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Oregon Coast / Washington Coast Answers: Those Strange, Snake-like Whips or Tubes

Published 4/25/24 at 6:05 a.m.
By Andre' Hagestedt, Oregon Coast Beach Connection

(Oregon Coast) – Taking a walk on any Pacific Northwest beach, you're bound to run into them. Those weird, big, snake-like tubes just sitting around in piles or stretched across the sand: “what are they?” you may be asking. (Photo of bull kelp at Otter Rock, Oregon Coast Beach Connection)

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Wandering spots such as Cannon Beach, Long Beach, Westport, Gold Beach or maybe near Florence, you're bound to bump into a bunch. They're a tad alien-looking in some ways – and who among us as a kid hasn't picked one up and smacked your sibling with it like a whip?

They are, according to experts, a kind of seaweed known as bull kelp – sometimes called bull whip kelp or ribbon kelp. They're essentially a large algae, according to experts like Seaside Aquarium or the Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport. As they've told Oregon Coast Beach Connection in the past, the scientific name is Nereocystis luetkeana.

Bull kelp are a trippy feature along the Washington coast and Oregon shorelines: there's a lot of interesting little surprises about them, including how they have something to do with our whale populations here.

According to the Hatfield: bull kelp are a large, brown algae that grow in "forests" near the shore. These kelp are annuals, completing their life cycle in one season, and can grow up to 118 feet in one year, but some have seen them as long as 200 feet. Most of those you see on the beaches are 20 – 30 feet long, with some on occasion around 40 feet or so.

Oregon Coast Beach Connection: bull kelp in Gearhart

Either way, they grow very fast.

These are actually upside forests of a sort: those bulbs are floating while one end is fastened to rocks or reef below.

They grow in enormous fields just offshore and in areas too deep to be affected by tides, but you can sometimes see their roundish bulb heads bobbing in the ocean. Bull kelp are comprised of a single stalk (called a stipe) which attaches to rock on the ocean bed, while at the top is that large bulb and numerous ribbon-like blades. The bulb is filled with carbon monoxide, which is what causes it to float upright in the ocean.

The blades can grow as fast as five inches a day.

Oregon Coast Beach Connection: bull kelp in Gearhart

So, why do they wind up on the beach?

“During storms, high winds and violent currents may cause kelp to be ripped up from the sea floor,” said Seaside Aquarium. “Strong wave action tangles the kelp, which eventually washes up on the beach in enormous knots.”

If you've gazed out on the ocean from a rocky area – such as around Depoe Bay – you have may seen their little heads bobbing and mistaken them for seals. They do often look that way. But the giveaway is if they stay in one place the whole time. A seal might linger for several seconds looking out, but then it would move on. This is a common sight if you look down from Cape Foulweather as well.

Seaside Aquarium photo

The Hatfield told Oregon Coast Beach Connection they form an intricate aquatic habitat that is vital to the survival of many coastal species. Those blades sprouting out from the bull kelp are leaves in a sense, and they are fed via photosynthesis that is made possible by the big bulbs that keep them afloat.

These kelp beds are among the kind that host lots of mycid shrimp: that's the favorite food of gray whales, and helps explain why grays often linger in the Depoe Bay area.

Interestingly enough, bull kelp around here are quite edible, though you'll want to harvest them fresh from their stand in the ocean, which means don't go trying to gobble them off the beach when you find them there.

They are said to be quite delicious and tender when cooked or marinated.

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Seaside Aquarium photo

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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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