Nitrifying bacteria (ammonia- and nitrite-oxidizers) were isolated from sea-surface films collected in the Gulf of California. Laboratory studies indicate substrate oxidation by these isolates is inhibited by light. Ammonia-oxidizers showed lower nitrifying activity and a longer lag time when held in an 8-hr light:16-hr dark regime compared to those held completely in the dark, and nitrite-oxidizers showed nitrifying activity only when held in the dark. Tracer studies using 15N-ammonia corroborate that little or no nitrification occurs in the surface films of subtropical seas.