Photographing the Red Tide in Southern California

Photographing the Red Tide in Southern California

Jason Daniel Shaw


The red tide has brought fluorescent blue waves that glow in the dark to Southern California. The excitement has centered around Manhattan Beach and Hermosa Beach in the South Bay of Los Angeles. Growing up in Florida, I remember a lot of red tide warnings at the beach but the most that seemed to come from them was a scratchy throat and watery eyes. I don’t remember ever hearing about the waves lighting up. It almost looks like someone has a light under the water due to the bioluminescent phytoplankton that the red tide brings. I have always wanted to see the bioluminescence at various places that I have traveled around the world but just haven’t been able to make it happen yet. Nevertheless, the waves in Los Angeles are glowing in the night and now that I have experienced it, I want more and can’t wait to just jump in.

Manhattan Beach Pier Fluorescent Waves


I had seen plenty of photos and videos on Instagram but didn’t know what to expect when we arrived. At first sight, the waves didn’t look any different than any other night. Then another wave broke and it lit up with a blue glow. It was amazing! You could hold your iPhone up and watch the waves light up on the live preview and even take some pretty awesome shots. However, I wanted something a bit more. I wanted to capture the waves with a recognizable feature in the image. I decided that the Manhattan Beach Pier would be perfect. I setup the camera on a tripod right at the shoreline to get some long exposures of the waves crashing in front of the pier. As I mentioned, every wave didn’t have enough phytoplankton to create the glow so that made it challenging to capture. I didn’t have my remote trigger with me so I set it up with a two second delay and a shutter speed between one and three seconds. I had to try to time the waves that I thought would light up and click the shutter and wait. It took quite a few tries but I was finally able to get a wave that completely lit up. I was satisfied.

Manhattan Beach Pier Red Tide


We made our way down to the Hermosa Beach Pier to see what the scene was like down there. The waves were lighting up there as well so I quickly got a couple shots with the Hermosa Pier in the background and decided to call it a night. On the way back to the car, I snapped a photo of all of the people that came out to the beach to see the phenomenon, despite the COVID-19 pandemic. You can see why. I am excited to do some more bioluminescent photography in the future and more than anything, go for a swim!

Blue Waves Hermosa Beach Pier
Crowd at Hermosa Beach Red Tide

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