Analysis of detailed time series of bio-optical and temperature data from the North Sea supports the view that a minimum level of turbulence is a prerequisite for the onset and maintenance of the phytoplankton spring bloom in shelf seas, which distinguishes these seas from the open ocean. The start of the spring bloom, primarily diatoms, is controlled by the light regime, while its progress is predominantly dependent upon episodic turbulence input following short periods of stratification, which allow the resuspension of a fast sinking (50-200 m day-1) phytoplankton community from the bottom mixing layer. A relationship between turbulence and the vertical distribution of phytoplankton is proposed which is found at synoptic time scales and on time scales of a day and less. Throughout the spring bloom, algal biomass is either equally distributed through the water column or concentrated in the bottom mixing layer. Growth can only be sustained in the near-surface layer during periods of substantial turbulence input. The establishment of semi-permanent seasonal stratification causes an almost complete reduction in near-surface biomass and a concomitant increase in biomass in the bottom mixing layer which subsequently acts as a source for occasional increased near-surface biomass until early summer.