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Bright orange ocean water being tested by B.C. scientists

"It was thick. You couldn't even see the water, like under the water. It was just straight orange."

Scientists are taking a close look at a bright orange algae bloom found in the ocean off Vancouver Island and the Sunshine Coast.

Svetlana Esenkulova, a biologist with Pacific Salmon Foundation (PSF), is trying to determine if the phytoplankton bloom is negatively impacting salmon. 

"Noctiluca blooms can disrupt the overall balance of marine ecosystems as they 'steal' food from zooplankton,” she says. 

This bloom regularly appears in the Strait of Georgia, but it's not the most common or harmful algae. It also draws a lot of attention from the public, she notes, for its bright colour. 

Orange ocean water — the colour of Kraft dinner — was discovered by a woman on her boat. Sarah Merriam was at Maple Bay Marina on Saturday when she spotted the bright orange water.

“It was thick. You couldn’t even see the water, like under the water. It was just straight orange,” said Merriam, who recorded it on video.

Merriam thought it looked like red tide, an algae bloom that has toxic effects on people, fish, shellfish, marine mammals and birds.

"Noctiluca blooms do not produce biotoxins and do not cause shellfish poisoning,” says Esenkulova.

Vancouver Island wasn’t only the only location with it. The Sunshine Coast and Salt Spring Island also had the bloom. 

Ocean ecosystem could be impacted by orange bloom 

In Esenkulova’s kitchen is a sample of the orange ocean water.

She pulls it out of her fridge with excitement during an interview with Glacier Media and explains how her favourite part of the research is looking at the bloom under the microscope. 

“They move and they're really cute,” she says. "They look like giant watermelons with pigtails and they wave those pigtails.”

When the water is cold, she can see the cell trying to catch food. 

"It's interesting,” she says. 

Every year, the Pacific Salmon Foundation provides a summary of its annual observations (oceanography and harmful algae) to Fisheries and Oceans Canada.

“The ultimate goal for PSF is to conserve and restore wild Pacific salmon populations and their habitats in British Columbia and the Yukon, through scientific research, community partnerships and public education,” says Esenkulova.

So far, it’s too early to say if the salmon are being impacted by this particular bloom.

"We're not there yet. Right now, we have a lot of data. It takes years to determine this level of impact,” she says. 

She adds there are short-term impacts that are known. 

“It could potentially have a very big impact on the ecosystem,” she says. “Once this bloom dies off, there is a decomposition process happening and the dissolved oxygen level in the water drops down and causes hypoxia.”

The Pacific Salmon Foundation will continue to study the algae. The organization relies on the public to alert them about the blooms. 

If you see anything unusual in the water, you're asked to take a photo, note the time and location and collect a water sample. Esenkulova can be reached at: [email protected].

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