To dogs like this black labrador, Basil, this looks like a frothy playground, but to many humans it looks like pollution. But is it? According to our sources there is also a chance it is quite harmless. We talked to Council and checked the Australian Popular Science website and Wikipedia for some more information.
What is it?
Sea foam is formed by a natural process: the mixture of air, water and a key third ingredient called a ‘surfactant’—a kind of sticky molecule that clings to the surface between water and air and in the process forms bubbles.
This surfactant ingredient can come from a lot of places: human-made sources include fertilizers, detergents, paper factories, leather tanneries, and sewage. But surfactants also come from the proteins and fats in algae, seaweed, and other marine plant life.
In fact algal blooms are one common source of thick sea foams. When large blooms of algae decay offshore, the decaying algal matter will often wash ashore. Foam forms as this organic matter is churned up by the surf and this can be particularly extreme in bad weather conditions as the waves pound the material, just like a washing machine.
Is it harmful?
Possibly. Stormwater from rivers and drains can add to the foaming process and potentially contaminate the foam.
Where stormwater from rivers or drains discharges to the coast, sea foam formed could be polluted with viruses and other contaminants.
If crude oil discharged from tankers at sea, or motor oil, sewage and detergents from polluted stormwater are present, the resulting sea foam is even more persistent, and can get very yucky.
If the foam is the result of an algal bloom, direct contact with the foam, or inhalation nearby, can cause skin irritations or respiratory discomfort.
But perhaps the most overlooked danger of the foam is that it seems to trigger a desire to play. In humans, just as in dogs, it can engender a desire to run, jump, roll and cavort.
Which is why it is very important to heed this cautionary note from Graham Plumb, Section Manager, Public and Environmental Health at Ballina Shire Council: beware of what the foam may be hiding. ‘It can conceal obstacles, rocks and even snakes’, he says.
What to do?
Ballina Shire Council advises people to stay away from the foam, because, according to Mr Plumb, ‘It can be safe one week and unsafe the next. While the residents of Lennox Head are lucky because your water quality is generally quite good, as a general principle, we don’t recommend that people enter the foam.’
So, bad luck Basil and Bella (last month’s canine foam frolicker), and all those other playful people and dogs out there who can’t resist the temptation to dive in. It is time to go out and buy yourself some bubble bath!