Stephen Bay's Photography Blog

Bioluminescent Algae Is Back in San Diego

Last year in May we had a bloom of bioluminescent algae around the San Diego/La Jolla coast. I managed to get some photos of it which were carried on national news. To my surprise, it’s back again this year – my understanding is that it’s very rare and that it normally occurs only once every 5-10 years.

Yesterday I received a tip that the bioluminescent algae was back, so I headed out late in the night to see if I could photograph it again and managed to make this photo. This is a single exposure, not a composite. My settings were ISO 3200, 25mm, f/2.0, 8s with minimal post-processing.

Bioluminescent algae off Torrey Pines Beach on May 29, 2019

The bioluminescent algae I saw last night was fainter and not as consistent as last year. However, it’s unclear to me if it was just detected earlier before the algae had enough time to fully bloom (and it might get stronger) or if it’s already peaked.

Here is my photo from last year (this is also a single exposure).

Bioluminescent algae off Torrey Pines Beach on May 7, 2018

I get many questions about the bioluminescent algae such as where to go, what time is best for viewing, etc. I’m not a microbiologist but here is an FAQ I wrote to the best of my ability:


Does it really look like that?

Yes the waves are an intense neon blue. Think of a lightsaber from Star Wars. Although if I hadn’t seen the algae in person, I would have a hard time believing the photos.

How long will it last?

Nobody knows for sure but last year (2018) we had 3-4 good nights of viewing before the algae faded out.

Where is the best place to view the algae?

The algae move around the coast so even if it is spotted in one location, that’s no guarantee it will be there the next night. Your best option is to watch social media for eye-witness reports and/or ping friends that you know have gone out to check locations.

You should also try to find a dark spot away from house lights or cars. Even a distant spotlight can throw off enough stray light to wash out the effect.

Let your eyes acclimatize to the darkness and it will be much easier to see the glow. Even a few minutes helps. Don’t keep looking at your phone and then at the waves. You won’t see anything.

What’s the best time to view the algae?

As far as I know the time of day doesn’t matter as long as it’s dark. So probably 1.5 hours after sunset is sufficient. Later at night, there will be less light pollution from passing cars and house lights.

What settings should I use to photograph the algae?

The algae is extremely dim, I would suggest getting a tripod, using manual focus, and starting with settings around f/2 or f/2.8, ISO 3200 or 6400, and 4-8s. Review your shot and adjust accordingly.

What other photo tips do you have?

  • If you can’t see it with your eyes, look at it on the camera LCD in live view or take a test shot to see if it’s occuring. It’s much more obvious on the sensor.
  • Try to find a nice foreground subject to give the waves some context. This is going to be hard as the waves tend to peak off shore.
  • Even at f/2 you can take advantage of hyperfocal distance. Check a DOF calculator for your focal length and aperture (I use the Photopills app).

How do you post-process your images?

In terms of post-processing I try not to do much more than some basic adjustments like WB and contrast. The blue is quite strong and shouldn’t need much to pull it out. You don’t want to blow the glow out.

I’ve also run noise reduction software when I’ve needed to make a print.

Final Thoughts

It’s really amazing to see the waves glowing in person. But stay safe. Don’t go into places where you may get cut off by the tide. Don’t do a treacherous hike in the dark. Don’t go too close to a cliff edge to get a better shot.