Blue wonder: Singapore waters light up with algae bloom

It is hard to predict when these blooms will occur here. PHOTO: ERIC TEO
Bioluminescent waves seen along the shore of Pasir Ris Beach. PHOTO: ERIC TEO
Bioluminescent algae seen in the waters at Pasir Ris Park on March 23, 2022. ST PHOTO: SAMUEL ANG
The blue sparks are emitted by a group of marine microorganisms called dinoflagellates. ST PHOTO: SAMUEL ANG
The sparks are emitted by a group of marine microorganisms called dinoflagellates. PHOTO: ERIC TEO

SINGAPORE - The waters around Singapore have been "on fire" in recent days, with blue streaks of light resembling the base of a candle's flame spotted in open waters offshore and in waves crashing on beaches in Pasir Ris and Changi.

These sparks were emitted by a group of marine microorganisms called dinoflagellates.

Dr Emily Curren, a marine biologist from the National University of Singapore's Tropical Marine Science Institute, said there have been previous sightings of bioluminescent algal blooms along Singapore's coasts - including its southern coastline in 2016.

However, there is no cyclical occurrence of this phenomenon, she said. This means that it is hard to predict when these blooms can occur here.

Elsewhere, however, such bioluminescent algal blooms have made the beaches in Maldives and Puerto Rico famous for their spectacles of an ocean that glitters with ghostly blue light.

A bioluminescent bloom also made it into the movie The Beach, which was filmed in Thailand and in which American actor Leonardo DiCaprio starred in.

Mr Eric Teo, a first-year student at Nanyang Technological University's Wee Kim Wee School of Communications, was at Pasir Ris Park on Sunday morning (March 20) filming a movie when he made the serendipitous discovery of the glittery algal bloom.

One scene involved actors running along the shoreline, and as they were doing so, the water turned a brilliant neon blue.

Mr Teo, 24, told The Straits Times: "We brushed it off initially as we thought they were light reflections from the moon or lamp posts. But as we went closer, we noticed blue glitter-like particles in the water whenever it crashed on the shore."

"That was when we knew we had something on our hands," he added.

On Tuesday, Mr Teo shared videos of the bioluminescent waves on a Facebook Group, Nature Society (Singapore), which has been shared around 4,500 times.

When ST visited Pasir Ris Beach on Tuesday (March 22) night, the waters also lit up with blue sparks when disturbed by splashing.

Dr Curren said these dinoflagellates are already present in Singapore's waters.

"Due to suitable climatic conditions such as temperature, salinity and rainfall, they will reproduce rapidly and form algal blooms, leading to the bioluminescent sighting when the cells are being disturbed and pushed together by waves for example," she said.

Other than at Pasir Ris, bioluminescent algal blooms have also been spotted in Changi, East Coast Park, and offshore.

Mr Sirius Ng, a marine biology PhD student from the department of biological sciences in the National University of Singapore, said he caught sight of the blue glow while sampling water for plankton in waters off Changi.

He said: "To my knowledge, we haven't seen this extent of bioluminescence in recent years. However, I do know a friend who saw this phenomenon when he was a child in the 80s."

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Freelance nature guide Inez Alsagoff, 23, also spotted the blue waves in Changi Beach on Sunday while having a barbecue with friends.

Ms Alsagoff said: "The waves that crashed produced a slightly blue glow. But we know about glowing phytoplankton because we are all environmental studies students and have learnt about it before."

Armed with the knowledge that they could make the light brighter by agitating the water, they kicked up the waves, which led to the sight of underwater brilliant blue light.

"We didn't know that we could experience the blue tide in Singapore and it was a totally unexpected encounter," she said. "We will be going back this weekend to check it out and hopefully it is still there."

Asked how long this phenomenon would last, Dr Curren said it depends on how long water conditions remain favourable for the algae to proliferate.

She added: "Usually for dinoflagellates, warm waters and a stable water column would promote their blooms."

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A stable water column usually means there is little mixing of the different "layers", with warmer and less dense water sitting atop cooler and denser water.

However, Dr Curren said some of these dinoflagellate species may not be well studied. For instance, it is not known which species of dinoflagellate caused the 2016 bloom.

Dr Curren said: "We can enjoy this natural phenomenon by just looking and taking photos from afar. It is best to avoid direct contact if we do not understand them and their characteristics."

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