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Dark, Oily Waves on North Oregon Coast a Positive Thing

Published 04/03/2011

(Seaside, Oregon) – It's mostly dark brown but sometimes black; and it's oily and greasy looking, showing up in thick globs and patches. It's reminiscent of the Gulf Oil Disaster earlier this year, even leaving mass dark stains on the beaches.

And yet the craziest irony is that it’s a good thing. A very good thing.

Some parts of the surf on the north Oregon coast are much more oily-looking than normal right now. It's actually unnerving - considerably darker than usual. Even though it looks oily and sludgy, it's a sign of a healthy ocean.

Surf in Seaside has a prominent brown tinge to it all around town, which happens rather frequently here because of a form of phytoplankton called dinoflagellates (there are several different kinds of dinoflagellates as well). But right now - at least in one section of this sandy beach - it's extremely brown and gritty looking. Much more so than the rest of Seaside's brownish tint.

It happens because currents move the dinoflagellates here in great abundance, and these currents make some areas look browner than others by pushing more dinoflagellates in. Saturday, there was a 300-foot stretch of Seaside that was almost black in places, while other spots north and south of it were varying degrees of brown.

Dinoflagellates "bloom" in this part of the north Oregon coast in great numbers because of the nutrients carried into the sea by the Columbia River. All the rain the area has had lately might have something to do with the larger blooms, but phytoplankton always bloom more in the spring.

Brown waves in Seaside usually look a little more like this

Normally, the dinoflagellates flood the area and make the breakers a different shade of brown, with the waves often carrying in blobs of brown bubbles or shades of brown. This thick, almost black oily is a bit more than usual – at least to the casual observer, and even to the seasoned observer.

Keith Chandler, manager of Seaside Aquarium, said these extremely dark waves shouldn’t be that shocking anymore to visitors on the north coast.

“It happens all the time,” he said. “It’s probably not even the darkest it’s ever been.”

Chandler said this could end up making razor clamming excellent, as these clams eagerly come to the surface to eat up the dinoflagellates. But so far clamming has not been good, partially because of weather and tide conditions.

“We haven’t had a good set” Chandler said.

The term “set” refers to the testing of numbers of clams.

Brown waves in Seaside

Chandler said large waves and stormy conditions are probably interfering with clamming on this part of the coast. He said he’s been kicked around by some recent tidal surges.

“I was knocked over by a couple of big waves – and I’ve never gotten knocked around by waves in years of clamming,” Chandler said. “I’ve talked to other clammers and they’ve said it hasn’t been good either, because of the stormy conditions.”

Lots of dinoflagellates also results in plenty of other kinds of phytoplankton, which can mean extremely large amounts of foam, which make for spectacular and strange stormy wave action at times. This could also mean the “glowing sand” phenomenon at night, where a form of bioluminescent phytoplankton creates tiny bluish green sparks when walked on in certain wet sand areas. Where to stay for this event - Where to eat - Map and Virtual Tour


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A famous little family eatery where the seafood practically gets shuffled from the sea straight into your mouth. Soups and salads include many seafood specialties, including cioppino, chowders, crab Louie and cheese breads. Fish 'n' chips come w/ various fish. Seafood sandwiches with shrimp, tuna or crab, as well as burgers. Dinners like pan fried oysters, fillets of salmon or halibut, saut�ed scallops.
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