Ocean foam invades some Australian beaches

Australia is famously home to forms of nature not found in other parts of the world. And now, sea foam has been appearing on the beaches of parts of Australia, bringing with it all manner of things, including snakes.

People are being warned to stay out of sea foam that has appeared on the beaches of northern New South Wales and Queensland in the wake of severe storms this week, with sea snakes and hazardous material hidden in it.

Storms have lashed the two states, bringing heavy rain, flooding and coastal erosion. The foam is formed by the churning of seawater with algae, salts, fats and other pollutants.

Nathan Fife, Gold Coast Lifesaving services supervisor at Surf Lifesaving Australia, told Guardian Australia the foam was not good for people’s health.

“Health-wise it’s probably not great to let your kids play in it,” he said. “Also the marine creatures that might get in it, like sea snakes.”

According to the Marine Education Society of Australasia, there are 32 species of sea snakes found around Australia. While they are venomous, the risk of death is low.

The sale of the foam is pretty impressive.

Is this ocean foam phenomenon peculiar to Australia? If so, why?


  1. JM says

    I know it’s not unique to Australia but I have no idea how common it is. I have played with it a little on beaches in Maryland. I believe that in a lot of places it forms only when storm winds whip up the water in just the right way.

  2. says

    “The sale of the foam . . .” Are they boxing it up as a souvenir and sending it out as Christmas gifts?

    Oh, you certainly meant “scale”. But it’s amusing enough I had to point it out.

  3. Pierce R. Butler says

    … the churning of seawater with algae, salts, fats and other pollutants.

    Algae, salt, pollutants -- all expected in sea water. But fats???

  4. Jazzlet says

    Gosh that takes me back! To a field trip trying to collect different varieties of seaweed from a rocky Devonshire shore covered with foam, so you couldn’t tell whether your next step was going to be knee deep or thigh deep. I’ve no idea how we all managed it without at least one broken leg.

    Pierce R Butler @3
    Yes fats, many animal have cell membranes made of fat* and the kind of weather that creates sea foam bashes enough of them up to release fat. It may also be there as another pollutant -- see fat bergs in sewers.

    * hence the lipid coating of the mRNA vaccines, which joins up with the lipid membrane of cells t releance the mRNA into the cell.

  5. Pierce R. Butler says

    Jazzlet @ # 5: … cell membranes made of fat …

    But, but, but… Beach swimmers tend not to emerge with a coating of goo (unless maybe they went splashing around downstream of a beached whale). And if lipids get regularly released into the water, wouldn’t some sort of organism show up -- in high numbers -- to scarf down all that yummy concentrated nutrient? And, and, fats float -- we’d have regular patches of sliminess accumulating around coasts everywhere in still places and periods if lipids got loose that easily.

    As for the fatbergs -- well, we are talking about the eastern, more urban side of Oz, but the don’t-go-swimming-near-sewage-plant-outflows rule should also be a known factor here, yet it goes unmentioned.

    Pls note: I’m not saying you’re wrong, I just have confusions about all this.

    Maybe the public health authorities would get more compliance if they put out a Santorum alert.

  6. says

    Taiwan’s southeast outer islands have poisonous sea snakes, but the water is clear and they are rarely aggressive, tending to swim away from people. Just as snakes on land only attack when they feel threatened or surprised, being hidden by the noise and low visibility of white water could result in people being bitten.

    At least it’s snakes, and not jellyfish or other more lethal sea life. There’s a reason why Okinawa encourages or limits ocean swimming to enclosed areas.

  7. file thirteen says

    Is this ocean foam phenomenon peculiar to Australia?

    I’m not saying you’re wrong, I just have confusions about all this.

    Do people not use wikipedia any more? For older generations it takes getting used to, but we seldom have to speculate about natural wonders (and many other things) these days; the information is at our fingertips. Google “sea foam”.

  8. Pierce R. Butler says

    file thirteen @ # 9 -- Okay, I did a search for “sea foam”.

    As I started typing it in, the service suggested “sea foam candy” -- sounds yummacious, doesn’t it?

    All but one of the hits that came up involved a “motor treatment” by the name of Sea Foam™ -- not sure of the fat content of same.

    But I also found this from the National Ocean Service:

    Sea foam forms when dissolved organic matter in the ocean is churned up. … Seawater contains dissolved salts, proteins, fats, dead algae, detergents and other pollutants … When large blooms of algae decay offshore, great amounts of decaying algal matter often wash ashore. Foam forms as this organic matter is churned up by the surf. …

    -- which supports Jazzlet’s description, but still leaves me wondering how so much free-floating food doesn’t get consumed quickly.

  9. file thirteen says

    Didn’t mean to be snarky Pierce. I personally use wikipedia a lot, to edumacate myself on the many many things I’m ignorant of. I just was musing aloud over whether if it was a more social thing to ask others rather than check for an obvious answer to a question, or if it was an obsolete bad habit to avoid. Or maybe Mano’s question was more one to provoke thought, rather than really wwseeking an answer. The rules may be different for blog posters.

    The wikipedia page is the first one to pop up for me, and I found it quite edifying. Maybe I should have said to google “sea foam wikipedia”.

  10. Jazzlet says

    Pierce @11 It’s a matter of timing, storms can mash up things like algal blooms, and a lot of the things that would otherwise be eating the algae will drop down in the water column to avoid being themselves mashed up by the storm.

  11. Pierce R. Butler says

    file thirteen -- As this time, I often find search results mostly unsatisfactory, and wikipffft stuff only somewhat less so.

    F’rinstance, today I had it bounce back into my mind that I had previously failed at looking up the meaning in Genesis of whichever god it was who told Sara her name was thenceforth Sarah. My search results found mostly just rehashes of the Abraham story, with one site deigning to note that her name first meant “my lady/princess” and became “lady/princess”. Had I posted the question somewhere that a person fluent in old Hebrew might have seen it, I could possibly have gotten an answer that explains what that change signified.

    Oh well -- if it was easy, everybody would be doing it!

    Jazzlet -- That sort of makes sense, but raises the question of why sea snakes don’t go low too. Maybe they find wild surf fun…

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