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Readers DO Know: Whale Burp (Surf Ball) History

Photo by Chris J. Benson.

Thanks, Dr. James Carlton, professor of marine sciences at Williams College, Mass., and director of Williams-Mystic (the Maritime Studies Program of Williams College and Mystic Seaport)!

Dr. Carlton wrote:

Your piece on "surf balls" in the February 2012 Seiche caught my eye.

Just a quick follow-up to your nice piece, of possible interest to your readers:

There's quite an extensive literature on this phenomenon in the U.S. and Europe (going back to at least the 1870s in Europe, and likely much earlier, and with some vernacular names said to go back to classical times).

As one might expect, they’ve been given many different names — lake balls, spill balls, sea balls, weed balls, buffalo balls — and with a good deal of early discussion on their mode of formation and their composition (of a wide variety of natural and anthropogenic materials). One worker in 1925 noted numerous older European names (globuli marinae, Zeeballen, meerballe, and so on).

The famous Canadian marine biologist A. G. Huntsman wrote a piece in Science in 1935 (noting some earlier literature) entitled "On the formation of lake balls." And a fun early story, from the 1890s and early 1900s, is the appearance of lake balls on the shores of Lake Michigan, in Little Traverse Bay, composed of hair from a nearby tannery! I don't yet have a copy of it, but there's a paper from 1971 that might refer to other "beach balls" in Minnesota (J.B. Moyle, About beach balls, Minnesota Volunteer, 38-41,1971

While much remains to be learned about these formations, there has been formal research on the formation of some types of balls, including experimental work in the 1970s in the Mediterranean, in part using simulations in washing machines!

Best, Jim

Thanks to Dr. Nancy Auer of Michigan Tech for providing our office with a reprint of "Importance of woody material in Great Lake aquatic food webs," Verh. Internat. Verein. Limnol. 30(8):12 1300. And thanks to those of you who have sent in photos of Great Lakes whale burbs.


By Sea Grant Staff
July 2012

Return to July 2012 Seiche



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