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Large tree stumps and palmetto trunks can be seen on the beach at low tide
Hunting Island beach
at low tide
Suds like detergent bubbles come to beach on the surf
Sea Foam on the beach at Hunting Island State Park,
Beaufort County, SC

(Photograph by Angela Leaphart)
Sea Foam:
What Is It?

Dennis Adams
Information Services Coordinator


According to the Marshall Cavendish Encyclopedia of the Aquatic World, "foam on the surface of seawater is often produced by fungal plankton. This is usually mistaken for pollution."
Because they are difficult to collect, little is known much about these microscopic, single-celled organisms. What is certain is that sea foam is much more than suds on the beach: it breaks down dead or discarded organic matter in the seawater.

"Plankton" (Greek for "wandering") includes a wide variety of creatures that either float with the ocean currents or which, lacking the strength to swim on their own, must "go with the flow." These organisms range in size from microscopic bacterioplankton (about 0.000039 of an inch long) to the 3,000-pound ocean sunfish (11 feet long). Jellyfish are also a form of plankton.

The online Encyclopedia Americana said that fungal plankton lies outside of the two main categories of plankton, phytoplankton (plants) and zooplankton (animals). Plankton consisting of bacteria or fungi is neither a plant nor an animal, but a separate category known as protists.

More information on sea foam came from Amber Von Harten, Fisheries Specialist at the S.C. Sea Grant Extension Program (102 Beaufort Industrial Village, Suite 101, Beaufort; Telephone 843-470-3655, ext.112; E-mail: ambervh@CLEMSON.EDU; Website: Summing up a number of scholarly sources, she told me that "sea foam accumulated along the shoreline can be created by the action of waves breaking and trapping air on the surface of the wave to form bubbles. The bubbles become agitated by the wave action and produce a foam-like consistency."

These bubbles trap different particulate matter (that is, material consisting of minute, separate particles). The particles are made of both organic and inorganic substances. Scientists have identified the organic particles as proteins, carbohydrates and lipid (fatty and fat-like) materials.

What is the source of these particles? This depends on spatial factors (In which body of water is the material found?) and on temporal conditions (What time of the year is it?).

As for spatial factors, researchers F. J. Baerlocher, J. Gordon and R. J. Ireland (Journal of Experimental Marine Biology and Ecology, vol. 115, no. 2, 1988) found that sea foam in Canada is made up of carbohydrates, amino acids, proteins, and phenolics. Phenolics are substances containing a certain soluble acidic compound.

Time of year makes a big difference in our state. Two University of South Carolina professors, S. L. Harden and D. F. Williams (Estuaries, vol. 12, no. 1, 1989) studied the sea foam washing ashore at North Inlet, SC at different times of the year. In their paper, they found that the organic particles were composed of macroalgae in the colder months and phytoplankton in the warmer months. Macroalgae, as defined by the Australian Government Department of Environment and Heritage Web site, is "large algae, (such as) kelp."

Research (Wissmar and Simenstad, The Estuary as a Filter 1984) has shown that surface foams on the water can serve as "recycling centers" of nutrients. They are food reservoirs for organisms in estuary environments.

That is not to say that every thing in sea foam is pure and healthy. "Depending on the source of the sea foam," added Von Harten, "there could be the possibility that certain types of surface foam could carry pollutants, as has been shown in studies conducted on freshwater surface foams."

But David Day quoted in "Ocean Poems" on Mrs. Sinclair's Multiage Primary Classroom Web site wrote of the life force that surges in with each wave:

"The first horses were made of sea foam.
They rode their waves to the beaches
Then broke loose and dashed for the shore.
Wild horses, raging with pride-
Look how much of the untamed sea
Is within them still."


Volunteer application link   INFORMATION TIP:

Visit to learn more about the offerings of the South Carolina Sea Grant Extension Program (a joint outreach program of the Clemson University Extension Service and the S.C. Sea Grant Consortium), or call (843) 470-3655 (extension 112) in Beaufort. You may also e-mail Amber Von Harten, Fisheries Extension Specialist at .

The program applies science-based information to educate individuals, businesses, local and state government, and other organizations on the wise use and conservation of coastal and ocean resources. The extension program focuses its efforts in six main areas: Aquaculture, Coastal Hazards, Coastal Business & Economics, Coastal Environmental Quality, Coastal Communities & Development, and Marine Fisheries & Living Marine Resources.

Full Source Citations for Scientific Journals

• Harden, SL ; Williams, DF. Stable Carbon Isotopic Evidence for Sources of Particulate Organic Carbon Found in Sea Estuaries ESTUDO Vol. 12, No. 1, p 49-56, March 1989. 6 fig, 1 tab, 42 ref.

• Szekielda et al. 1972. Element enrichment in organic films and foam associated with aquatic frontal systems. Journal of Geophysical Research. 77: 5278-5282.

• Eisenreich et al. 1978. Enrichment of micronutrients, heavy metals, and chlorinated hydrocarbons in wind-generated lake foam. Environmental Science Technology. 12: 413-417.

• Pojasek and Zajicek. 1978. Surface microlayers and foams - Source and metal transport in aquatic systems. Water Resources. 12: 7-10.

• Wissmar and Simenstad. 1984. Surface foam chemistry and productivity in the Duckabush River estuary, Puget Sound, Washington, p. 331-348. In V.S. Kennedy (ed.), The Estuary as a Filter. Academic Press Inc., New York.

Special thanks to University of South Carolina Library and Information Science student Angela Leaphart for her assistance in developing this page.

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