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Freaky, Gooey Brown Waves Again on Washington, Oregon Coast, Video

Published 03/04/2020 at 12:08 AM PDT
By Oregon Coast Beach Connection staff

Freaky, Gooey Brown Waves Again on Washington, Oregon Coast, Video

(Long Beach, Washington) – Those kooky brown, gooey waves have returned, this time on the southern Washington coast and some on the very northern Oregon coast. Tiffany Boothe of Seaside Aquarium caught video of the clumpy stuff on the Long Beach Peninsula, where it’s quite prominent. (Photos and video courtesy Seaside Aquarium Above: Seaside gets the brown stuff on Wednesday)

“There have been small diatom blooms in Seaside but nothing like Long Beach,” she said Tuesday. However, by Wednesday the brown waves hit Seaside discernibly more.

What is it?

Well, it’s not pollution, a presumption some immediately jump to. It’s actually a good thing, according to Boothe and Seaside Aquarium manager Keith Chandler. The culprit are tiny forms of algae called phytoplankton, which you might remember are the bottom of the food chain in the ocean, something that just about everything feeds on.

S. Washington Coast and N. Oregon Coast: weird brown waves are seen here at Long Beach today. Also some on N. coast, but not as thick. What is it? Just cool lil' phytoplankton - but LOTS of them. It's a good thing; a sign of a healthy ocean. This video courtesy Seaside Aquarium. See late tonight for full information. Story posted here tomorrow morning

Posted by Oregon Coast Beach Connection on Tuesday, March 3, 2020

These are usually phytoplankton called diatoms, which are the most common form of these plant-like critters living in Pacific Northwest ocean areas. There’s been an enormous bloom of them somewhere offshore, and when there’s so many they make for dark, oily-looking waves – even sludgy at times.

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“It’s not really so much of a stain as it is a lot of the stuff accumulates on the beaches,” Chandler said. “The stuff, like the brown bubbles, feels a little oily, but that doesn’t mean it is oil. It just comes from a lot of it piling on the beaches. The tide will come and clean it out. Just like a ketchup stain – it comes right out.”

Diatoms are also the basic foundation for bubbles in the surf anywhere on the Oregon and Washington coast. That sea foam you find, sometimes in huge, snow-like clumps, is essentially made up of one kind of phytoplankton or another.

It’s actually their skeletons (yes, they’re microscopic, so there’s billions of them just around you) that interact with the sea water and create a kind of viscosity, causing the tiny forms to blow bubbles out of the churning ocean.

When it comes to these brown diatoms, however, they are especially abundant around either side of the Columbia River because of all the nutrients pouring into the ocean in the form of nitrates and phosphates.

“They leave behind carbohydrates, fats, proteins and vitamins,” Boothe said. “Their bodies also store oil to live on. If you look closely at the bubbles created by phytoplankton you will notice that they look as if they have oil in them, as in the photographs here.”

That dynamic of so many diatoms on the north Oregon coast and southern Washington coast means something else rather special for the area: lots of sand dollar beds just offshore and lots of small baitfish. Around the Necanicum River (at Seaside’s 12th Ave. access and the southern tip of Gearhart), there’s something different about the terrain that causes tons of sand dollars to wash up there, making for more whole sand dollars than probably anywhere on the Oregon coast.

With all the baitfish coming in to chomp on the diatoms, this often brings in Humpback whales and things like seals and sea lions, which in turn can bring in Orcas. Nature has quite the entertaining food chain going on. Be prepared to spot more of those around the Columbia River mouth.

Freaky, Gooey Brown Waves Again on Washington, Oregon Coast

Up around Gearhart, Warrenton and the Wreck of the Peter Iredale, you may see lots of bluish, inky, oily-looking spots on the sand. That’s usually the brown diatoms as well.

On the central Oregon coast and southern coast, the dynamic is a bit different. Brown waves there can mean lots of diatoms, but it could also be mud flows from nearby rivers.

The other extremely cool aspect of so many diatoms is that it could mean lots of another phytoplankton called dinoflagellates. These are bioluminescent and glow like fireflies, so if there’s a lot of brown waves you may want to check out Oregon coast beaches at night for the glowing sand thing. In fact, one photographer named John Weatherby actually caught the glowing creatures in the surf recently at Cape Kiwanda (see this Facebook post).

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Above: diatoms under the microscope

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