Winds Blew "Whale Burps" onto Superior's Shore

Whale Burp. Photo by Chris J. Benson

Winter winds whipping around Duluth and Lake Superior can produce more than snowdrifts. They can also produce "whale burps." Also known as surf balls, these oval or round bundles of fibrous material periodically show up on coastlines throughout the world.

Curious beachcomber Glenn Maxham of Duluth brought two of these unusual balls into the Minnesota Sea Grant office for identification after his son found them near the city's Lakewalk following a November storm. Grasses, twigs, and partially degraded polymer mesh were evidently tumbling together in the shallows of Lake Superior to form Maxham's plum-sized "whale burps."

Oregon Sea Grant writes that although no formal research has been done on these aquatic oddities, theory suggests that as lost monofilament (or in this case, strands of black plastic) rolls about in nearshore waves, it gradually collects seaweed, pine needles, dune grass, small feathers, shell fragments, and other debris, forming a tight bristly ball. Scientists have found surf balls made of fine vegetative strands on Egyptian beaches and surf balls twice the size of a large orange on Australian shores.

Despite the curio-cabinet intrigue of finding a surf ball, discarded and lost plastics damage aquatic environments and the creatures that live therein. In a 2008 article in Environmental Research, Charles Moore of the Algalita Marine Research Foundation reported over 260 marine species ingest or have been entangled in plastic debris. When these plastics break down, research has shown they can release the suspected carcinogen styrene monomer and bisphenol A (BPA), which has been proven to interfere with reproduction. In 2006 the United Nations Environment Program estimated that 46,000 pieces of plastic float in every square mile of ocean and, as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predicted, much of this plastic swirls in the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre.

Sarah Erickson of the Great Lakes Aquarium reports that Minnesota volunteers picked thousands of plastic items from the Lake Superior watershed during the 2010 Beach Sweep. "About 33 percent of the items collected were plastics," said Erickson. "This does not include cigarette butts, which made up about 50 percent of all the material collected."

You don't have to wait for the 2011 Beach Sweep to find shoreline trash and treasures. Take advantage of the next wild, blustery day. Bundle up, grab a trash bag and as you are cleaning up shoreline litter, look for your own whale burp.

Posted on January 7, 2011


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