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The Mystery of Purple Waves on Oregon Coast Back in 2015

Published 07/29/020 at 5:54 AM PDT
By Oregon Coast Beach Connection staff

The Mystery of Purple Waves on Oregon Coast Back in 2015

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(Newport, Oregon) – It's mid August of 2015, and the visitors come pouring onto the Oregon coast and Washington coast as usual this late in the summer. Now, however, more than ever before it's the age of the Internet and cellphone photography, and this time people are seeing something weird on the beaches and reporting it in numbers. (Photo above: courtesy Oregon State Parks and Recreation Dept's Dane Osis)

Mysterious purple waves are popping up. They're not everywhere, and certainly not all the time. In fact, to add to the mystery there are only small chunks of the tideline that are turned a unique but beautiful shade of deep purple. When they show up, it's only a patch of about 50 to 100 feet of water along the tideline that's colored. Up and down the rest of whatever beach they're found at, it's normal beach water.

The whole strange science tale has another twist at its end, too.

Oregon Coast Beach Connection (OCBC) was first alerted to the weirdo waves by visitor Jeanine Sbisa and her family, who saw it at Neskowin. After OCBC left some inquiries around coastal agencies, a state park ranger named Dane Osis had also discovered some at Fort Stevens near Astoria.

“The purple was only on the edge of the water,” Sbisa said at the time. “I did not see any patches in the deeper water. In fact the deeper water was a beautiful turquoise, instead of the deep blue that it usually is at Winema. Some of the waves were a deep clear purple. Other waves in other segments were a rich foamy lilac color. The colors were amazing. Very beautiful.”

Thus the word spread like wildfire among scientists and nature experts from around the coast, with some reports even drifting in from Washington. Everyone was mystified. Scientists from Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport and UofO's Institute of Marine Biology had a few educated guesses, however.

The general consensus was that no one could pin this down without an actual water sample, and that was unclear if it was to happen or not.

Even longtime experts had no clue real clue with just the photographs.

Meanwhile, other reports surfaced from all around the Oregon coast as word got out that experts were looking into it. Among the interested parties was the Oregon Health Authority, which issues beach alerts if the water is tainted with fecal matter. That wasn't the issue here – experts knew that much. But what if it was a harmful algae of some sort, like what happens in heated inland lakes during summer?

The other hitch here was that lots of velella velella were spotted along the coast, but they're not capable of coloring the waves.

Most of the guesses from Oregon scientists included some form of phytoplankton, with one possibility being a form protozoan that can turn purple. Behind the scenes this was a really big deal for a bit, between coastal cities and experts in Portland, Corvallis, Salem, Eugene and elsewhere.

Speculation went on for nearly two weeks, and of course the outlandish theories from armchair scientists on the Net poured out, like Fukushima radiation or chemtrails, and even UFO's.

Photo courtesy Jeanine Sbisa

Finally, someone did get a sample, someone from Oregon Department and Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) and its office in Newport. There, it was Dr. Caren Braby that came up with the answer, after 13 days that began to feel much longer.

It turned out to be a jellyfish-like creature called a salp.

"My staff have been communicating with WDFW and taken samples at Clatsop Beach," Braby said told OCBC at the time. "They are a huge bloom of juvenile salps - a gelatinous [tunicate] more closely related to fish than to jellies."

In its early larval stages, the salp has a spine, but looses it as it fully becomes a salp, thus making it related to vertebrates. The creature resembles a jellyfish in appearance, but otherwise that's all it has in common with them.

Exactly why these salps did this purple coloring thing remained a mystery. It wasn't without precedent, however. OCBC caught exactly such a thing in Manzanita around 2010 where salps had colored the water pink. It was the folks at Seaside Aquarium who told OCBC about that.

The aquarium's Tiffany Boothe theorized the purple waves had to be from the sheer numbers of them, and Braby agreed there were a lot. Those numbers were also part of the mystery, but thus comes the twist.

2015 was another season of the infamous “blob,” a section of warmer water in the Pacific that had numerous meteorological consequences, and later in 2019 it created a run of other unusual sightings of marine life normally not found around here.

According to Braby:

"This may be an unusual sight for us because of two or more possible (hypothetical) reasons: 1) they may be blooming significantly this year due to unusual ocean conditions, or 2) they are usually out there but this year they are onshore due to the suppressed upwelling (the 'blob') pressed up alongshore."

There haven't been any reports of this since, and no it's not toxic or dangerous to humans. They're simply nearly-microscopic babies that painted the sea weird colors for a time. Oregon Coast Hotels in this area - Where to eat - Maps - Virtual Tours

See Oregon Coast Mystery of Puzzling Purple Waves Solved

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