The Freakiest Part of Oregon Coast Second Summer: Glowing Sand
(Oregon Coast) – In early September, as the valley temperatures begin to lessen in their summer intensity, coastal waters have started to warm up, bringing atmospheric conditions of the two areas a little closer in similarity. The result is the warmest, most inviting time of the year on the Oregon coast, called the “second summer,” typified by bluer skies, less wind and lots more sun.
Among the numerous pleasures inherent in these conditions, many of them obvious, there is one distinctly weird and wonderful secret that nature has in store for the motivated beachcomber.
Second Summer and even the regular summer months increase your chances of seeing the “glowing sands” phenomenon, something that’s fairly common in tropical climates but rare in these parts.
It’s often mislabeled as “phosphorescence,” which is a kind of chemical reaction. The tiny phytoplankton that create the glowing sands phenomenon do so by a biological process called bioluminescence.
They are called dinoflagellates, and they’re the microscopic creatures that are a major part of the basic food chain in the ocean.
They’re a bit like fireflies. What they create is a kind of brief, faint glow in the sand when you step on them. Look for wet sand, preferably sand that’s been wet for a good chunk of the day, and clearly a ways from the tideline. Also, you have to be in a very dark beach at night, with no moonlight or ambient light from manmade objects. Shuffle your feet backwards and you may see tiny bluish, green sparks. Often they’re extremely faint and you have to know what you’re looking for. But sometimes, if you’re really lucky, they’ll be quite obvious and spectacular.
If conditions are right, you’ll find them in pools of water on the beach and it will look like a galaxy momentarily explodes beneath your feet. Sometimes, they can be so thick that when you kick the sand, there will be a large chunk of glowing green, looking a bit like a glow stick that fades out rather quickly.
If they’re in great abundance in the Nehalem Bay/Manzanita area, they make they’re way into the bay. At the docks at Wheeler, stick your hand in the water (be very careful not to fall in), and there may be an eerie, blue or green glow in the wake that your moving hand creates.
Some people have swam around the local rivers during these times, in the night, and said it makes your body look like a skeleton moving in the water.
Tiffany Boothe, with Seaside Aquarium, explained a bit more about them, adding that a day or two of bright sun may charge them up and increase your chances of seeing them.
“Many dinoflagellates are photosynthetic and play a key role as producers in the food chains of the ocean,” Boothe said. “The luminescence of photosynthetic dinoflagellates is very much influenced by the intensity of the previous day’s sunlight. The brighter the sunlight, the brighter the luminescence will be. Bioluminescence in dinoflagellates reaches its maximum levels two hours into darkness.”
Boothe said you can’t see them with the naked eye, but you can see their glow.
“Dinoflagellates are the most common source of bioluminescence and are also known as Pyrrophyta - or fire plants,” Boothe said. “Dinoflagellates are unicellular and are usually planktonic. 90 percent are marine plankton. They are microscopic and mobile. They swim by two flagella, which are movable protein strands.”
There are very few pictures of this, although Boothe did manage to get a hard-to-see shot of one of these little spark-like critters. They are too small and too faint to catch with most cameras. You need special equipment.
It’s not uncommon for them to show up in winter or spring months, especially during heavy blooms of phytoplankton in the spring. During this time of year, a sign they may appear would be lots of foam around the area. Dinoflagellates and other kinds of phytoplankton are the things that mostly create sea foam in the first place.
They’ve been seen during winter lighting up with extraordinary intensity when waves lash on rocks during stormier activity. One rather memorable incident of this had guests at oceanfront hotels in Newport quite puzzled and astonished.
Some locals in the Rockaway area have called it “star stompin’.” In tropical waters during World War II, ally ships kept a lookout for the telltale green glow of torpedoes from enemy submarines, caused by glowing phytoplankton that are activated by the weapons’ wake.
What areas is this wildly odd occurrence found in? Any Oregon beach, really. Just find a really dark beach, and a sandy one, so you can shuffle your feet along to excite the little critters into firing off. Good for this are chunks of Gleneden Beach, Cannon Beach, Warrenton to Gearhart, Lincoln City, Newport’s Nye Beach, Manzanita, Rockaway, Arch Cape and Waldport. Seaside is typically not so good because there are so many floodlights aimed at the beach and numerous street lamps.There is more on this subject and other coastal oddities at the Oregon Coast Natural Science section.
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