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Colorful Blobs Again on Oregon Coast, Bringing Some Surprises

Published 02/14/2020 at 7:08 PM PDT
By Oregon Coast Beach Connection staff

Colorful Blobs Again on Oregon Coast, Bringing Some Surprises

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(Oregon Coast) – More Velella velella have shown up on the Oregon coast, with reports largely coming out of Tillamook County (although it’s likely they’ve been seen from south coast to north coast given current westerly conditions). It doesn’t appear they’re showing up in massive piles, and there’s no danger of them rotting and stinking, as the rains will be washing them away or the tides will come in and grab them. (Photos courtesy Seaside Aquarium)

However, they’ve brought with them a little surprise: their colorful predators, known as violet snails or storm snails. And there's the possibility another treasured find could be made.

Velella velella also go by the name By-the-Wind-Sailors or Purple Sails, among other monikers and nicknames. They’re often a few inches in diameter, at first showing up as colorful purple or bluish blobs in the surf.

Tillamook Coast reported seeing some this last week, as well as a Coast Watch volunteer who found some at Bayocean near Tillamook. Tiffany Boothe of Seaside Aquarium also discovered some in that area.

They start showing up here when west winds kick in, as they have no actual means of propelling themselves. So they truly are by-the-wind and at the whims of the winds.

Velella velella are closely related to salps, which in some ways are like jellyfish in that they too are gelatinous in nature. Yet salps actually have more in common with mammals than jellyfish biologically, and Velella are considered a hyrdozoan, which is a class of salt water creature with some characteristics a bit like a jellyfish, but mostly something different altogether. They don't sting at all, but they are closely related to the Man-O-War – a kind of salp that does sting prey and pokes humans. These do not exist on this coastline.

While they can't hurt you, officials say you should not touch them or walk on them barefoot. They are, after all, something formerly alive that's now rotting on the beach.

Boothe discovered the real surprise related to Purple Sails: the thing eats them, called a storm snail.

“These brightly colored snails get their pigment from feeding on Velellas,” Boothe said. “Storm snails drift on the surface of the ocean by trapping air and making a raft out of bubbles. Their shell is paper-thin which aids them in floating upside down on their bubble raft.”

Boothe said if you’re beachcombing you should also keep an eye out for these – but they’re tiny, usually smaller than your thumbnail. Be extremely cautious picking them or you’ll crush them, they are that delicate. Yet somehow they survive getting battered by the ocean during storms.

Another engaging aspect of the arrival of Velella velella: they can herald the discovery of actual Japanese glass floats. These now-rare finds were once common along the Oregon coast, with the smoky green balls winding up as decorations on the exterior of beach homes everywhere. They were used by Japanese fishermen until about the ‘70s to float their fishing nets, and not long after that began disappearing from Oregon’s beaches.

State officials say the same westerly winds that bring in Velella velella also can turn the old glass floats this direction. This is now a good time to go looking for them on your favorite beach. More photos below:

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