When something weird washes up on a beach, it’s rarely a big deal.
For the people that actually take time to clean up waterways, strange items are just part of the job.
“We’ve generally found lots of animal skulls, underwear, VHS tapes, car parts, jars of food, wallets, and kids’ toys,” says Kelly Offner, head of cleanups for United By Blue, an ocean conservation group and sustainable lifestyle brand. “Along different shorelines, volunteers have stumbled upon a (closed) hazmat container, a $30,000 check, and a message in a bottle.”
— Natalie 🏳️🌈 (@nat_bur) February 10, 2018
“This past weekend at the Jamaica Bay beaches, we found a traffic light,” says Maria McDonald, a cleanup operations assistant. “Also, way too many doll limbs.”
That’s…disturbing, but it’s not exactly the type of thing that makes the nightly news.
— Ronan Le Flécher (@BreizhWeCan) April 2, 2015
Occasionally, however, something big will wash up on shore—and in many cases, there’s not an easy explanation. We decided to look into a few of the strangest items (and creatures) to ever hit the shoreline.
1. Prehistoric Fish
Fish live in the ocean. Big deal, right?
It is when the fish in question is a 5-foot-long, lizard-like monstrosity whose fossil record goes back 200 million years. It is when that fish, which once swam from river spawning grounds to ocean homes in the quintuple-digit thousands, now numbers just 200 in New Jersey waters. And, yes, it is a big deal that a fish lives in the ocean when that extraordinary fish’s life ends on land.
Stephanie Hall was a New Jersey beachgoer who went jogging on Island Beach State Park in early 2018. She told the local CBS affiliate what happened during that fateful jog, just after she veered inland to avoid a sunbathing seal at the water’s edge.
“I came head-on with it at first. It looked like a huge lizard head,” Hall told CBS New York. “I froze in my tracks because I was not expecting something that big or that strange looking.”
The carcass was long and bony and covered in plates. Its face looked like something out of a bad science fiction film—maybe sci-fi/horror. Hall had stumbled upon the body of a deceased Atlantic sturgeon.
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I learned something new this morning: the bony-plated fish dead on the beach yesterday was an Atlantic sturgeon. A threatened species in Gulf of Maine. I love learning new things. When Anna first googled "fish with plates" it turned up a bunch of plates decorated with fish! #atlanticsturgeon #bonyplatedfish
You might know sturgeon from the luxury product that led to the animal’s overfishing: Caviar. Atlantic sturgeon eggs were once in great demand for a salty treat we may as well call the rich man’s Vegemite. Overfishing in U.S. waters got so bad that the species is now on the endangered list. No one’s been able to legally harvest an Atlantic sturgeon since 1998.
Still, nature takes its course. This particular beast must have gone to that great, unpolluted ocean in the sky, leaving its body to wash ashore. In New Jersey, no less. But if you think this is a creepy-looking dude, just wait until you see what washes up from waters further from home.
2. Weird Corpses of Sea Monsters
With sea creatures this terrifying, who needs Nessie?
Normally, when ocean animals breathe their last breath—or flap their gills for the last time, or however they respirate under water—they sink. Case closed. Carrion-feeders munch the meat, and microbes do the rest.
Every now and then, though, these poor departed sea monsters wash up on shore and into our nightmares. In an age of Instagram and Snapchat, our nightmares are getting to be pretty crowded.
Take this horror-show that hit the beach in Wales in 2018.
It looks like someone crossed a horse with a dragon. It looks like a dinosaur. Per Jurassic Park, could it be that life did, in fact, find a way?
“When you look at it the first time you may think it is a crocodile, but it is certainly not,” Dan Forman, PhD, a bioscience expert at Swansea University, told the BBC. “Its jawline suggests it is like a cetacean whale or a dolphin.”
He’s the doctor, but last we checked, dolphins didn’t have lizard tails.
If that’s not enough to keep you out of the ocean forever, consider this monster, which lodged itself on a bank of Indonesia’s Seram Island.
Locals figured it was an unlucky giant squid due to the curvature of its body. Not so, said the Indonesian Ministry of Marine Affairs and Fisheries in West Seram, in a statement reported by The Sun.
“With sperm whales, when they decay, the intestines will come out through the bottom of the throat, which is striped like a pumpkin, and they become curved,” the Ministry said.
Like so many mysterious hulks of the sea, this was once some sort of whale. During decomposition, bacteria produce gases within the bodies of these huge ocean creatures. That can dramatically alter the shape of the animal. If this process occurs onshore, these impromptu balloons of flesh can be tough to recognize in their distended state. They can also be terrifying. So much for sleeping in a seaside resort ever again.
3. Waxy Lumps of…Something
The beaches of North Yorkshire, England are known for their cool, sandy shorelines and beautiful Victorian getaways. Oh, and also random globs of waxy gunk.
This last feature didn’t show up until May 2017, and it hasn’t been a boon for tourism, to say the least. All along the North Yorkshire coast, from Cayton Bay to Sandsend, lumps of orange goo washed up onshore. They weren’t big—maybe the size of a fist, or a few fists at most—but there were lots of them.
The North Yorkshire Fire Service investigated the invasion, reported the BBC at the time. The firefighters concluded that this stuff was common, run-of-the-mill paraffin wax. The substance has a “low risk to humans, animals, and the environment,” Fire Service representatives told the BBC.
Okay…but where did it come from? For answers, we have to cross the English Channel to the site of a similar phenomenon on the beaches of Northern France. Environmentalist news site Mother Nature Network (MNN) reported on a paraffin wax influx there in July 2017.
Paraffin wax is a common manufacturing ingredient, MNN explained. This petroleum derivative finds its way into candles, crayons, cheese packaging, and even candy, just to name a few. Commercial ships carry vast loads of the stuff from shore to shore, and then they clean out their tanks on the water, reported MNN. The residue collects on the surface of the ocean and forms globs. The tide does the rest.
— KIMO Denmark (@KimoDenmark) August 22, 2017
“While the presence of paraffin wax on the coastline should not deter people visiting our beaches, we ask people to use common sense, not handle the substance, and also keep dogs and children away from it,” Scarborough Council director Nick Edwards told the BBC after the North Yorkshire wax attacks.
4. History’s Own Message in a Bottle
According to The Police (the band, not the civil servants), a message in a bottle is an “SOS to the world.” Well, Sting didn’t study his 19th-century oceanography very well, we’ve recently learned.
How do we know? In spring of 2018, an Australian woman found the oldest message in a bottle on record on a beach north of Perth. She diligently brought the find to the Western Australia Museum, who translated the 132-year-old slip of paper inside the equally ancient bottle. The faded note was written in German.
The contents of the note are a bit disappointing unless you’re a fan of ocean currents and trading routes. It was a form that listed a few choice bits of information: coordinates, the name of a ship that sailed in 1886 (the Paula), a date, and the ship’s intended port of call.
It turns out that this was one of thousands of bottled notes tossed overboard by German seafarers between 1864 and 1933, explained the Western Australia Museum in a press release. These bottles were part of a massive, decades-long experiment in tracking the ocean’s currents in the hopes of establishing better trade routes around the globe.
Investigators from the Western Australia Museum reached out to colleagues in Germany and the Netherlands. Researchers found what they were looking for in a German archive: The captain of the Paula‘s meteorological journal recorded a drift bottle tossed overboard on the exact date listed on the 132-year-old slip of paper. Even the handwriting matched.
In Sting’s defense, “I’ll send an experimental-drift-bottle-noting-our-coordinates-to-learn-more-about-ocean-currents-and-potential-trade-routes to the world” doesn’t fit the song’s meter quite as well as “SOS.”
Anyway, what can we learn from this message in a bottle, and from all the strange, wonderful, and horrific things that plant themselves into our sandy beaches when we’re not looking? Keep your eyes open when you walk along the beach. There’s a lot more than seashells waiting out there in the surf.