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The neon glowing waves are back on the California coast and this photographer is obsessed with finding them

While you were sleeping, ocean waves were glowing again with an electric neon blast that lit up dark beaches.

Chasing glowing waves has become a near obsession for Patrick Coyne, a Torrance photographer who has scouted the sea for occurrences of the bright bioluminescence at least 50 times this year, from Malibu down to San Clemente.

Sometimes, the sea stays pitch dark, and the outing is a bust. Other nights, the waves lighten and take on a glowing hue, giving hope there will be a performance put on by Mother Nature.

And some nights are simply stunning as the waves crash and explode into a neon light show, including the past few nights at Crystal Cove and Crescent Bay in Laguna Beach, where Coyne has scored some of the best images and videos so far this year.

“We’ve come to the conclusion, it happens way more often than we realize,” he said. “Since we’ve been checking every other week, we can make that assumption now. But it all can depend on condition and weather.”

Like the phytoplankton blooms that cause the ocean to glow, Coyne’s drive to photograph bioluminescence events has grown. He first got a glimpse of a bioluminescence bloom in 2018 and again in 2019 in Malibu, not strong events but enough to make him curious about the mysterious phenomenon.

Then in 2020, just as the coronavirus pandemic hit and the world needed something to marvel at, Coyne and two other photographers, Mark Girardeau and Royce Hutain, captured images and video of bioluminescence happening off Newport Beach’s coast that went viral.

Through that strong bioluminescent phytoplankton bloom, which lasted nearly two months, Coyne was able to capture amazing moments, everything from neon blue dolphins frolicking alongside the Newport Coastal Adventure boat, to countless videos showing his toes kicking up sand that lit up like it had been zapped with magic.

He swam in it, put it in bottles to shake it around, marveling at it with a curious wonder.

So when he heard it was showing up again earlier this year, Coyne had to again document it’s appearance.

He’s estimated he’s gone out at least 50 times so far this year, each jaunt taking four-to-five hours, making for at least 200 hours he’s spent chasing the glow. That’s not counting the hundreds of hours he put in last year.

And if the bioluminescence event is strong, he’ll stay even longer, finding new angles to shoot video and images.

“When you’re staring at glowing blue water, it never gets old,” Coyne said. “The time goes fast, you forget you’re there for hours on end. It’s fun trying different pictures. I’ve been able to catch it a lot over the last year and a half. Trying new things out, new angles, shots and video is super fun.”

Joining him on recent outings is fellow photographer Josh Gravley, who he met last year while out shooting bio, as he calls it for short. They hit it off and now Gravley, who lives in Newport Beach, does “recon” checks on whether the ocean has a rusty hue during the day – a red tide can indicate the ocean might be glowing at night.

There’s been more people Coyne has met on his night adventures. Some follow his social media to see when he posts live videos and rush down to see it first hand. One guy even wanted a photo with him one recent night.

“Now I’m known as the bioluminescence guy,” Coyne said with a chuckle.

A Florida company, Get Up and Go Kayaking, found Coyne’s work and a month ago flew him out to take footage of bioluminescence happening at Merritt Island, a tourist attraction from September through October. Gravley and Girardeau joined as well.

They swam in it, paddled through it and watched dolphins, alligators and manatee glow in the electric water.

“We had an incredible time,” Coyne said. “It was so dark there and it was a huge area and concentrated.”

He’s also been able to make a side job out of selling his images.

Coyne, who works for Apple as his day job, said it’s the unknown that keeps him go back out at night for more.

“There’s a decent amount known about bioluminescence, but there’s also not a lot known,” he said. “Just by going out as much as we have, we’ve noticed patterns and things to look out for.”

If waves crash right on the sand, for example, the glow is not as strong. But when the waves break further back, onto water, that’s where you get the brightest blue, he said. The darker the beach, the better, but ambient light in the distance makes for striking images.

In Newport Harbor, the calmer the better. When it’s windy, it doesn’t seem to show as strong. While last year’s glow appeared multiple nights at sundown, this time it seems to be showing closer to midnight, sometimes later, he said.

Scientists do have their theories of why it’s showing up so much this year.

The organism that produces coastal bioluminescence here, including red tides, is the dinoflagellate Lingulodinium polyedra, which has been common this year, not unexpected after the spectacular red tide last year, Michael Latz, an expert at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego, wrote in an email.

“Although we don’t understand all the factors that contribute to its abundance, we believe that it is related to upwelling, which occurs when winds bring up nutrient-rich, deeper waters to promote the growth of phytoplankton,” he said. “The relaxation from upwelling conditions is thought to be one of the factors that promotes the growth of Lingulodinium.”

And like the ocean’s currents, it can all change swiftly – and then be gone.

That’s what happened this weekend. Coyne scored Friday and Saturday night, but by Sunday, the glow seemed to have dissipated.

Then, Wednesday night, it showed up again, this time even brighter than the previous nights.

“It’s amazing how fast conditions can change,” Coyne said. “One night it’s there, the next, it’s gone. And then, it’s back again.”

There’s a few places known for their bioluminescence events on Coyne’s bucket list, including a spot called Jervis Bay in Australia and another in Puerto Rico.

“Photography and videography has always been a passion of mine, when you combine something as cool as bioluminescence, it’s addicting,” he said. “I believe I’ll do this the rest of my life.”