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Weird, Puzzling Balls of Goo Identified: Oregon Coast, British Columbia

Published 06/06/2018 at 11:22 PM PDT - Updated 06/07/2018 at 3:22 AM PDT
By Oregon Coast Beach Connection Staff

Weird, Puzzling Balls of Goo Identified on Oregon Coast, British Columbia

(Cannon Beach, Oregon) – They were weird. They were puzzling. They were kind'a gooey. And for awhile the possible answers were all over the map. Literally, in two distinct ways: with the possible answer and with the locale. These mysterious “beach balls” had been found in British Columbia, Canada and the Oregon coast. (Photos courtesy Haystack Rock Awareness Program).

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It all started with the Haystack Rock Awareness Program (HRAP) in Cannon Beach. They starting noticing little, sort of squishy balls of something showing up in the area. No one there knew what it was; no one had seen it before. Daily investigations of the beach kept yielding samples of the semi-gooey stuff, which they brought back for study, or at least documentation.

HRAP spokesperson (and beach kingpin) Kari Henningsgaard said one of the program’s volunteers discovered it on April 9, and a mystery was born.

“We asked the Seaside Aquarium and Tiffany Boothe guessed it to be a compound tunicate - possibly stubby stalked compound tunicate,” Henningsgaard said. “Fawn Custer of Coast Watch also guessed it was a tunicate. Citizen scientist Stephen Grace thought they were bryozoan colonies, and guessed them to be Pectinatella magnifica. Eric Owen, land steward for the North Coast Land Conservancy, found them to be inconsistent to what he had experienced that species to look like.”

Then, it turns out, biologists in British Columbia had also been puzzling over what became nicknamed “beach balls.” Among them, a marine biologist from southern Canada known as the Marine Detective on Facebook joined in the search, posting her own shots of the round oddities, those from Cannon Beach, and from other locales.

Her real name is Jackie Hildering, and she zoomed into scientific discovery action mode.

“Okay, this one is driving we marine nerds crazy,” Hildering wrote on FB. “What are these ocean balls?! I first noted them in April 2016 in Port McNeill, British Columbia, and this year known documentations include: Haystack Rock Awareness Program in Oregon and Cyndi Browne in Port McNeill.”


Then the answers slowly came. Another biologist in the province had examined them under the microscope and figured out they were likely egg masses from a kind of sea worm called the Pile Worm or the Clam Worm. Technically: a polychaete worm by the real name of Nereis vexillosa. Other marine brains chimed in and confirmed.

So why were these showing up just now along the west coast of the continent?

Hildering doesn’t think that was the case.

“There’s nothing out there in the ocean that was causing them to come in,” she said. “They’ve probably been coming in all along. It’s just now that humans are noticing.”

There’s simply a lot of stuff out there in the ocean, and it’s hard to notice everything that’s coming in with the tides, she said.

The clam worm itself lives just a little ways offshore, probably just beneath the breakers you see coming in. They reproduce by ejecting parts of their bodies, which then eventually fertilize the eggs the females have released into the same area of water (known as a mating swarm.) The fertilized mass drops to the ocean floor and grows to about the size of an egg.

Clam worms are often used for bait and will squirm like crazy when captured. They also pack some powerful jaws for such small creatures and can bite when handled. You needn't worry about them being on bad behavior if you're swimming in the ocean, however.

Mating is done in winter and spring and dependent on darkness. If these egg masses wash up again in the area, it will be next season. Where to stay in this area - Where to eat - Maps and Virtual Tours

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