Australian Beach Sea Foam: Natures Protein Skimmer

Most of us have seen foam on a beach during a windy day, but residents in Australia recently had their town inundated with this stuff.  In the video, people can be seen wading neck-deep in a blanket of foam a few blocks from the beach.  Although playing in this foamy fun-house may sound like a fun idea, I doubt these kids realize that it is the waste product of many of the oceans’ organisms.  Parents take note, if there is five feet of weird looking and smelling foam floating down your streets, it might be a good idea to know what the heck it is before letting your kids romp in it like they are in the ball crawl!

Protein Skimmer

Protein Skimming on a Massive Scale

I would bet that many reef folks saw this video and made their eeeeeeewwwwwww face.   In the oceans, wind creates waves which create little bubbles in the water column.  As these bubbles rise, they drag many of the metabolic waste products of the ocean to the surface where they form white streaks of foam.  This foam ultimately gets transported out of the ocean system and onto the worlds beaches at the high tide line where the sun and other processes break it down.

Protein Skimming in the Reef Hobby

In the reef hobby, we spend hundreds or thousands of dollars trying to essentially  recreate natures foam process in order to clean the water in our tanks in a process called Protein Skimming.  Here is how it works.  We pump water and bubbles into a cylinder where they rise up.  At the top of the water, the cylinder continues up where the concentrated foam pushes up and ultimately overflows into a cup where it can be emptied weekly.  The amount and wetness of the foam is typically controlled by the height of the water in the column which can be controlled.   This process usually takes place underneath our tanks in a sump or basin so that the sight, sound, and oh yes smell of the concentrate don’t take away from the beauty of the reef tank.

It has been said that you are not considered a true reef keeper until you can tell the health of your tank by the smell of your protein skimmate.  Now I know I just got 2 reactions from those reading this, but hang with me for a sec.   The stuff that collects in the top of your cup is something like a wine in that many many things can go into what makes it smell a certain way.  Since you have to empty this thing weekly, whether you want to or not, you are going to get a whiff of it! I kid you not when I say that you can tell when bacteria are present in the skimmate or when your corals are starting to have health issues before you even see a change in how they look!