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Glowing Blue Waves Light Up Southern Oregon Coast | Where to Look

Published 07/06/21 at 5:25 PM PDT
By Oregon Coast Beach Connection staff

Glowing Blue Waves Light Up Southern Oregon Coast | Where to Look

(Gold Beach, Oregon) – Here's something you don't see every day – largely because it's only seen at night. (Photos courtesy Steven Smith / Solution 7 Media)

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Bioluminescent phytoplankton hit parts of the southern Oregon coast in full form over the holiday, with a McMinnville photographer there to catch the otherworldly spectacle. Steven Smith runs Solution 7 Media out of the Oregon wine country town, but over the weekend he was on a mission down at the other end of the state to try and capture what he's snagged in the past: glowing blue waves.

An 11-hour ride to the south on July 2 got him his treasure, but not at first.

What Smith snagged on camera this time (as well as last year at Fort Stevens) was a form of phytoplankton called dinoflagellates, which are bioluminescent – meaning they glow. They're not unlike fireflies and they glow in a similar manner, but these are microscopic creatures and to find them in a stretch of surf like this means you're looking at practically incalculable trillions and trillions of them.

Smith calls it “electric blue,” and that's certainly what it can look like, at least in-camera. To the naked eye, it's more of a twinkling effect: the surf sparkles. On the sands itself, these teeny, tiny critters create what's called “glowing sand,” where the wet sand near the tideline will glow or sparkle a green / blue with each step.

In fact, the best way to see it is scrape your feet while going backwards and you'll see the glittery little lights fly up with the sand.

The most spectacular sight that comes about with the tiny dino's is if they're in a pool of sea water in the sand. Stomp your foot in there and you'll see an entire galaxy light up beneath you (a tad reminiscent of that mini galaxy in the first Men In Black movie).

Late at night, Smith was around Gold Beach when he was trying to find them, checking out viewpoints around Pistol River, Meyers Creek and more.

“I checked at 11 p.m. and saw nothing, although the waves seem to crash brightly white,” Smith said.

Still looking well past midnight, he was closing in on giving up.

“At the last moment, I decided I would try another location,” he said. Driving some ten minutes south of Meyers Creek he found Arch Rock Picnic Area at the edges of the Samuel H. Boardman Corridor. As he put it: “BOOM, electric blue everywhere.”

These shots from Solution 7 Media / Smith show the full, glowing glory of the scene.

"They were also visible from Secret Beach," Smith said.

The Oregon and Washington coast get this a lot in summertime, but it definitely occurs other times of the year. However, it's easier to spot the glowing phytoplankton on the beaches as this sight in the waves is not especially common.

When and where to look for this?

Yes, your chances of seeing this along the coast of Oregon or Washington are not bad right now. However, just as Smith discovered, it comes and goes in any particular spot. It may show up near Port Orford and Manzanita, but it won’t be elsewhere, for instance. Then the next night it could be many places.

Your best shot is simply hitting the beach and night and looking for yourself. Often, the sparks are so faint it's impossible to see unless you know what to look for.

So what increases your chances of seeing glowing sand or waves?


Sheanna Steingass is a biologist with Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) specializing in phytoplankton.

“Dinoflagellate and algal blooms happen during periods of heavy upwelling in which northerly winds cause upwelling of cold, nutrient rich water along the coast, making these nutrients available for primary producers,” Steingass said. “So look for times when that cold wind blows heavily from the north, and for a few days/weeks thereafter.”

Often people misuse the wording regarding glowing sand and call it “phosphorescent” sand – but that's not anywhere near correct. Phosphorescence is a purely chemical reaction; bioluminescence comes from a process within living creatures.

For these tiny critters on the Oregon and Washington coast, it's about oxygen interacting within them as they are poked or touched.

“The mechanism for glowing in different plants and animals varies a lot,” Steingass said. “For dinoflagellates, this is created by an oxidative reaction (adding oxygen) to a compound luciferin (named from the latin 'light' or 'lucifer' with an -in added).”

See the full story on what these are at: Bioluminescent Phytoplankton: What Makes Glowing Sand On Oregon Coast, Washington. MORE PHOTOS BELOW

Smith's technical specs:

Sony a7rii
- 35mm f1.4
Sky - Tracked 120 seconds -
Foreground - 240 seconds

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