Like root beer spilled on the sand, brown froth slurps ashore. Surfers wrinkle their noses in disgust as they try to avoid paddling into the smelly slime. Some swimmers emerge from the ocean to find their skin coated with an itchy, burning film.
Ocean scum is nothing new--mysterious gunk has occasionally slicked the waters off Orange County for years.
Ever since a sewage spill closed a popular beach for a week in January and the American Trader tanker spewed crude oil three weeks later, Orange County beach-goers are nervous about their shoreline. They are eyeing the water more cautiously and increasingly reporting slicks to authorities.
“Lately, we’ve seen what we call oil-spill paranoia,” said Huntington Beach marine safety Capt. Bill Richardson, who has been working the city’s beaches for 28 years. “But some of it is justified. It’s not just more awareness by people. It’s more stuff happening to the ocean. The more people you’ve got in Orange County, the more effluent you have.”
The stuff can be red, brown, white or yellow--a virtual rainbow of crud. And it comes in many forms--foamy, slimy, stringy, oily. Sometimes, it smells like dead fish or rotten eggs, while other times, it has the rich, unmistakable odor of petroleum.
Much of the slime is actually a creation of nature itself--rotting plankton can leave slicks so thick it smothers fish. And off Huntington Beach, natural oil deposits and tar balls--sometimes jostled loose from deep beneath the sea floor after earthquakes--are the largest sources of oil in the water.
But the ocean also serves as Orange County’s trash bin because the sources of man-made pollution are so numerous--oil spills, sewage leaks, toxic dumping, ship bilge and debris from urban streets.
Health officials say most of it is harmless, including a white foam that has been unusually prevalent on Southland beaches this summer. But ocean scum can contain varying degrees of toxicity and some--either natural or manufactured--can cause allergic reactions.
“There is an increased sensitivity about water pollution,” said Mike Wehner, water-quality manager at Orange County’s environmental health department. “People look at the ocean and think it looks differently than anything they’ve seen before, when in actuality it’s not. They’ve just never really looked before.”
Linda Moulton-Patterson and her husband walk a mile or so along the beach from their Huntington Beach home to the city pier each morning. Every couple of weeks, they notice some type of strange film on the water and usually report it to city officials.
“The public has an obligation to be aware of these things,” she said. “We’re not out there looking for problems. We’re not alarmist. But we see brown foam at times, and it’s disturbing to us. Everyone has a new, heightened awareness because of the oil spill.”
Huntington Beach marine-safety officers, who patrol 3 1/4 miles of city beach, said they get reports of ocean gunk almost monthly, much more frequently than before the American Trader slicked the ocean with nearly 400,000 gallons of crude oil on Feb. 7.
“More people than ever recreate in the oceans, and they won’t put up with (pollution) any more,” said David Skelly, water-quality director for the Surfrider Foundation, an environmental group in Huntington Beach.
Because some of Southern California’s coastal waters, such as Newport Harbor and Santa Monica Bay, are highly polluted, some people are becoming afraid to swim, Skelly said.
“I’ve talked to lifeguards who don’t even want to go in the water sometimes,” he said. “They’re tired of chronic eye irritation and sinus infections. That’s not from sea water--at least not clean sea water.”
Most of the froth and slime in the waters off Orange County is not man-made pollution, but decaying kelp. The most common variety is red tide, a warm-water phenomenon when plankton blooms and dies, leaving reddish-brown slicks.
“It leaves like a bathtub ring on the sand,” Richardson said. “Right after the February oil spill, we had bands of brownish striation on the beaches. People thought it was oil. But it wasn’t. It smells like cod liver oil. A fishy smell.”
Swimming in red tide, which usually occurs from May through October, can cause skin irritation and possibly sinus infections. The reports of symptoms are sporadic, and county health officials are uncertain how widespread they are because most go unreported.
Sometimes, the floating stuff remains a mystery.
Officials have been puzzled this summer by a proliferation of white foam in the ocean. The strange froth has been sighted off much of the coast of Orange, San Diego and Los Angeles counties.
“It was all over our beach. I’ve seen that stuff before, but usually after storms. This was unusual in the duration of it, and because there were no windblown waves,” said Gordon Reed, a Newport Beach marine safety officer.
Marine biologists say the foam is harmless and natural in origin. It is from large amounts of kelp decomposing in unusually warm water.
“Kelp beds start to disintegrate, and make an emulsifier. It’s the same substance that puts the foam on your beer,” said Jim Stewart, diving officer and a marine botanist at Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla. “We’ve never had it like this before, because we have a heck of a lot of kelp along the coast now, and there’s been a warm-water mass. It starts to decompose.”
Bacteria counts taken weekly from San Clemente to Seal Beach have been normal, which means it isn’t sewage, Wehner said. And it is scattered all over, in areas such as Laguna Beach, far from channels and rivers that are the usual source of chemicals spilled by industries.
Over the Labor Day weekend, some divers reported skin irritation, possibly from an allergic reaction to organisms in the foam or jellyfish stingers buried in it, Wehner said.
“We have a lot of kids playing with it, like it’s bubbles, and parents ask us what it is. To our knowledge, it’s nontoxic,” said Steve Cushman, senior beach supervisor in Seal Beach.
Occasionally, plankton blooms are thick enough to cast a green glow on the water at night. In 1974, red tide was so severe that it suffocated fish in Huntington Harbour.
“Red tide is slimy and sticky and grosses people out. You can see why it bothers people. But it’s not contaminated,” Wehner said. “People are convinced it’s sewage, but it’s not.”
But there are sewage spills in Orange County and they are the most serious health hazard for ocean swimmers. Sewage can cause flu-like gastrointestinal illnesses and even severe diseases such as hepatitis.
County health officials are quick to close beaches after sewage spills, keeping them shut until repeated tests show normal bacteria counts.
Laguna Beach and Doheny Beach have suffered a rash of small to medium raw sewage spills at plants that have forced beach closures over the past few years. And in January, Huntington State Beach was closed to swimming for a week because of a large spill--about 250,000 gallons of raw sewage--from an Orange County Sanitation Districts plant.
Ocean slicks also come from drainage that flows off streets and yards and collects in flood-control channels and rivers, which empty into the ocean. Especially after rain, the ocean can be turned into a big garbage dump, because the runoff can contain everything thrown in the streets--paint, motor oil, pesticides, animal feces.
The area most prone to this debris is Seal Beach, at the mouth of the San Gabriel River, which flows through industrial areas of Los Angeles before emptying onto the popular beach. A few times over the past several years a mystery chemical or oil has flowed down from upstream refineries and industries, and the city closed the beach as a precaution.
“We have everything from carcasses to Christmas trees to garbage cans wash up on our beach. Even dead bodies. All sorts of things,” said Cushman of Seal Beach.
“It’s traditional. During Christmastime people toss their trees over a fence and they make their way down the river. Next thing you know, we have a dozen Christmas trees on our beach.”
Runoff also flows onto the beach from the Santa Ana River and adjacent channels at the Newport Beach-Huntington Beach border.
Boats and ships dumping sewage also are responsible for pollution.
“People pump their boats out once they leave the harbors and get in the open ocean,” Skelly said. “It’s against the law, but you can’t follow every boat out to sea.”
Crude oil is probably the most easily recognizable pollutant. It leaves telltale signs--a rainbow sheen on the water, chocolate mousse-like froth in the tidal zone and a rich petroleum aroma. And it can’t be hidden--a few gallons can spread over a large stretch of ocean.
In addition to the February oil spill--which was the largest in Southern California in 21 years--two minor petroleum accidents polluted the ocean off Huntington Beach this year, both apparently from offshore platforms, Richardson said.
But experts say natural seeps are the largest source of oil in the water. The ocean floor off Huntington Beach contains large reserves of crude.
“There’s been an increase in reporting of what people believe is oil on the beach. But tar balls are not new in the Huntington Beach area,” Richardson said. “We have a great amount of oil underneath our feet here, and some of it seeps to the surface now and then.”
SOURCES OF OCEAN SLIME
Orange County health officials and local marine safety officials urge anyone seeing strange substances in the ocean to notify city or state lifeguards. Here are some sources of the pollution:
PLANKTON. Usually during warm currents, plankton create reddish-brown streaks called red tide. Often confused with oil, but it doesn’t feel or smell like petroleum. It smells like rotting fish. Some swimmers suffer skin irritation and possibly sinus infections. This summer, the ocean off Orange and Los Angeles counties has been plagued by white foam that officials believe is a colorless form of plankton.
RUNOFF. Rivers and flood-control channels empty into the ocean. Storm runoff--containing anything dumped in streets such as pesticides, motor oil and dead animals--flows into these channels and then the ocean, especially after rain. Most prone is Seal Beach, the mouth of the San Gabriel River, and beaches at the mouth of the Santa Ana River.
OIL. Usually easy to identify by its strong petroleum smell. Causes a brown, mousse-like film and black tar balls on beaches. Oil can spill from ships and drilling platforms, or seep naturally from the ocean floor, especially after offshore earthquakes.
SEWAGE. Can cause flu-like stomach symptoms, or more serious diseases. Raw sewage spills into the ocean from occasional malfunctions at treatment plants. Orange County beaches are sampled weekly for coliform bacteria, a sign of sewage, and they are closed to swimming when it exceeds a certain amount.
SHIPS. Boats and barges often dump their bilge water and sewage into the ocean. That violates federal law, but officials rarely catch them.