Phytoplankton photosynthetic quantum efficiency (PQE), pigments, absorption characteristics, species composition (converted to phytoplankton carbon, Cph) and other variables were measured at an offshore site in the western English Channel throughout 2001, using an opportunistic weekly sampling schedule. The variation of chlorophyll-a (Chla) and other phytoplankton pigments followed the classical seasonal cycle, driven by incident light, patterns of stratification and nutrient availability. Phytoplankton and pigment concentrations were low in the winter, rising to a peak in the spring ‘bloom’, with episodic blooms throughout the summer, an autumn bloom and a decline to the winter minimum. Surface layer Chla and total pigment (Tpig) concentrations were highly correlated for the whole year, yet it was observed that the fraction of Chla in Tpig (Chla/Tpig) was not constant and had a distinct seasonal pattern, low in winter and higher in spring, summer and autumn blooms. Chlorophyll-a/Tpig was linearly correlated with recent ambient light fluxes and maximum PQE (PQEm) throughout most of the year, though more significantly within seasonal periods. Chlorophyll-a and Tpig were both linearly correlated to Cph and the Chla/Cph ratio was significantly correlated with both Chla/Tpig and PQEm. Also the optical absorption ratios, a674/a443 and a674/a490 were significantly correlated with PQE and Chla/Tpig, indicating probable optical signatures for these two parameters. The seasonal cycle of measurements of photosynthetic quantum efficiency provided a bench-mark against which all the photosynthetically-driven seasonal changes of biological properties can be understood, in terms of incident solar radiation and nutrient availability. We conclude that phytoplankton synthesize Chla preferentially to other pigments or carbon compounds in conditions beneficial to growth. The PQEm, the ratios of Chla/Tpig, Chla/Cph and a674/a443 are greater when plants are growing actively. In periods of nutrient sufficiency, PQEm, Chla/Tpig and a674/a443 are all linear functions of the mean total photon flux for the recent few days. Photosynthetically driven changes in Chla synthesis, cause observed changes of Chla/Tpig and Chla/Cph ratios.