Nutrient and light conditions control phytoplankton division rates in the surface ocean and, it is commonly believed, dictate when and where high concentrations, or blooms, of plankton occur. Yet after a century of investigation, rates of phytoplankton biomass accumulation show no correlation with cell division rates. Consequently, factors controlling plankton blooms remain highly controversial. In this review, we endorse the view that blooms are not governed by abiotic factors controlling cell division, but rather reflect subtle ecosystem imbalances instigated by climate forcings or food-web shifts. The annual global procession of ocean plankton blooms thus represents a report on the recent history of predator-prey interactions modulated by physical processes that, almost coincidentally, also control surface nutrient inputs.