LA JOLLA, Calif. — Itchy skin, rashes, and even some breathing issues. Those are just some of the symptoms some surfers and ocean lovers reported feeling when the bioluminescent waves, or red tide, illuminated the southern California coast at nighttime.

What You Need To Know

  • Researchers said bioluminescent waves, or red tide, are normally seen every 3-7 years, but has been seen the last three years in a row

  • Some have reported symptoms such as itchy skin and breathing issues

  • At least 800 people responded to a survey, and 25% reported experiencing health issues

  • The algal bloom was seen between March and late May of this year

Now, some scientists and organizations are trying to figure out how many people shared the same symptoms.

The Surfrider Foundation, Southern California Coastal Ocean Observing System (SCCOOS), and researchers at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography have collaborated on an effort to collect community anecdotal information on potential respiratory symptoms experienced after being exposed to the red tide.

Kristi Seech is a research assistant with Scripps. One recent morning she helped collect water samples at the end of Ellen Browning Scripps Memorial Pier in La Jolla. Using a bucket with a rope and pulley system, Seech lowered the bucket to the water to collect samples that will help determine what types of phytoplankton are in the water.

Seech said phytoplankton “are the glue that holds the food web of the ocean together.”

Between March and late May, Seech said she noticed her hand would get really itchy after handling ocean water all day. She said, “that was an itch that would last the rest of the day.” It was especially itchy in between her fingers. "It was like I just couldn’t scratch them enough," she added.

The research assistant also said her throat would get scratchy and her eyes would be watering, that it “felt an awful like allergies, but that isn’t my allergy season.”

Scripps researcher and information systems analyst Melissa Carter said she was also getting watery eyes during the same time period. “I was having a little bit of an asthmatic response,” she said.

During that time, Melissa said a net used to also take samples from the water was basically red during some days between March and late May. She said the red stuff was lingulodinium – the phytoplankton that caused the glowing waves that awed many along the southern California coast. It is now being seen in Northern California, including recently in Santa Cruz.

“We do see them (lingulodinium) every three to seven years. [It] is [the] kind of the frequency that they occur. But we have seen them over the last three years, so 2018, 2019, and 2020,” said Carter.

She said the last time scientists saw this type of frequency with the phytoplankton was in the 1970s.

Both scientists noticed symptoms, and so did some surfers. The Surfrider Foundation contacted Scripps to inform them it had also started getting calls about similar symptoms when the bioluminescent waves or algal bloom was around in the area.

So Scripps, Surfrider, and the SCCOOS decided to create a health survey for people who were in the water during the red tide. “All we have is anecdotal evidence where people call us, send us emails about this,” said Carter. “This is just the very first step towards getting valuable information.” 

Seech said having health information, especially during a pandemic, is invaluable. “You want to know, ‘Is it maybe I was exposed to a high abundance of lingulodinium or is it because I’m having a bad allergy attack,’” she said.

At least 800 people responded.

Researchers said about 25% reported having some sort of health issue during the red tide in Southern California in an area that stretched between San Diego and Ventura County beaches between March and late May, early June.