FLOW - Follow and Learn about the Ocean and Wetland

FLOW Citizen Science Water Quality Reports and FLOW Plankton Gallery

What is FLOW?

FLOW, which stands for Follow and Learn about the Ocean and Wetland, is Amigos de Bolsa Chica’s Citizen Science Program. This is an exciting opportunity for members of the community to learn more about coastal ecology, to participate in the collection of scientific data and to get involved in environmental quality monitoring efforts. Anyone interested in participating of this program is encouraged to sign up for training to become a volunteer!

What do FLOW volunteers do?

FLOW volunteers receive extensive and continuous training on how to be a citizen scientist. The Plankton Citizen Science Program consists of weekly plankton collections at specific sampling stations. FLOW volunteers learn how to properly collect water and plankton and how to analyze the samples collected. The methods and practices adopted in this monitoring program follow the standard procedures used for monitoring plankton all over the world. FLOW Citizen Scientists collect plankton samples utilizing plankton nets. They measure and record water quality variables (such as temperature, salinity, nutrients, dissolved oxygen, turbidity, pH) and other environmental data (such as weather and wind conditions and tide height) in support of the analysis of the plankton which is done under the microscope.

Collecting water samples at the tidal inlet

Taking measurements

Analyzing samples at the Visitor Center

How to get involved

We are always excited to welcome new volunteers to FLOW. You don’t need to have any previous experience to become a Citizen Scientist. We will provide you with all the necessary training. We meet every Friday to collect and analyze water samples at Bolsa Chica State Beach. See the FLOW Schedule for specific times. If you would like to join our team of Citizen Scientists, contact us by email at flow@amigosdebolsachica.org. Please include in your message your full name, you general availability and a brief explanation for why you would like to participate in the program.

The Spring 2017 FLOW Seminar Series Schedule is also a great way to learn about the FLOW program and what Citizen Scientists do.

What are plankton and phytoplankton?

Plankton are microscopic creatures that live adrift in the world’s ocean, lakes, ponds rivers and wetlands. Some plankton can produce their own food through photosynthesis. These plant-like microorganisms are called phytoplankton (pronounced fi-toe-plank-tun) and sometimes also referred to as microalgae. Phytoplankton are extremely important to us for several reasons: they are the basis of aquatic foodwebs, serving as the original source of energy for larger aquatic life; they produce about half of the oxygen we breath and they affect the climate of the planet by recycling atmospheric carbon dioxide.

What are potentially harmful algae?

Most species of phytoplankton are, as explained above, beneficial to other aquatic life and to us, humans. However, about 5% of the approximately 5,000 currently described microalgae species are considered to be harmful, as they generate negative economic, environmental or public health impacts. Harmful processes include high biomass production, which causes physical, chemical and biological alteration of the marine environment, and production of toxins. Toxins produced by microalgae may directly harm the organisms that eat them (for example, bivalve shellfish like mussels, oysters, clams, and scallops, certain fish like anchovies and sardines, and crustaceans like crab and lobster) or bioaccumulate in the trophic chain, causing intoxication and, in extreme cases, death of consumers of contaminated mollusks, crustaceans or fish. Humans, as well as marine mammals and seabirds, can be harmed by these toxins when dangerous levels accumulate in these seafood items. The main toxins produced by microalgae are the saxitoxins and congeners that cause paralytic shellfish poisoning (PSP), the okadaic acid and congeners that cause diarrhetic shellfish poisoning (DSP) and the domoic acid and derivatives that cause amnesic shellfish poisoning (ASP). Worldwide, human deaths due to these toxins are estimated to be around several hundred cases per year, and the number of seabirds, sealions, seals and manatees that die because of harmful phytoplankton is much higher than that. You can read more about harmful phytoplankton by visiting the following websites:


Our Citizen Science Program is part of regional monitoring networks. The California Department of Public Health (CDPH) maintains a Phytoplankton Monitoring Program of which we are already members by collaborating with their efforts to monitor potentially harmful microalgae along the coast of California.

Members of this volunteer-based monitoring program mail samples of plankton and supporting water quality data to their office in Richmond, CA, every week for their analysis. In addition, our volunteers and citizen scientists are trained on basic taxonomic identification of plankton genera and species of interest with the use of optical microscopes, which in turn, allow our volunteers to provide CDPH with immediate information about the presence and abundance of potentially harmful and toxic plankton species in the

You can learn more about CDPH’s Phytoplankton Monitoring Program by visiting their website at:

FLOW’s Educational Component

The Educational Component of FLOW creates a unique learning opportunity for pre-selected groups of Junior High, High School and Community College students that come to the Bolsa Chica to shadow and assist our Citizen Scientists in their monitoring activities. Through this program, students learn about methods, techniques and equipment used to collect and analyze plankton, and also about the importance and applicability of monitoring programs for coastal management and conservation purposes.

We offer a limited number of FLOW shadowing visits per school year, thus teachers and/or schools are encouraged to apply ahead of time. Selected classes and teachers will receive lesson plans, activities and instructional videos that they will use to prepare their students for the field trip to the Bolsa Chica. During their visit, students will shadow and assist Amigos Citizen Scientists in their normal monitoring activities. Teachers will also receive lesson plans and student worksheets to use in the classroom after the field trip in order to review what students learned during the visit and to perform further data analyses.

The Benefits and Rewards of Being a Citizen Scientist in the FLOW Program

Because Amigos de Bolsa Chica is a State Parks Cooperating Association, if you choose to become a regular FLOW Citizen Scientist and help with visiting classes, your hours are tracked and you become eligible to receive free parking at all State Parks in California (with the exception of Hearst Castle). This is a significant benefit. There are also many rewards in knowing that your contributions instill in participants an understanding of the relationship between the wetlands and the ocean, as well as an awareness of how our actions as a society affect ocean and wetland health. Climate change and human activity are having an unhealthy impact on our oceans and wetlands.  Our goal is to protect these ecosystems by providing students with a direct connection to these ecosystems, expand their knowledge of the Earth's environment, and put the protection of these precious ocean and wetland ecosystems in the hands of members of society.