The turquoise color of the Santa Barbara Channel is due to a bloom of chalk-forming phytoplankton called coccolithophores.

The recent turquoise hue of the Pacific Ocean off Santa Barbara’s shores is due to a bloom of chalk-producing phytoplankton called coccolithophore, scientists say.

As part of their normal biological process, the phytoplankton create chalk – calcium carbonate – and shed the excess as it accumulates on the outside of their body. If large blooms occur, the chalk-laden, green/white water can be seen by satellite. Paul Matson, a UCSB postdoctoral scientist, counted 5 million coccolithophore cells in just one liter of seawater.

An ecotype of the coccolithophore species Emiliania huxleyi photographed using a scanning electron microscope.

Matson and graduate student Tanika Ladd, both working out of Dr. Debora Iglesias-Rodriguez’s lab, will perform studies over the coming months to see if the bloom is at all related to the Refugio Oil Spill. They and other researchers have been studying the plankton for the last two decades to better understand the organism’s distribution and abundance in the Santa Barbara Channel, and they’re curious why the milky waters have appeared now.

UCSB biologists say organisms like coccolithophores play an important role in removing carbon from our atmosphere, and the most recent bloom is great opportunity to better understand the plants that help store carbon in Earth’s natural reserves.


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