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Wacky Beach Basics: What These Everyday Sights Mean on Oregon Coast / Washington Coast

Published 08/02/23 at 7:31 p.m.
y Oregon Coast Beach Connection staff

Wacky Beach Basics: What These Everyday Sights Mean on Oregon Coast / Washington Coast

(Long Beach, Washington) – When it comes to beaches, to paraphrase from that old Sci-Fi show: the truth isn't so much out there as it is down there. Something you see every single moment on the sands of the Washington coast or Oregon coast is quite possibly not what you think it is, and neither is one cluster of sea stuff that you often find.

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Get ready for some revelatory science.

Just What Is Sea Foam – Really?

From those billowing piles of soapsuds along the Oregon coast or Washington coast in storm season, to the calmest of waves and their bubbles, all that is not pollution. Those new to traveling in the region often think there's something wrong on these beaches – in fact, plenty of inland residents seem to hold this misconception too.

Sea foam is awesome and the sign of a healthy ocean. What it comes from often surprises. Those bubbly lines in our surf are created by the breakdown of the skeletons of tiny single-celled plants called phytoplankton. When high wind and waves churn air into the water, their dissolved organic matter helps to create bubbles.

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Protein from the dead microscopic plants increase the seawater's surface tension, producing bubbles when air is added. A lot of it comes from viscosity, but without the shells of deceased microscopic plants you'd see very little of the beautiful stuff.

Awe-inspiring oddities can happen more often in winter and in the spring with sea foam, thanks to those phytoplankton. According to the Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport, these tend to bloom in greater numbers in the spring, and seasonal storms at that time of year can result in incredible sights such as foam so frothy it moves like flurries of snow across the beaches and highways.

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Storms are so monstrous in winter it often happens then as well.

One of the coolest sights on the Oregon coast or Washington coast is seeing gigantic piles of bubbles just roaming across the scenery, kicked around by the wind or shoved forward and backwards by the surf. They almost look like they're alive and moving on purpose.

Odd Piles of Things Onshore

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Winter arrives on the Washington coast or Oregon coast, and then you'll start to see interesting masses of stuff just washing onshore. You know those giant whip-like things that almost appear to have heads? That is bull kelp, and they create some weird-looking masses on the waterline, as if they were some herd of creatures out there that made lemming-like runs for the non-ocean environment – like some baffling mass stranding.

Bull Kelp and Their Upside Down Forests

Bull kelp are a large, brown algae that grow in "forests" near the shore. However, they are upside down forests.

These kelp are annuals, completing their life cycle in one season, and they can grow up to 20 meters (60 feet) in one year. At the bottom, their branching "holdfasts" anchor the kelp, although some are torn free in storms. Their long stipes (stems) tangle together to form large piles, as you see here on this page.

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Their floats have a high proportion of carbon monoxide to keep the blades (leaves) near the surface for photosynthesis. Their smooth, roundish shapes, when bobbing in the ocean, are sometimes confused with seals.

Oregon Coast Science Experts: What is Sea Foam?

Once they pile up onshore – in places like the south Oregon coast's Whaleshead Beach, Bandon or up farther north at Newport or Long Beach, Washington – they start to dry out. These piles can get pretty smelly sometimes.

However, that doesn't stop many a sibling from trying to smack the other with one of these. It's kind'a gross, but they are irresistible fun.

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Andre' GW Hagestedt is editor, owner and primary photographer / videographer of Oregon Coast Beach Connection, an online publication that sees over 1 million pageviews per month. He is also author of several books about the coast.

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