In recent weeks, bioluminescent phytoplankton have put on a vibrant show off the southern coast of California transforming ordinary crashing waves into an electric-blue spectacle.

It’s an event that happens every few years in SoCal waters, but locals say that this year’s light show is particularly dazzling. The bioluminescent display coincided with the reopening of beaches after a month-long closure due to COVID-19 and surfers were eager to hit the waves.

“I’ve been surfing for 20 years now, and I’ve never seen anything like it”, local Dale Huntington told the Guardian.

And it’s not just surfers and spectators who have been spotted enjoying the sparkling sea. At least two species of dolphins and a sea lion have been filmed recently off the southern Californian coast, cutting through the glittering swell as they breach the surface leaving trails of breathtaking blue.

Photographer Patrick Coyne took to the water last month to film dolphins swimming in the phytoplankton-rich waters – a task that proved challenging for a number of reasons. Not only was it tough to discern where the light displays were the strongest while out on the water, but trying to track down a speedy dolphin in pitch-black conditions is “ridiculously hard,” he explained on Instagram.

After a few hours of searching for dolphins and hoping that the conditions would align for the perfect shot, Coyne got what he was looking for. He described the encounter as "one of the most magical nights of my life." Having captured footage of common dolphins swimming in the glowing surf, Coyne returned a week or so later and filmed a pod of bottlenose dolphins. "Seeing it twice now is absolutely a dream come true."

The neon waters owe their glow to microscopic organisms called dinoflagellates. They usually gather on the water’s surface following a significant storm that creates the right conditions for a bloom. During the day, swathes of dinoflagellates typically appear rusty red in colour, but when darkness falls the organisms begin to glow in the churning waves.

Crowds of spectators have been drawn to southern California’s beaches during nightfall, raising concerns that social-distancing regulations have fallen by the wayside. But for surfers and spectators the radiant show provides some temporary relief from the distress caused by COVID-19. “My favourite part was paddling out – it was almost like there was a glow stick around your hand,” Huntington described. “My board left a bioluminescent wake. There were a few of us out there and we were giggling, grown men shouting ‘this is so cool’ and splashing around like kids in the bathtub.”

Header image: Mike