The algal spring bloom in the Baltic Sea represents an anomaly from the winter-spring bloom patterns worldwide in terms of frequent and recurring dominance of dinoflagellates over diatoms. Analysis of approximately 3500 spring bloom samples from the Baltic Sea monitoring programs revealed (i) that within the major basins the proportion of dinoflagellates varied from 0.1 (Kattegat) to 0.8 (central Baltic Proper), and (ii) substantial shifts (e.g. from 0.2 to 0.6 in the Gulf of Finland) in the dinoflagellate proportion over four decades. During a recent decade (1995-2004) the proportion of dinoflagellates increased relative to diatoms mostly in the northernmost basins (Gulf of Bothnia, from 0.1 to 0.4) and in the Gulf of Finland, (0.4 to 0.6) which are typically ice-covered areas. We hypothesize that in coastal areas a specific sequence of seasonal events, involving wintertime mixing and resuspension of benthic cysts, followed by proliferation in stratified thin layers under melting ice, favors successful seeding and accumulation of dense dinoflagellate populations over diatoms. This head-start of dinoflagellates by the onset of the spring bloom is decisive for successful competition with the faster growing diatoms. Massive cyst formation and spreading of cyst beds fuel the expanding and ever larger dinoflagellate blooms in the relatively shallow coastal waters. Shifts in the dominant spring bloom algal groups can have significant effects on major elemental fluxes and functioning of the Baltic Sea ecosystem, but also in the vast shelves and estuaries at high latitudes, where ice-associated cold-water dinoflagellates successfully compete with diatoms.