Beach Foam, SURF BALLS, & Stormy Days
Story and Photos by Joanne Huemoeller
Cobble Beach is a place you need to go to, especially if you've never been. If you've already been there, you need to go when it's blustery.
The day I ventured out, the wind was picking up and a storm was brewing; few other souls were crazy enough to join me. Even before reaching the parking lot, I knew I was in for a treat. Foam was in the air, blowing up and over the headlands and across the BLM road that winds down to the lighthouse.
Foam, not soap or pollution!
Beach foam is not the result of human pollution, although an argument could be made that it resembles the outcome of mistakenly mixing dishwashing soap with a dishwasher, suds everywhere. Rather, beach foam is produced when the skeletal remains of millions and millions of phytoplankton, microscopic, often single-celled plants that thrive in our cold water, and other microorganisms are whipped up by rough surf and high winds.
Cobble Beach, my destination that cold wintry day, is just north of Newport and is one of several Yaquina Head Natural Area beaches. Wonderful volcanic cobbles, the beach's namesake, pop right out of the bluff. Perhaps "pop" is not scientifically correct, but we'll leave that for another time. What is important is that the beach is black with them.
I parked my car, braced myself against the wind, and made my way down the stairway to the beach. Beach foam is about the color of sand. On most beaches foam is noticeable but not particularly dramatic. On black Cobble Beach it is strikingly obvious. And it was everywhere, a blanket of foam 6 to 8 inches thick undulated as the surf moved under it and covered the lower stretch of beach. Puffs of foam were being blown off the top and onto the cobbles. Like the beach, I was soon covered with it; my pants, my jacket, my camera!
This was not my first visit to black Cobble Beach or my first encounter with beach foam. But I was so taken with the wild combination of the two that I had yet to notice what else was waiting for me on the beach that day. As I moved up to the higher reaches of the beach in a futile attempt to take a step back from the blowing foam, I discovered them. A kindly and warmly dressed ranger at the top of the stairs later gave me my first introduction to surf balls.
Surf balls, not whale burps!
Surf balls, better known as whale burps, are not endemic to Cobble Beach or even Oregon beaches. They are found throughout the world, on beaches both marine and freshwater. What surf balls are not is a by-product of a whale's digestive tract.
Oregon State University's Web site tells us that, to their knowledge, there has been no formal research done on the formation of surf balls. But the surf balls I found that day had their origins in fishing line. Theory suggests that as lost monofilament line nears the shore, it is rolled by the waves and surf, gradually gathering up seaweed, pine needles, dune grass, small feathers, shell fragments, and other debris. The eventual result is the formation of tight, bristly balls, round or oval, of varying size. The largest I found was about 6 inches in diameter. Smaller surf balls, only 1-1/2 to about 2-1/2 inches across, were mixed in with the others. As the tide recedes, the balls are left scattered on the beach above the tide line.
Discarded fishing line can be incredibly damaging to the marine environment and the creatures that live therein. The creation of surf balls is one of nature's ways to clean house and rid itself of this unwanted nuisance. And it does so with a result that can be quite charming. My surf balls, collected that day with the ranger's permission, now reside in a decorative bowl on my coffee table.
Although black cobbles may only be found at Cobble Beach (and are not collectable), beach foam and surf balls are found on other Oregon beaches. Now is the time to take advantage of the next wild, blustery day. Bundle up, and enjoy an adventure of your own.
Editor's Note: Once the wind and rain rev up, though, leave the beach and return when the storm is over. The pickings are usually better then, and it's safer. When it's stormy, the beach is a dangerous place.
Oregon Coast January/February 2008