OCEAN CITY — The hundreds of eerie-looking globs that washed up along the shoreline in the Sinepuxent Bay over the weekend have been identified as naturally occurring organisms called fig sponges, which likely perished during Hurricane Irene and washed to the surface from their natural home on the bottom.
Late last week, the weird globs of organic, and smelly for that matter, material began washing up along the water’s edge on both sides of the Sinepuxent Bay. The globs, spotted by residents along the waterfront, were not easily identified at first and resembled anything from solid sewage to waterlogged animal waste to something from a low-rated horror film.
Resident Alex Shandrowski first noticed dozens of the blobs floating in the water along the shoreline of his property in South Point last Friday, and upon further inspection found more of the odd globs in and around the public boat ramp in the area and beyond. Shandrowski said he first thought the globs might have come from a sewer leak or perhaps an oil spill.
“There were these weird, bladdery things all over the shoreline,” he said. “There were dozens of them and the smallest were about the size of an orange and the largest were about the size of a football.”
Shandrowski said he poked one of the organisms with his finger to determine its texture and make-up, a decision he later regretted.
“I made the mistake of poking one of them with my finger to see what the texture was like and it took me a whole day of scrubbing with bleach to get the smell off,” he said. “I’ve lived here for several years and I’ve never seen anything like it.”
Pictures of the strange globs were submitted to the Maryland Coastal Bays Program for further investigation and it turned out this week the strange globs were actually fig sponges, or suberites ficus, which naturally occur in the ocean and in the brackish estuaries and bays.
Coastal Bays Science Officer Dr. Roman Jesien identified the strange globs as fig sponges. Jesien said he had personally seen the dead fig sponges floating in the bay in different locations and had also heard some second-hand reports of their presence.
“It seems they washed up after Irene and the only place I have seen them, or heard of their occurrence, is in Sinepuxent Bay,” he said. “I have seen them along the shoreline on the mainland side of Assateague and near our canoe rental stand at the national park.”
A little research revealed fig sponges are prevalent along the Atlantic coastline and grow up to 30-40 centimeters across. They encrust or attach themselves to rocky bottom substructures such as piers and dock pilings, wrecks and other natural or artificial reef material. They also often attach themselves to living shellfish such as scallops, for example.
Jesien speculated the turbulent wave action caused last week by Hurricane Irene or other natural causes might have triggered a large kill and caused the fig sponges to float to the surface and wash up along the shoreline in the coastal bays.
“I don’t know why they died,” he said. “They are encrusting organisms and perhaps the change in salinity and tumbling in the waves from Irene caused their demise.”