Perhaps you have wondered what causes the patterns of strange coloured water in False Bay during the summer months. Perhaps you have dived in it, and wondered why sometimes you can’t see your hand in front of your face! Wonder no more – I am here to help.
Frequent visitors to and residents of the shores of False Bay will observe that at certain times of the year, the ocean is marked by bands and arcs of sharply contrasting coloured water. This phenomenon is known as a colour front. In oceanography, a front is the interface or boundary between two separate masses of water. In this case, the water masses are easy to discern, because they are of different colours. There are usually other characteristics of the water on each side of the front that differ, too. Fronts are either convergent (the water masses are moving towards each other) or divergent. The presence of marine debris (like pieces of kelp) at the front boundary suggests that it is convergent.
Causes of colour fronts in False Bay
Prior to 2005, there was much conjecture about the causes of these fronts (including the usual pollution bugbear), but little evidence to support any of the theories. By sampling, the fronts were found not to be caused by pollution, or by plankton blooms in the surf zone. It was known that a colour front was most likely to occur in False Bay after a period of southerly or south easterly wind lasting a few days. October and November seem to be prime months for the phenomenon.
When a large, obvious colour front arose near Simon’s Town in November 2005 with milky green water on one side, and darker blue-green water on the other, researchers from UCT and IMT sprang into action, sampling the water on each side of the boundary so that they could measure its characteristics. Speed is of the essence in these situations; colour fronts can disappear quickly. The one in the picture below is busy decaying – notice the smudged boundary.
Measurements revealed that the milky green water overlaid the clearer, bluer water, down to a depth of 11-12 metres (this will vary from front to front). The milky water did not extend to the ocean floor. Scuba divers around the Cape Peninsula will be familiar with the experience of diving through two or more layers of water, with varying turbidity (clarity) and temperature! (Here is picture of Tony and Christo diving near Oudekraal in the Atlantic that shows what the boundary between two layers of water can look like.)
The researchers found that the milky coloured greenish water was full of fine, almost neutrally buoyant particles of calcium-rich sediment. The green-blue water contained much less calcium, but relatively more silicon, which would suggest the presence of diatoms (a kind of phytoplankton – you can think of them as teeny tiny plant-like organisms) or sand in the water. The origins of the calcium-enriched sediment in the milky water are interesting: one source is from the shallows (less than 30 metres deep) of north western corner of False Bay, where the ocean floor is made up of rocks that are rich in calcium carbonate (such calcrete and limestone), some areas covered by a thin layer of sand.
The second probable origin for the particles of calcium-rich material is the interface between the sea and the land at the northern end of False Bay. The cliffs at Wolfgat/Swartklip at the head of the bay are made of calcrete, and at Swartklip the beach narrows to the extent that the cliffs erode directly into the water when the sea is high. Strong southerly winds create a wide (of the order of one kilometre) surf zone at Muizenberg and Strandfontein; a spring tide also adds to ideal conditions for the generation of a colour front.
The temperature of the milky water was found to be slightly (0.4 degrees Celcius) higher than the green-blue water. This measurement will also vary from front to front. The researchers speculate that the temperature difference could be because the milky water originated in the surf zone, which is shallower and therefore warmer, or because the high concentration of suspended particles in the milky water caused greater absorption of heat from the sun.
Here’s the tl;dr: strong southerly and/or south easterly winds, perhaps coupled with spring tide conditions, set up a very wide surf zone along the northern end of False Bay, which disturbs the sediment on the ocean bottom and drives the waves further up the beach than usual. Particles of buoyant calcium carbonate from the sea floor and eroded from the cliffs at Swartklip are lifted up into the water column, changing its colour to a milky-green shade. Wind-driven circulation patterns in the bay push the front from its original location in a southerly direction, towards Simon’s Town.
What to do?
Contrary to what your friends on social media may claim, not all colour changes in the ocean around Cape Town can be attributed to a giant sewerage plume. Hardly any of them can, in fact. In summer, the reason for the ocean looking green, red or even brown is likely to do with a plankton bloom of some description, or related to suspended sediments (as in this case) or other naturally arising material in the water. Instead of using this as an opportunity to become hysterical on the internet, how about celebrating the incredibly dynamic system that we can observe, living near the ocean? Drive up a mountain next to the ocean and take in the spectacle from on high. Dip your face in the water and see what it does to the viz. Take some pictures for posterity. And – if you don’t know what’s causing it – try to find and question someone who does know, like a scientist, or consult a good non-fiction book, to find out some facts.
If you’d like to read more about colour fronts in False Bay, take a look at this scientific paper (pdf), which I used as source material for most of this post. The paper is called A Prominent Colour Front in False Bay: Cross-frontal structure, composition and origin.