If you live in a coastal region or have ever spent time in such areas, you may be familiar with the foaming ocean phenomenon. The ocean is dynamic and chaotic, and this brings many wonders, such as a frothy foam that is created from the churning of organic matter by the ocean’s tides, waves, and currents.

Ocean foam, also known as beach foam or spume, can be caused by a variety of factors, both natural, as well as human-induced. Let’s take a look at how foaming oceans occur, their ecological impacts, and what threats they may pose.

What is Ocean Foam?

When we speak of sea or ocean foam, we refer to the accumulation of bubbles and froth that forms on the ocean’s surface.

Ocean foam can be found in a variety of shapes, sizes, and colors. For example, depending on its composition, the foam can be colored from white to dark brown. Seafoam can be found in small patches only a few inches thick or extending over large areas where it can reach more than a foot high.

A foaming ocean can be caused by both natural and human-induced activities
A foaming ocean can be caused by both natural and human-induced activities

What Causes a Foaming Ocean?

Ocean foam is caused by turbulence or movement in the water and a high presence of decomposing organic matter.

These two components can be introduced by a variety of means, some of which include:

  1. Organic Matter: When organic matter such as plankton and algae die and decompose, they release proteins known as surfactant proteins. These proteins have the ability to reduce the surface tension of the water, thus allowing for air with the water up and creating bubbles.
  2. Pollution: Similarly to how plankton and algae create ocean foam, pollution that is allowed to drain into the ocean, particularly sewage discharge or runoff oil or petrol from roads, can further reduce the water surface tension and create a foaming ocean.
  3. Waves: Waves that crash against rocks, shorelines, or other hard surfaces, such as a harbor wall, create a lot of turbulence in the water. This mixes up the organic matter, which causes foam. This is much the same as how you foam up a bubble bath.
  4. Wind: Just as strong winds can influence waves as they disturb the surface of the ocean, so can these winds churn up the water enough to create froth.
  5. Currents: When two currents meet, they interact in a variety of ways. In some cases, turbulence is created, which can cause foam, as well as waves. When a fast current meets a slower one, it can cause an uprising of nutrient-rich water from deeper down. This nutrient-rich water could contribute to the organic matter in the foam.

Other causes of foam in the ocean include white caps, which are formed by breaking waves that release air bubbles, as well as dissolved gas, such as methane, that rises from the ocean floor.

The Ecology of Ocean Foam

Seafoam has a variety of ecological impacts, some of which benefit its immediate environment and others that have a more negative effect.


Although ocean foam habitats are unstable and, therefore, short-lived, they still play a major role in creating a habitat for a variety of life, such as prokaryotic microorganisms, small eukaryotic phototrophic cells, and SAS (surface-active substances).

Ocean foam creates a refuge for small invertebrates where they can avoid prey. This, in turn, attracts larger predators, and so the cycle continues.

Furthermore, sea foam has been found to stimulate the growth of algae and plant life as it provides nutrients and a growing substrate.

Ocean foam can create a habitat and food source for ocean animals
Ocean foam can create a habitat and food source for ocean animals

Transport System

As mentioned before, sea foam is high in nutrients, and as it is moved with the tides, winds, waves, and ocean currents, its ability to move from one location to another is high.

Ocean foam that becomes trapped in coastal areas can bring new nutrients to the area both in the foam, as well as when the organic material begins to settle on the ocean floor.

Along with nutrients, microorganisms can be transported either via ocean movements or by being lifted by the wind. When these organisms find themselves in a new environment, they create the possibility of a new ecosystem forming.

Food Source

As nutrients are abundantly transported through ocean foam, small animals such as krill make their homes in sea foam, which naturally attract larger predators.

Larger animals such as sea birds, fish, and in some cases, seals can be spotted feeding on or consuming sea foam.

That said, not all sea foam is beneficial, and in some cases can be toxic to both humans and aquatic life.

Hazards Related to Ocean Foam

Naturally occurring ocean foam is not generally dangerous and in most cases, has many positives to bring to its natural environment. That said, there are times when this foam becomes toxic.

When ocean foam is exposed to high concentrations of contaminants such as algal blooms, fossil fuels, stormwater runoff, or sewage, it can become hazardous to both humans and ocean life.

Large algal blooms are another concern with ocean foam. When large quantities of specific algae are mixed up in ocean foam, they release toxins into the air that have been related to asthma and other respiratory issues.

Similar to algal blooms, large areas of ocean foam that remain for prolonged periods of time can cause the life beneath the surface to suffocate from a lack of oxygen and or sunlight. This can lead to the mass destruction of habitats.

Ocean foam can become toxic with large algal blooms and city runoff
Ocean foam can become toxic with large algal blooms and city runoff


How does climate change affect foaming oceans?

Ocean foam is not directly linked to climate change. However, changes in ocean temperature and environments can impact the frequency and distribution of foam in the ocean. More regularly occurring storms and ocean turbulence can increase the amount of foam in the ocean, which could lead to both positive and negative effects.

Is ocean foam safe to swim in?

If ocean foam is naturally occurring and formed away from sewage outlets and toxic city runoff, it should be safe to swim in. That said, if the foam has a high concentration of algae, appears to be a darker brown, or has a bad smell, it’s best to stay clear.

Where can ocean foam be found?

Ocean foam is most common along shorelines where water is more turbulent, waves are larger, and there are hard surfaces for the moving water to crash and mix against. That said, ocean foam can be found offshore, especially after large storms that produce heavy winds and large swells.

Is ocean foam whale sperm?

Although it’s a surprisingly common belief, ocean foam is not made from whale sperm. Although some whales do release a substance known as spermaceti, which has a variety of human use, however, this is different from sperm, nor does it contribute to a foaming ocean.

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