Thursday, February 17, 2011

Not Exactly Bubble Bath

Back in the old neighborhood Ward’s Creek had a bad rep. It was one of those nasty slivers of questionable water and other nebulous ‘ingredients’ that made even an eleven year-old boy’s lip curl with creepy uncertainty. We were ‘careful’ about playing near the creek, but probably not anywhere near as careful as mothers could wish. It really didn’t take a scientist to look into the slimy swirls of Ward’s Creek and see that some of the stuff bobbing around in the water didn’t belong there. Bootsie once told me that he knew a boy who fell in, and two days later caught the polio and was living in an iron lung. That story should have put the brakes on anyone with an eye to playing on the banks of Ward’s Creek, but it never did. The point of this recollection about a dirty stream in my childhood is connected to the nasty yellowish foam that was always in the water of that creek, or lodged against the rocks and clumps of garbage. Of all the possibly dangerous gunk that floated in and on that water, the one that scared us most was that godawful foam that hung on like poisonous meringue. That we steered clear of.

It took awhile but today I finally made an effort to find out just what that dirty old foam is. Ward’s Creek is now 750 miles away but the name and memories of it were called back this morning by the excess of sea foam that decorated the Florida beach outside my door. In any season a long walk along the Atlantic will provide something new to see as long as the walker isn’t too wrapped up in either iPod or cellphone. Birds one day, shells the next and who knows what the next. Today is was heaps and puffs of sea foam piled liked fallen clouds bobbing and jittering on the sand. Why today? Why never before in my months of daily walking? I spent a little time looking it up.

Sea foam or spume is created by the natural agitation of seawater and on most days is seen as nothing more than the usual curly white foam that rides on the back of incoming surf. There are times when the usual becomes multiplied by higher concentrations of dissolved organic matter from a breakdown of algae blooms offshore. Chemical compounds in this breakdown work as a super foaming agent. There are several things like fat and protein involved, but in layman’s terms the seawater is churned by breaking waves in the surf zone, foaming agents (chemicals) in the turbulence trap air and form continuous bubbles that stick to each other because of surface tension created by the chemicals from the algae. The low density of these foam heaps makes them shiver and sometimes blow along the sand.

Comforting to think that on this pristine beach where water and meager amounts of sea foam frequently splash against my feet and legs the foam is harmless. That isn’t always the case. There is a Ward’s Creek version of sea foam that appears on some beaches around the world. In areas where polluted stormwater from rivers or drains empties into the ocean beaches can be polluted with foam containing viruses and other contaminants. There is a type of harmful algae bloom along some coastal areas that creates foam causing skin irritation and breathing difficulty.

Two of the photos on the right give a good picture of how the chemicals from the algae appear under close view. In one it looks as though a handful of jewels have been scattered in the foam, and in the magnified view at the bottom the colors are richer and it looks very much like two black figures stand framed inside bubbles.


  1. Great post. A bit of nostalgia and interesting facts about sea foam. A good alternate title could have been POISONOUS MERINGUE--especially when related to Ward's Creek. Have a feeling it was pristine in our day as compared to now. You really have developed an eye for seeing and reporting on the natural world so often overlooked by most.

  2. Weird but interesting are the pictures you took for your post this morning. This didn't look like anything I would want to examine closely or step my foot into.


About Me

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Oak Hill, Florida, United States
A longtime expat relearning the footwork of life in America