interference. Oregon Coast Beach Connection has had staff members see them and/or received reports from a wide variety of places in the last month or so, including Port Orford, Lincoln City, Cannon Beach, Gleneden Beach, Rockaway Beach, Manzanita and more.
In fact, they've been seen all summer up and down the coast.
Conditions have been quite ripe for them to appear – but they're only seen at night.
It’s been a warmer than usual summer in many ways, which can cause weather conditions on the oceans that create “upwellings” – the upsurge of colder waters from the deep that bring the nutrients and thus make for larger blooms of dinoflagellates.
They are often mislabeled as “phosphorescent,” but that is quite incorrect. Phosphorescence is a chemical reaction akin to those glow-in-the-dark stickers you buy at the store and charge up by hitting them with light. Dinoflagellates are bioluminescent, meaning they are like fireflies, where they give off energy in the form of a glow, not a “charging up” situation in the strictest of terms.
These critters off our coast are reliant on sunlight for their glow, however, said Tiffany Boothe, of the Seaside Aquarium.
“Many dinoflagellates are photosynthetic and play a key role as producers in the food chains of the ocean,” Boothe said. “The luminescence of photosynthetic dinoflagellates is very much influenced by the intensity of the previous day’s sunlight. The brighter the sunlight, the brighter the luminescence will be.”
Getting to the beach too late at night may prevent you from seeing the maximum effect.
“Bioluminescence in dinoflagellates reaches its maximum levels two hours into darkness,” Boothe said.
To see them, you need to find wet sand near the tideline at night, after dark. You also need a very dark beach with no light from street lamps or the moon. It's best to scuffle your feet backwards in the sand and keep your eye out for any tiny flashes or sparks.
They are so faint they cannot be photographed, unfortunately.
Where they sit in the wet sand can differ greatly. Often it's in the area that's the wettest – but not where the waves are constantly lapping at. Sometimes it's at the very outer edges of the wet sand, where the dry, fluffy sand meets the damp.
Some examples of how they looked recently:
Near Cannon Beach, during the run of lightning storms in the valley and coast range in late August, Hug Point was slightly misty and pitch black. They were brighter than usual there, shooting outward in a flurry of tiny sparks as you walked forward in the sand. This was accompanied by the occasional flash of lightning from those distant storms, which created an incredible and dynamic scene.
Down the road, in Manzanita, they were not quite as bright.
Also in mid-August, as the meteor showers hit their height, there were reports of the glowing sand in Port Orford accompanied by the shooting stars above.
On September 7 in Rockaway Beach they were very prominent at the edge of the wet sand, but disappeared as you got closer to the tide line. There was a bright moon out, but this was completely obscured by a thick fog, which made Rockaway Beach a prime place to catch sight of them.
Other spectacular ways to see them is to look for pools of sea water that have been standing awhile. These can create a sudden and massive “galaxy” that explodes beneath your feet.
They can also show up in bays and rivers near the sea, such as the Nehalem, Necanicum and others with low flows. If you put your hand in the water you may see an eerie, bluish glow behind it. Or if you're swimming in these waters and the plankton are present, it's been described as making your body look like a skeleton.
Do not swim in the ocean at all, day or night, to try and see this. And keep safety in mind if you wander into a river or bay at night.
No one knows why the dinoflagellates are bioluminescent, but other sea creatures give off such a glow because they are deep sea dwellers that live where there is no sunlight, and this attracts prey.
Meanwhile, sand levels remain abnormally high on the beaches around the Oregon coast, which is creating some interesting, fun effects. At places with rocky points that are normally not accessible – such as Arch Cape, Hug Point or Oceanside – these sand levels are causing a constant low tide-like effect which allows people to go around many of these places. Keep a watch for high tides, however.
Glowing sand was prominent on this night in early summer near Gleneden Beach
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