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The Stunts and Curious Sights of Sea Foam on the Oregon Coast

Published 11/15/23 a 5:25 a.m.
y Oregon Coast Beach Connection staff

The Stunts and Curious Facts of Sea Foam on the Oregon Coast

(Newport, Oregon) – It's amazing what you can learn from just one experience on the Oregon coast. Even more amazing: some of the social media posts that are made by experts there. (Photo courtesy BLM rangers in Newport - a detail from the original below)

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One made last week by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) points out some fascinating examples of a weird thing that winter and spring storms may do for you out there.

In Newport, it's the feds that are in charge of Yaquina Head: the BLM oversees it. They witnessed and photographed something that can happen in winter, but not everyone sees it.

A recent storm left a lot stuff on Yaquina Head's Cobble Beach. That's already a beach with some interesting mysteries – as in those “chattering rocks” (or “magic rocks” as they're known).

What the storm left behind looked much like something else you seen in winter, causing the BLM to sort of rhetorically ask: “Is that snow on Cobble Beach?”

Full photo from BLM

No, it's sea foam, they answered. This stuff is fascinating. All that sudsy foam you see washing in on the ocean tides is mostly a lot of dead phytoplankton – a form of microalgae. There's also salts, proteins and some bits of manmade chemical residue.

Sudsy foam in the ocean is not pollution, and sometimes visitors wonder about that. It's almost purely organic bits from the ocean.

“When the ocean is agitated by large winds and wave activity, the churning adds air to the water, mixing the organic and nonorganic material and making a soap-like foam similar to a bubble bath,” BLM said.

Though when things get really foamy like this, it's quite a load of phytoplankton, a lot of times coming from a major bloom out there.

Bioluminescent Phytoplankton: What Makes Glowing Sand On Oregon Coast, Washington

According to Newport's Hatfield Marine Science Center, those tiny skeletons of phytoplankton change the surface tension of the water. The more skeletons of phytoplankton you have out there, the more surface tension and the more bubbles you have in the form of sea foam.

Blobs of snow-like foam at Devil's Churn

Sea foam can engage in some wild pyrotechnics, which Oregon Coast Beach Connection has seen firsthand. Such as one time near Yachats at the Devil's Churn, so much sea foam was hitting the rocky shoreline that it went flying like banks of snow. That cavernous shape of Cape Perpetua above forms kind of a gigantic, natural tube, and the winds caused the foam to go floating upwards, looking like snow going the wrong direction.

The BLM said something similar may happen there at the Newport attraction.

“Although the materials creating sea foam varies each year depending on ocean conditions, we can be sure to expect an increase in this frothy substance washing up on the beach as we get into the stormy winter season. It may even get blown into the air by intense Yaquina Head winter winds.”

There's an odd catch to this whole algae thing. Phytoplankton and its hugely varied species (including the kinds that create glowing sand) are a good thing and a sign of a healthy ocean. However, not all forms of algae are good.

FOR FULL EXPLANATION SEE Oregon Coast Science Experts: What is Sea Foam?

One kind off the Oregon coast and Washington coast has harmful effects on shellfish, creating that domoic acid issue that keeps closing clamming or crabbing.

BLM pointed out another issue out there.

“While usually not harmful, in 2009 a particular type of algae called Akashiwo Sanguinea appeared in the water off the Oregon and Washington coast and was found to be responsible for the death of thousands of sea birds,” BLM said. “The soap-like solution stripped the birds' feathers of their vital waterproofing.”

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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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