Oregon Coast Mystery of Puzzling Purple Waves Solved

Published 08/28/2015 at 7:04 PM PDT - Updated 08/28/2015 at 7:34 PM PDT
By Oregon Coast Beach Connection staff

(Oregon Coast) - Those funky, freaky purple waves that had Oregon coast scientists completely puzzled has likely been solved. According Dr. Caren Braby of the Newport office of Oregon Department and Fish and Wildlife (ODFW), it is a jellyfish-like creature called a salp. But there may be a surprise twist as to why there are so many. (Photo above by Tiffany Boothe, Seaside Aquarium).

While completely harmless and in fact rather pretty, the purple waves came to light because of an Oregon Coast Beach Connection reader, and it created a huge stir among scientists from various agencies. It wasn't a big deal because it was worrisome in anyway, it was simply that none of the experts had ever seen anything like that.

When Oregon Coast Beach Connection passed around the photos to agencies like ODFW, Hatfield Marine Science Center, Oregon State Parks, Oregon Health Authority and a few others, it immediately had at least a dozen different scientists and naturalists chatting. It had reached the university level as well. While not visible to the public, behind the scenes this was a really big deal.

A few educated guesses were thrown around, but all involved said it would be impossible to tell without a water sample.

Finally, it was Braby's team that got hold of one from Clatsop Beach, and she determined it was a small jellyfish-like create called a salp.

"My staff have been communicating with WDFW and taken samples at Clatsop Beach," Braby said. "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.

Dr. Bill Hanshumaker at the Hatfield Marine Science Center said he wasn't completely convinced, but he admitted it sounded good. Either way, he was in awe of how unprecedented these purple waves were.

"I've been here 25 years and I've never seen anything like it," Hanshumaker said.

Above: pink salps in Manzanita in 2010.

Why the salps are this intense a shade of purple isn't known, but Oregon Coast Beach Connection did snap photographs of a similar incident in 2010 when salps hit the north coast in such abundance they created a pink tide.

Braby agreed this entire sight is unusual, and why they are here in such numbers is an oddity as well.

The how and why is the interesting twist that could involve the infamous "blob," an area of warmer water in the Pacific Ocean that scientists believe is contributing to the current drought patterns of the West.

"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."

Tiffany Boothe of Seaside Aquarium photographed the salps today - Friday - as well.

"The purple color is due to the mass concentration of them washing in," Boothe said. "We are also having a small diatom bloom."

Diatoms turn the water brown. This hits the Seaside, Gearhart and Warrenton area periodically and can be so heavy it looks like brown oil. But it is, in fact, a sign of a healthy ocean in good enough shape that lots of little critters can explode in population.

Boothe also found numerous gooseberries on the beach, another tiny jellyfish, shown in the picture below with a mushy-lookng set of salps. More about salps and gooseberries

For those the Oregon coast in the next week or two, you may get to witness a first-ever event. You may get to see a bit of history, if it never happens again.

More photos below from Boothe, including what the creatures look like in their natural environment:



Below: purple waves in Neksowin this month, courtesy Jeanine Sbisa


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