If you happen to be walking along the beach and come across tubular looking little sea creatures on the sand, there’s a good chance they are what’s known as sea pickles.
Despite the name, you probably don’t want to eat sea pickles. They are not part of Mother Nature’s cornucopia of edible sea life. Although sea pickles have been spotted in Malibu recently, don’t let that sour you on going to the beach. After all, when there’s a dill, there’s a wave.
Sea pickles are gelatinous organisms called pyrosomes and, while they are completely harmless, they are a curious site. They are semi-translucent and can be green in color or even orange.
Nate Jaros, curator of fish and invertebrates at the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach, explained to The Malibu Times a little more on the unusual sea life and why it may be washing up on area beaches.
“It’s not completely normal, but it does happen. It happened recently and it happens up and down the California coast sometimes,” Jaros said.
It’s important to note sea pickles are not to be confused with sea cucumbers. Jaros explained sea cucumbers are related to sea stars but with only one leg. Sea cucumbers crawl around the ocean floor—as opposed to sea pickles.
“These animals, pyrosomes, drift in the open water,” the biologist added. “It’s actually not an individual animal. It’s a group of colonial animals. There’s sometimes hundreds if not thousands of these individual little tunicates that group together on this cylindrical shape and drift through the ocean feeding on small plankton and bacteria.”
If you encounter these little critters on the sand, there’s nothing to be worried about. They won’t sting you.
“They’re completely harmless,” Jaros said. And despite their name, they are not edible. “If they’re on the beach, they’re likely to be dead. If you were to touch them they would feel really firm, but if you look closely you would see lots of little almost what look like sponges. Tunicates often resemble a sponge. They’re not in the same family, but they’re little filtering organisms. They just kind of move water through their body and they filter out the things that are edible for them,” Jaros elaborated.
Although finding sea pickles washed ashore may be a bit jarring, they can also be fascinating to look at.
“They are actually bioluminescent, which means they can create their own light,” Jaros added. “Our eyes wouldn’t be able to detect them, but in dark ocean waters they would glow. They can be really beautiful.”
The very day Jaros was interviewed for this article he related that he was out on a boat doing field work and encountered sea pickles.
“We came across a group of thousands of them at sea. Every few feet there were some as long as 15 to 18 inches. Currents, wind and swell are all just right. It can wash a lot of these drifting animals to the beach.”
Sea pickles do not occur seasonally—”They’re always out there. They generally live in deep water. They migrate in the water columns. They’ll come up in the surf at night to feed and then they drift back down to the depths. The phenomenon isn’t necessarily anything they’ve changed, it’s just the ocean conditions are just right to be washing them off to shore.”
While not slimy to the touch, Jaros called them “squishy.” He described them as “a simple organism—a hollow tube.”
“They do create a mucus,” Jaros added, but said sea pickles generally feel firm.
When asked about algae recently observed in the Malibu Lagoon and if those conditions contribute to sea pickles washing ashore, the biologist answered, “Not likely. They may follow algae patterns at sea, but are so simple they’re not going to be migrating towards anything in particular.
“It’s not surprising they’re washing up on shore,” he added. “They spend their whole life at sea. They go with the flow.”
The Malibu Times contacted Los Angeles County Beaches and Harbors to inquire about sea pickles. A spokeswoman emailed that while sea pickles were not an issue for them this week, its crews did report salps washing ashore. What’s a salp, you may ask? Well that’s a whole other kettle of fish.