One question we at WilmingtonVisitor.com get is about our foam. You read that right, our foam. Because of the huge influx of tidal waters from the Cape Fear River our foam is sometimes more pronounced than other beach towns. Well, the sea foam is back on the Wrightsville and Carolina Beaches. What is that called again? Call is what you want: beach foam, ocean foam, and, if you are scientifically minded, spume. Most people just call it Sea Foam. However, this foam is a natural phenomenon and almost recognized by anyone who has visited a beach. Most people don’t know why it occurs or how it is formed. As with most things in nature, it is a little more complicated than initially thought. Some people surmise it has to do with the wind; but, that is only half of the equation. The other half has to do with what the seawater is made of and how the ocean breaks down organic matter.
Color is the key. White sea foam, which is the most common type that people see. The other type is either red or brown. You can think of the white as being the good guy of sea foam and the red or brown as the not so good guy.
White sea foam occurs naturally on the outer banks beaches, and most of the time, is harmless to humans and other life forms. This is an indicator of a healthy, productive ecosystem. This type of sea foam simply occurs when large amounts of organic matter starts to break down and dissolve in the sea water.
The ocean and its currents are constantly moving and creating waves, the organic matter in the sea water breaks down into its finest form and once it becomes this form it acts as a foaming agent. When this combines with the mixing of the waves air gets trapped thus forming bubbles. Think of this as a washing machine. The waves act as an agitator mixing not only oxygen but all of the organic matter. Now combine the two and bubbles are made and when the bubbles stick together, you get foam. This foam is very light and floats to the top of the waves, then thanks to tides and winds it ends up on shore.
Colored sea foam is a different story. This type can be harmful to humans and other life forms such as sea birds. Typically, this occurs after an algal bloom or red tide. The sea foam is formed because of the decay of tiny organisms named phytoplankton, which produce harmful algal toxins. Eventually when the bubbles pop, the embedded toxins can become airborne and can cause both respiratory and eye irritation issues with humans.
The sea foam also has the ability to harm other life forms like sea birds. If birds become trapped in the foam, the foam can disrupt their feathers’ waterproofing properties. This makes flying difficult for birds to fly and also puts them at risk of developing hypothermia, which can be deadly.
To summarize, sea foam is usually harmless to humans and other life forms in its white form and shows that the ecosystem within the ocean is healthy and productive. However, when it is discolored, red or brown, it can be dangerous and thus precautions must be taken for health concerns.