September 24, 2022
surfing red tide in san diego

Surfing Red Tide in San Diego

The red tide in San Diego is one of those mysterious beach events that only happens a few times a year. Seeing the red tide is one thing. Surfing red tide in San Diego is another adventure!

In this post, find out what actually a red tide is, when and where it happens in San Diego, and what it’s like surfing red tide.

Surfing Red Tide San Diego
Surfing Red Tide San Diego
What is Red Tide San Diego?

Firstly, let’s define what is red tide. At the most basic level, red tide is a bloom of phytoplankton. A red tide in San Diego looks distinctly different during the day than it does at night. For example, below is a photo of reddish-brown water. This color is where red tide gets its name.

what is red tide san diego
A red tide in San Diego during the day

Not surprisingly, this icky looking water also has a distinctly bad smell. On the flip side, a red tide will produce neon waves in San Diego at night. At night, a red tide is more commonly referred to as bioluminescence. The phytoplankton glows and shines in the dark as waves crash to shore.

surfing bioluminescence waves
Bioluminescence waves in San Diego at night

The reason a red tide in San Diego displays these colors is due to red pigments in the phytoplankton that capture sunlight which then emit a reddish color.

So, that’s your science lesson on red tides. Now, let’s find out where bioluminescence and red tides happen in San Diego.  

When Does Bioluminescence Happen in San Diego?

Bioluminescence or red tide in San Diego mostly commonly happens during two times of the year – early Spring or late Summer. Early Spring red tides happen in February/March while the late Summer red tides occur in August/September.

Fortunately, red tides usually last at least a few days giving you a proper window to go to the beach to see them. On some occasions, red tides last for weeks or even months. The length of a red tide will vary based on sunlight, water temperature, wind, and surf conditions. When they are long, this gives you a good opportunity to see people surfing the red tide in San Diego!

What Beaches to See Red Tide in San Diego?

Red tides can be seen at almost any beach in San Diego. Actually, red tides occur all over the world. However, they are especially common in California from San Diego to Santa Barbara.

The best beaches to see a red tide in San Diego are either a beach break or a pier. Beach breaks are good for viewing red tides or those surfing red tides in San Diego because the waves normally crash closer to shore. Hence, they are more visible. Another great option to see red tides are from a pier. Looking down from above really allows you to see the neon waves dancing off one another. Fortunately, San Diego has many great piers.

surfing red tide in san diego
Neon waves in San Diego at Scripps Pier by night

My favorite beaches and piers to watch a red tide in San Diego include:

In summary, most beaches are good to see the bioluminescence at night – just make sure it’s dark!

Surfing Red Tide in San Diego

Surfing red tide in San Diego is a special event just as surfing Santa Ana winds in San Diego is another unique experience. However, it’s important to be aware of a few basic safety precautions before surfing red tide in San Diego.

Firstly, you should know that some red tides are toxic. While most of them are not, some red tides have toxins created from poisonous shellfish. Here are some of health hazards to be aware of before going in the water or surfing a red tide: irritation of the eyes, mouth, and throat, as well as cold and flu-like symptoms. 

*similar to health hazards to surfing after it rains in San Diego

For this reason, check before surfing a red tide in San Diego by calling the Biotoxin Information Line at 800-553-4133. This is updated by the California Department of Public Health.

Secondly, and on a lighter note – here’s some tips to have the most fun surfing a red tide in San Diego. Visibility is the most important factor especially when trying to surf the bioluminescence at night. To combat this, try getting a few glow sticks or bracelets to light your way down the wave.

Having light sticks will also allow you to be more visible for anyone capturing photographs of you surfing the bioluminescence of San Diego. For ocean photographers at night, I recommend the Nikon Coolpix set that has a zoom for capturing surfing shots and comes with a tripod for stability.

In summary, check the conditions before surfing a red tide in San Diego to stay safe and make the most of your experience!

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