Purple Waves Puzzle Oregon Coast Scientists, Officials

Published 08/26/2015 at 5:04 PM PDT - Updated 08/31/2015 at 5:44 PM PDT
By Oregon Coast Beach Connection staff

(Oregon Coast) – UPDATE: this has been solved and the cause is determined to be a kind of jellyfish - see Oregon Coast Mystery of Puzzling Purple Waves Solved . The rest of the article remains for historical and background info purposes.

A true mystery is brewing on the Oregon coast, with a dozen or so scientists and public officials stumped, and the public increasingly enthralled. (photo above: Jeanine Sbisa).

Puzzling purple waves have been hitting the Oregon coast here and there for the last month, and no one seems to know what it is. Meanwhile, a lot of velella velella jellyfish – otherwise known as Purple Sails – have shown up again as well, but the two are completely unrelated.

Oregon Coast Beach Connection got word of the perplexing purples in the ocean over the weekend from visitor Jeanine Sbisa and her family. She photographed these examples of the stuff in Neskowin on August 15. Oregon State Park Ranger Dane Osis snapped another incident at Fort Stevens State Park near Astoria.

After sending word to a host of scientists, naturalists, volunteers from CoastWatch and even state officials from the Oregon Health Authority (which sends out beach bacteria alerts), no one could come up with a positive answer. All were quite mystified and admitted they hadn't seen anything like it. There is no evidence it's harmful in anyway, just a big enigma.

While some scientists from institutions like the Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport or UofO's Institute of Marine Biology have ventured a few educated guesses, even those were tempered with assertions that they weren't sure and that water samples needed to be taken.

The typical response was like that of Jonathan Modie, a spokesman with the Oregon Health Authority. He had passed along the photos to the agency's Beach Monitoring and Harmful Algae Bloom Surveillance programs.

“It’s difficult to identify an organism from photographs (one thought is that it could be a type of jellyfish), and the substance probably needs to be sampled and tested to make a reliable identification,” Modie said.

Oregon State Parks and Recreation Department is still working on the research, while a few phytoplankton experts from the Hatfield weighed in on the subject.

In the meantime, Oregon Coast Beach Connection discovered a few more eye-witnesses, including those saying they've seen it as far back as a month ago in Lincoln City and Newport. Another mentioned seeing the purple waves in Seaside.

Another report from Neskowin said the purple waves had a funky smell to it, but Sbisa said she did not have that experience in the little village when she photographed it.

What Sbisa describes mostly matched what others reported: large segments of the tideline that were colored this vivid and beautiful shade of purple. She found a few such areas about a 100 feet in length on a mile or so stretch between Winema Beach and Neskowin.

“The purple was only on the edge of the water,” Sbisa said. “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.”

Most of the guesses from Oregon scientists included some form of phytoplankton. One standout possibility was a form of protozoan (similar to phytoplankton) that is common on the Oregon coast, and when it consumes certain nutrients it can turn purple or other similar colors.

Others reported seeing a lot of dead jellyfish in the vicinity of their sightings, but this is purely coincidental. Velella velella pop up periodically when washed in by western winds. There was a huge inundation of them during the spring. These do not create purplish waves, however.

Scientists also said it is not related to the algal bloom that had affected Oregon mussels and still affects razor clamming at this time. Some outrageous rumors have sprung up about the source being from the Fukushima power plant or something from chemtrails, but it is definitely not from factors such as those.

Currently, plenty of Oregon scientists are working on it, and with any luck the public, fans of the coast and naturalists will have an answer. There has been some talk of collecting water samples, but that's unclear if that will occur.

For now, the Oregon coast has a purple mystery on its hands.

Photo above: Dane Osis of Oregon State Parks snapped the purple waves on Wednesday morning at Fort Stevents. Below: more of Jeanine Sbisa's photos from Newkowin.


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