Phenology relates to the study of timing of periodic events in the life cycle of plants or animals as influenced by environmental conditions and climatic forcing. Phenological metrics provide information essential to quantify variations in the life cycle of these organisms. The metrics also allow us to estimate the speed at which living organisms respond to environmental changes. At the surface of the oceans, microscopic plant cells, so-called phytoplankton, grow and sometimes form blooms, with concentrations reaching up to 100 million cells per litre and extending over many square kilometres. These blooms can have a huge collective impact on ocean colour, because they contain chlorophyll and other auxiliary pigments, making them visible from space. Phytoplankton populations have a high turnover rate and can respond within hours to days to environmental perturbations. This makes them ideal indicators to study the first-level biological response to environmental changes. In the Earth’s climate system, the El Niño–Southern Oscillation (ENSO) dominates large-scale inter-annual variations in environmental conditions. It serves as a natural experiment to study and understand how phytoplankton in the ocean (and hence the organisms at higher trophic levels) respond to climate variability. Here, the ENSO influence on phytoplankton is estimated through variations in chlorophyll concentration, primary production and timings of initiation, peak, termination and duration of the growing period. The phenological variabilities are used to characterise phytoplankton responses to changes in some physical variables: sea surface temperature, sea surface height and wind. It is reported that in oceanic regions experiencing high annual variations in the solar cycle, such as in high latitudes, the influence of ENSO may be readily measured using annual mean anomalies of physical variables. In contrast, in oceanic regions where ENSO modulates a climate system characterised by a seasonal reversal of the wind forcing, such as the monsoon system in the Indian Ocean, phenology-based mean anomalies of physical variables help refine evaluation of the mechanisms driving the biological responses and provide a more comprehensive understanding of the integrated processes.