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Astounding Glowing Waves (and Sand) on Oregon Coast Right Now

Published 08/16//20 at 6:44 PM PDT
By Oregon Coast Beach Connection staff

Astounding Glowing Waves (and Sand) on Oregon Coast Right Now

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(Oregon Coast) – A stunning rarity is being displayed on the Oregon coast this summer: a consistent run of “glowing waves” at night. Photos of this ethereal and downright jaw-dropping phenomenon have been popping up on social media all summer long, even earlier. Waves that are actually glowing a strange blue color are being spotted throughout the region. (Photo above: taken this week at Fort Stevens by Steven Smith / Solution 7 Media)

Granted, it's not everywhere, all the time. However, sizable runs of this have been documented in fairly wide ranges and at several points throughout the season.

It’s a faint neon blue, a form of luminosity that’s not quite visible on beaches that are lit up but they are viewable at darker beaches. The culprit is a tiny form of phytoplankton called a dinoflagellate, which is bioluminescent, meaning they give off a glow through their body chemistry. They’re essentially like fireflies. See Bioluminescent Phytoplankton: What Makes Glowing Sand On Oregon Coast, Washington.

Bioluminescent phytoplankton is a little more common during the summer on the Oregon coast, and these sightings mean the beaches are currently ripe with “glowing sand,” an arresting sight where you’ll see tiny blue / green sparks in the sand when you scuffle your feet backwards in the stretches near the tideline.

However, glowing waves are fairly rare on the Oregon coast, at least to the naked eye. Higher-end camera gear have a better time picking that up than humans. What’s also unusual is how much it’s being sighted right now: reports seem to go back all the way to May. (See Solution 7 Media's page for more)

This is a more common sight down in California and other warmer areas, but not on Oregon’s coast or Washington’s southern coastline (up around the San Juans it’s a little more standard). It’s also the length of the sightings that is unusual.

(Photo above: taken this week at Fort Stevens by Steven Smith / Solution 7 Media. You can also purchase prints at the FB page)

Part of this, however, could just be the phenomenon of social media, where there’s simply more, higher-quality cameras out there and more spots online to show off these wild shows.

McMinnville’s Steven Smith was one of the lucky ones to really capture this on camera, and he’s got quite the story to tell about them. Smith, the owner of Solution 7 Media, caught the last one on the 14th (just two days ago). He spent considerable time on the north coast in a wide-ranging area and caught the amazing visage six nights in a row.

“I spent 6 of 7 nights out at the beach last week,” Smith said. “From Fort Stevens all the way to Pacific City and several places in between.”

If you’re in a dark spot they’re not hard to see.

“They are plenty bright and easy to see with the unaided eye,” he said. “Allow your eyes to adjust to dark of course.”

His Facebook posts indicated locales such as Nehalem Bay, Fort Stevens and others as places where he’d photographed these wowing scenes. He also was able to point this out to other beachgoers who in turn were awed.

What is causing this run? As mentioned above, a good part of it is simply more eyes / cameras out there and the publicity possibilities of social media. Summer is normally a time when the dinoflagellates show up in greater numbers – so that’s not a surprise. If there are any other influencing conditions out there in the ocean, that is unknown at this time; no scientists were available to talk to Oregon Coast Beach Connection over the weekend.

The big takeaway is that if you’re going to try and spot this amazing phenomena of glowing sand or even glowing waves, now is the time to do it. This is the perfect day trip opportunity (adding sunset and a couple of night hours). The key is head to any dark beach (no lighting nearby) and scoot your feet backwards in the wet sand. Chances are quite good you’ll spot it right now, anywhere from Brookings to Warrenton.

However, it can go away without notice and then maybe return a few days later. You aren't guaranteed to find this, but your chances are greater right now. Some areas may have it while a few hundred feet down the road it's not there. Glowing sand and glowing waves are highly dependent on a certain set of conditions.

A major warning however: state and local officials are noting an enormous rise in abuse of local recreation areas, with litter in parks and lots of used toilet paper, as well as parking illegally. If you go to the coast, do not abuse the privilege. There is a movement underway on the north coast to shut down beaches again because of the litter and abuse issues.

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Close up of a dinoflagellate courtesy Dr. Edith Widder

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