From fiery lights to fetid smell, the red tide sweeps San Diego

Algae blooms, also known as red tides have turned the ocean water brown in La Jolla and along the rest of the San Diego coast. The algae depletes the water of oxygen and often kill fish. This year’s algae bloom has been bigger and lasted longer than most years.
Algae blooms, also known as red tides have turned the ocean water brown in La Jolla and along the rest of the San Diego coast. The algae depletes the water of oxygen and often kill fish. This year’s algae bloom has been bigger and lasted longer than most years.
((K.C. Alfred / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

As if to celebrate the reopening of San Diego County beaches, the Pacific Ocean threw a party, complete with a light show.

Then it left behind a smelly mess of dying algae.

The microorganisms produce stunning bioluminescence that has illuminated the surf for several weeks. Red tides occur when they reproduce en masse, staining seawater rusty brown with as many as 20 million cells per liter.

A photochemical reaction in the cells when they are jostled by waves emits a flash of electric blue, in a sort of southern, aquatic version of the aurora borealis. As the bloom dies out, however, the unpleasant scent of decay can travel miles from shore.

“The smell is because the red tide is breaking down,” said Michael Latz, a biologist with Scripps Institution of Oceanography. “When it reaches its final phase, then it’s going to die off. The organisms, as they break open and die, they’re releasing organic material into the water. And also, there are bacteria that are feasting on that organic material, and they’re releasing odors. You put it all together and you have the breakdown of the red tide producing odors, and the bacteria producing odors, and it makes it very stinky.”

The “sulfurous, rotten, decaying” stench has remarkable carrying power as it wafts inland on sea breezes, Latz said.

“I’m a mile and a half inland,” he said. “I smell it here. There are reports from the UTC area that they can smell it there.”

Some kinds of red tide produce toxins that are harmful to sea creatures and humans, Latz said, but the events in San Diego County aren’t poisonous, just putrid. Nonetheless, some people are sensitive to the fumes, and may develop rashes or respiratory irritation, he said.

Matt O’Malley, executive director of San Diego Coastkeeper, counts himself as one of those unfortunates, and said his eyes tear up when he catches a whiff of the malodorous microorganisms.

“I live a mile and a half away, and I can smell it very strong at night, to the point that my wife and I thought something died in my backyard,” he said.

Along Coast Highway, the smell ebbs and flows, growing stronger in some stretches, and fading at others. It can be particularly strong at lagoons, where fish die-offs have followed the algal bloom and bust. As bacteria devour the remains, they deplete oxygen and essentially suffocate other creatures.

“They’re very metabolically active through their respiration, and they use up a lot of oxygen,” Latz said. “So especially in enclosed areas or the bottom of the ocean where that settles out, that causes extremely low oxygen levels that can be harmful to other animals, especially fish. We’ve heard reports of fish kills, and dead fish washing up on beaches and coastal lagoons.”

On Thursday, May 7, the smell was strong in South Carlsbad, and then abated a bit in Leucadia. Moonlight Beach in Encinitas exuded a briny, metallic tang, rather than the full stench of decomposition. Although the water was an unsettling shade of brownish orange, beachgoers took advantage of the newly reopened beaches to walk, wade and swim.

“It was kind of normal,” said Warren Galvin, 12, of Point Loma, who visited Moonlight Beach with his family.

The red tide hasn’t deterred the family from their neighboring beach either, said his mother, Lorraine Galvin.

“It’s been red tide at Ocean Beach, and we have been swimming and surfing,” she said. “My mom lives in Carlsbad and she said it was pretty pungent.”

Jasper Isbell, who rode his bike to Moonlight Beach with friends, said he didn’t notice much odor around his home in Cardiff, but has caught a whiff of wretched smell at other spots.

“At La Costa it smells bad,” he said. “It smelled like I guess gross, dead fish.”

Also at issue have been rafts of seaweed washing ashore during the red tide event. Scripps researcher Ed Parnell said he doesn’t think the red tide would significantly affect giant kelp, though it may crowd out sunlight from lower growing species of seaweed. However, he said, the most likely causes of the seaweed piles would be the recent swell, which prunes older or poorly anchored plants, or spring tides associated with the full moon.

“Seaweed wrack has a fortnightly cycle of moving up and down the shoreline in blobs of rotting tissue,” he said. “Extreme high tides associated with spring tides wash it high up onto the beach where it sits and decays until the next set of spring tides wash it back into the ocean where the blobs gets moved somewhere else and stranded.”

The red tide cycle has generated both natural wonder and nuisance for many San Diegans who are itching to emerge from quarantine to enjoy the outdoors.

Beachgoers reveled in the luminescent waves over the past week or two, which happily coincided with beach reopenings of many coastal cities starting around May 1, after more than a month of COVID-19 closures.

Now that the weather is warmer and social-distancing rules are relaxed enough to allow beachgoers to walk, swim or surf, it’s frustrating to some that the ocean is serving up a stinky stew.

“Certainly at a time when there are so many stressors, we want to take advantage of our beautiful coastline, but the smell and the irritability (that it creates prevent that,)” O’Malley said. “At a time when a lot of us are looking to get back out and take advantage of the recreational opportunities our coast provides, there is limited availability.”

— Deborah Sullivan Brennan is a reporter for The San Diego Union-Tribune