In May 2003, a phytoplankton bloom of chlorophyll-a (Chl-a) concentration of 0.3–0.4 mgm−3 was observed at the centre of northern South China Sea (SCS) by NASA's Sea-viewing Wide Field-of-View sensor. As this region is remote and known to be oligotrophic in spring (Chl-a concentration typically at ∼0.05–0.08 mgm−3), it is intriguing to explore this unusual happening. Based on six different remote sensing data and numerical modelling, the results suggest that the injection of an ocean eddy is the most likely cause of the bloom. Due to long-range transport of a large (700 × 500 km) anti-cyclonic ocean eddy, coastal nutrients and plankton could be brought across hundreds of kilometres to the centre of northern SCS and impact the biogeochemistry. The open ocean part of the northern SCS basin has long been considered generally free from coastal influences. This work provides new evidence that proves otherwise. Moreover, from the perspective of physical oceanography, it is interesting to observe that, outside the monsoon seasons, there can be well-defined anti-cyclonic ocean circulation existing in the SCS without the prevailing monsoonal wind.