This past weekend I was trying to manage some concussion headache issues and stayed away from the marine lab for four days. Usually that's not a big deal. Since I've been absent so much of the summer due to the head injury, the lab assistants whose job it is to make sure that everybody has air and water and food have been told to check my stuff and change water daily. They've been keeping things alive when my headache wouldn't tolerate my being at the lab, and I've gone in when I could (usually on weekends) to take care of the big chores. And so far, under normal conditions at the lab, this has worked.
But every so often conditions stray from the norm, and we are in one of those situations now. It isn't uncommon at this time of year for us to experience an algal bloom in Monterey Bay. This isn't the sort of spring phytoplankton bloom we get in the upwelling season, but a massive population explosion of a single species, usually a dinoflagellate. This kind of algal bloom is referred to as a "red tide," even though the organism that causes it isn't so much red as golden.
I went to San Francisco yesterday afternoon, and the water was brownish like this all the way up the coast. The bloom wasn't evenly distributed; there were large patches of brown water interspersed with areas of clear blue water. At Scott Creek and Waddell Creek the breaking waves were distinctly tea-colored, which did not keep the kite surfers out of the water.
It might be easier to see the discoloration when the water is moving:
The seawater intake for the entire marine lab is straight off the point here in the surf zone, so this mucky water is the exact same stuff that's trickling through our labs. When I returned to the lab on Monday after a 4-day absence the first thing I noticed when I opened the door was the smell, which I recognized immediately because we get red tides like this every year or so. It's not really a horrible smell, like the smell of dead sea things, but it gets classified in my mind as 'bad' because of what it connotes. And it can get really bad, if the gunk accumulates and begins to rot.
When the cell concentration is this high, filter apparatuses get clogged up fast. This applies to both mechanical and biological filters. Unlike, say, small sediment particles that get suspended in water but act more or less independently of each other, the cells of these blooming dinoflagellates are sticky. They glom together in stringy mucilaginous masses, and tend to settle out in little eddies and areas with less water movement. When this muck settles on animals' bodies, it can clog up gills or other respiratory surfaces, making gas exchange difficult or impossible. So while the red tide persists we siphon out tanks and flush tables at least once daily.
I guess when you see the color of these masses of cells, it makes sense to call this phenomenon a red tide. Under the microscope, however, the cells are golden. Based on the guilty party of the last big red tide event we had and some sampling data from Santa Cruz and Monterey dated 7 September, I'm pretty sure the cells are Akashiwo sanguinea. The cells are fairly large by dinoflagellate standards, ~100 µm long, and have the usual pair of flagella (1 wrapped around the middle and the other trailing free) that propel the cells through the water.
The groove around the middle of the cell is called the cingulum; one of the cell's flagella sits in this groove like a belt going around your waist. The other indentation that runs from the cingulum to the posterior end is the sulcus, and houses the other flagellum that trails free like a very skinny tail. The beating of this pair of flagella causes the cell to swim in a spiral fashion:
People always want to know if a red tide is toxic, and if they need to stay out of the water. Akashiwo sanguinea, as far as anybody knows, does not produce toxins like some other dinoflagellates do. However, it does secrete surfactants that produce foam in agitated water, and a report from 2007 correlates a mass stranding of seabirds in Monterey Bay with a large bloom of A. sanguinea. The authors hypothesize that the foam from the surfactants of A. sanguinea coated the feathers of seabirds and hindered their ability to thermoregulate.
This afternoon I am heading out to the intertidal. One of the things I'll be looking for is signs of the bloom. I do want to take some pictures in the tidepools, so I hope the discoloration isn't too bad. Fingers crossed!