Biology bucket list: algal blooms

An algal bloom appears off the Princess Astrid Coast in East Antarctica.
NASA image courtesy Jeff Schmaltz, LANCE/EOSDIS MODIS Rapid Response Team at NASA GSFC.
Greetings biophiles! What do algal blooms, great white sharks, and okapis all have in common? They’re all absolutely fascinating and they’re all on my list of events and animals I would jump at the chance to observe. This ever growing list of biology-related items has evolved into something of a bucket list, hence the title, and includes biological phenomena around the globe that I hope to one day see for myself!
So what ‘s first up on my biology bucket list? Algal blooms.
First some background: Algal blooms are basically just the growth of aquatic algae at a hyper fast pace, resulting in washes of discoloration over bodies of water. These artworks of nature generally occur due to favorable conditions such as availability of resources like minerals, nutrients, warmth, and sunlight. The algae, usually referred to as phytoplankton, are microscopic, single-celled organisms that make their home in the upper layers of both fresh and marine waters. They serve as vital components of aquatic ecosystems due to their powers of photosynthesis, as they provide food (directly or indirectly) for everything from penguins to blue whales.  Phytoplankton even feed you, as they are used as feed in aquaculture. We depend on these little guys!
However, I not only appreciate them for their hard work in the upkeep of our oceans, but also for their aesthetic value on both a microscopic and macroscopic level. If you do an image search of either “phytoplankton” or “diatoms” (go, click on it!), you’ll see that these guys come in all kinds of wacky shapes, sizes, and colors. Looking at them under a microscope (and I would love to take my own sample from an algal bloom) is pretty much like walking through an art gallery (except better) because the artwork is made out of living organisms just hangin’ out,  powering an entire ecosystem and being funky shaped. Ahhh, that is the life.
(Side note: lots of ordinary things look crazy awesome when looked at close up, sand for instance. Oh nature, your beauty reveals itself on so many levels. *swoon*)
Bits of sand made up of shell, coral, and volcanic rock bits.
Image Copyright © 2008 Dr. Gary Greenberg, All Rights Reserved.
How do I plan on experiencing an algal bloom you may ask? By swimming in one of course!* (Or looking at them from the International Space Station, as most algal blooms can be seen from space. NASA, if you want to make dreams come true, hit me up!)

And no, I’m not talking about taking a dive in the pond scum of the poorly-kept neighborhood pool. Instead, I hope to travel to what are known as bio-bays: bodies of water where bioluminescent phytoplankton, or more specifically dinoflagellates, light up the waters at night and create waves dotted with glowing spots to match the starry night sky. There are several locations around the world where tourists can experience the glowing waters- Puerto Rico, Vietnam, and the Maldives to name a few.

However, these kinds of trips cost money and, alas, I am a poor college student, so until I can save up to travel to Puerto Rico (or the ISS), I’ll continue looking at satellite photos (like the ones from NASA, linked below). Other types of algal blooms can occur in bodies of water around the world and vary depending on seasonal and causal factors.

Glowing blue waves on Vaadhoo Island in the Maldives.
Photograph by Doug Perrine, Alamy

I like to keep my eye out for new photos of algal blooms, such as this one, which displays Impressionist-esque swirls of green and yellow atop the waters off the Princess Astrid Coast in Antarctica, taken by NASA’s Terra Satellite this past February. Antarctic blooms generally occur in December (the start of summer for Antarctica) as the increased sunlight favors the growth of these photosynthesis superstars and kickstarts the rest of the marine ecosystem in time for baby-making season. This particular algal bloom’s late season appearance excited scientist to the possibility that it was caused by a more unusual factor: nutrients blowing off of a nearby ice shelf. This is just one example of how algal blooms can come about.

Year round you can find news of all types of algal blooms being spotted in different places around the world, so keep a lookout for this fascinating biological phenomena! If you would like to see more of their intoxicating beauty I would recommend perusing through Visible Earth, a catalog of photos from NASA, or checking out this gallery from Wired magazine, which will also tell you about regional types of algal blooms.

So, dear readers, what do you think? Would you go swimming in a bioluminescent ocean? I hope you’ll take a look through some of the galleries linked throughout (some of these photos make great wallpapers!), and of course I’d love to know what’s on your biology bucket list via the comments section below. (Also, keep a look out for our next installment of our biology bucket list series!)

*It should be noted that some algal blooms are harmful (HABs), and certain species, about 2% of the 5000+ species of marine phytoplankton, are associated with toxins and can actually harm an ecosystem through the release of neurotoxins and the depletion of oxygen in water. These HABs can arise naturally and in predictable patterns, but have also increased in frequency due to human activity like agricultural run-off. So please do not just go jumping into any old discolored water and be sure to look out for notifications from your local health and marine departments if you plan on participating in any recreational activities in or near your local lakes or beaches.
Here are the places I got my information from:
Diersing, Nancy. “Phytoplankton Blooms: The Basics.” (May 2009). Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.
“Greening the Princess Astrid Coast.” (March 2012). Earth Observatory by NASA.
Landsberg J.H. “The effects of harmful algal blooms on aquatic organisms.”  (2002). Reviews in Fisheries Science.
Than, Ker. “Picture: Glowing Blue Waves Explained.” (March 2012). National Georgraphic.
Destiny Cobb
Destiny is a 2nd year BME major/Bio minor at Georgia Tech and is a dancer, fencer, and Youtube/Tumblr junkie. Destiny spends most of her time being introvered, going to the Botanical Gardens, consuming absurd quantities of media whenever internet access is available, and reading loads about her varied interests (academic and otherwise), which include but are not limited to: neuroscience, genetics, astronomy, botany, tea, science fiction, and miming. She plans on pretty much living and working at universities for most of her future and looks forward to a career in research.