Tea-coloured water at Muizenberg

What causes the brown water at Muizenberg beach?

Capetonians are familiar with the tea-coloured water that runs in our mountain streams. Most people know that the brown colour comes from tannins, leached naturally from the indigenous fynbos vegetation. Perhaps less well known is the reason for the brown water that is sometimes seen in the surf zone along Muizenberg beach, stretching all the way to Strandfontein, Monwabisi and beyond.

Tea-coloured water at Muizenberg
Tea-coloured water at Muizenberg

The most frequent explanations that are offered on social media are, of course, pollution, “raw sewage”, and the like. This is not the reason for the brown water, and it does not necessarily impact the water’s safety or healthfulness for humans to swim in.

Like False Bay’s famous colour fronts, the reason for the brown waves at Muizenberg beach turns out to have much to do with the topography of False Bay, particularly of the kilometres-long beach at its head (Muizenberg-Strandfontein-Macassar-Monwabisi), and something called a diatom.

View of Muizenberg showing patches of brown water
View of Muizenberg showing patches of brown water

Diatoms

Diatoms are a type of phytoplankton (plant plankton or microalgae). They are single celled, usually symmetrically shaped organisms that multiply by dividing in half at a constant rate. Their cell walls are made of silica, SiO2. Chicken keepers and gardeners may be familiar with diatomaceous earth – this is made up of the fossilised shells of ancient diatoms.

Diatoms are what are called primary producers or autotrophs, meaning that they generate organic material from carbon dioxide and other inorganic nutrients (for example nitrates and phosphates), through the process of photosynthesis, which uses light as an energy source. Primary producers sit at the base of the food chain and all life relies on them, directly or indirectly. Everything else produces organic material from other organic material (such as diatoms).

I am telling you all about diatoms because the brown water at Muizenberg contains an accumulation of a diatom that you can call Anaulus australis Drebes et Schultz the first time you mention it, but usually just Anaulus australis, or Anaulus for short. There are several members of the genus Anaulus, but usually just one tends to be dominant at each beach where these accumulations occur, and Anaulus australis is the main species found along the South African coast.

Analaus are pillow-shaped diatoms. If you wanted to see what an individual Anaulus diatom looked like, you’d use a microscope, but when enough of them are in one place, they can be seen to change the colour of the water. There’s a picture of them under a microscope at the bottom of this webpage (they also occur in Brazil). They occur at beaches with particular topograhical characteristics, which explains why you haven’t seen them at Camps Bay, Kogel Bay, or Scarborough.

At hospitable beaches, the diatoms are always there, spending much of the time lying dormant in the sand behind the surf zone. A proportion of the diatom population is able to survive for relatively long periods (estimated to be more than two months) like this, in the dark on the seabed, not photosynthesising or dividing, until the correct meteorological conditions arise for an accumulation. But first – what sorts of beaches are hospitable to Anaulus?

Brown water in the surf zone at Muizenberg
Brown water in the surf zone at Muizenberg

Topographical conditions

There are five physical features of coasts that are prone to diatom accumulations. They are:

  1. a high-energy sandy – not rocky – shore
  2. a long beach, more than 4 kilometres in extent
  3. the presence of rip currents
  4. a surf zone at least 150 metres wide
  5. a nutrient source close to the surf zone (often an unconfined aquifer overlaid by a dune field)

Muizenberg and Strandfontein beach tick all these boxes. The beach stretches from Surfers Corner all the way across the top of False Bay to Monwabisi, a distance of over 20 kilometres. It is a high energy beach, meaning that it is exposed to large waves and strong winds, and is not protected by any offshore features such as sandbars or headlands that might reduce the force of the waves. Rip currents do occur at the beach, and both these and the exceptionally wide surf zone – wider during south easterly winds in summer – can be observed from the mountainside on Boyes Drive. (A rip current is like a hidden river flowing out to sea from the beach. The Sydney Morning Herald has an excellent visual explainer of rip currents here.)

The head of False Bay where Muizenberg is situated is incredibly nutrient-rich, much of it thanks to urbanisation. The canalised Zandvlei estuary – the only vaguely functional one on False Bay’s coast – is situated a short distance down the beach, and supplies nitrates, phosphates and other nutrients to the surf zone. Many of these nutrients are technically pollutants, added to the river further upstream. The Cape Flats Waste Water Treatment plant at Strandfontein also discharges 200 million litres of treated water per day (under normal, non-drought circumstances) via a canal onto Strandfontein beach. This is essentially an artificial estuary for Zeekoevlei. This waste water has spent some time working its way through the settlement ponds at Strandfontein, but is nevertheless rich in ammonia and other nutrients, and Anaulus accumulations are a very common sight in the surf around this discharge point. The dunes that run along Baden Powell drive overlay a high water table, and groundwater seepage – specially during times of heavy rainfall – may also leach nutrients out of the ground and into the surf zone.

Meteorological conditions

The meteorological conditions required for an Anaulus accumulation involve strong wind and a large swell. These act together to create rough sea conditions, which stir up the dormant diatoms from the ocean floor. The diatoms adhere to air bubbles in the surf zone, staying suspended in the water column, which is when you would notice the water turning brown. Exposed to light, they awaken from their dormant state and start to photosynthesise, take up nutrients, divide and multiply. The presence of rip currents creates an onshore-offshore flow all along the beach. This forms a semi-closed ecosystem, and the diatoms are essentially trapped in gyres in the waves. Longshore currents that run parallel to the beach transport Anaulus cells out of the surf zone at one end, and bring fresh (sea)water in at the other end of the beach.

It may seem surprising that anything manages to accumulate in the waves of a beach, but the surf zone is actually quite retentive, meaning that things that end up there often tend to stay there. (Incidentally, this is why it’s a terrible idea to discharge the byproduct of reverse osmosis seawater desalination –  a super-salty brine – into the surf zone. It must be discharged offshore so that it can disperse and mix with the surrounding water.)

Diatoms in the surf zone at Muizenberg
Diatoms in the surf zone at Muizenberg

You’ll notice that, contrary to what you may have seen when large amounts of plankton are under discussion, I’ve been using the word “accumulation” instead of “bloom” to talk about Anaulus. This is deliberate, because of the constant presence and constant rate of division of the diatoms. When the water goes brown, it doesn’t mean that Anaulus is suddenly multiplying faster than usual. It means that it’s all been gathered together in patches, is exposed to light and therefore photosynthesising (at its usual steady rate), and is thus more visible than it was when it was lying on the ocean floor.

Anaulus at Muizenberg in November 2017
Anaulus at Muizenberg in November 2017

The human factor

You may also be thinking that everything I’ve said about the nutrients that Anaulus requires to survive and thrive points to the fact that humans – and pollution – are ultimately responsible for these brown-water plankton accumulations at Muizenberg. Well yes, in a way. But accumulations of Anaulus australis and related species have been observed and documented for well over 100 years at suitable beaches around the world, and are a natural phenomenon.

Yes, we are providing more nutrients to the False Bay diatom population than they would otherwise have received without human settlement in the greater Cape Town area, but these accumulations would likely occur regardless. They are certainly more intense now than they would have been in the past, but estuaries are nutrient-rich locations even when not surrounded by a large city. Furthermore, the water table is high on the Cape Flats, which would supply nutrients to the surf zone regardless of whether humans lived nearby.

Anaulus is in fact performing a vital and useful function by mopping up the excess nutrients that the city discharges in the ocean. The mass of diatoms – primary producers – also provides a food source to bivalves such as mussels, and other invertebrates. We can be grateful that the excess nutrients that urbanisation directs towards the ocean at the head of False Bay leads only to accumulations of harmless diatoms, rather than to frequent occurrences of harmful algal blooms that can kill marine life and exacerbate respiratory problems in humans.

Muizenberg during a diatom aggregation
Muizenberg during a diatom aggregation

Sources

Most of the original scientific study on surf zone diatoms in South Africa was done by a group of researchers (primarily M Talbot, Eileen Campbell and Guy Bate) from the University of Port Elizabeth, working at the Sundays River Beach in the Eastern Cape. I did quite a bit of reading to research this post, but you can start with this paper for a description of the topographical characteristics of beaches where surf zone diatoms accumulate. The first few chapters of this Masters thesis also provide a good overall survey of what is known about surf zone diatoms.

Putting knowledge into practice

Not every instance of brown, foamy water at the beach will be an Anaulus accumulation. On the west coast of South Africa, for example, there are no beaches where Anaulus occurs, but you may see brownish foam that is the result of heavy wave action frothing up organic matter in the surf (nothing sinister – there is a lot of organic material in the ocean). A clue to help you distinguish diatom accumulations from other brown-water phenomena – apart from running through the checklist of required beach characteristics above – is that an Anaulus accumulation doesn’t stretch much beyond the back of the surf zone. If the brown water stretches beyond the furthest row of waves, it’s probably something else. (And this seems like an apposite time to remind you that sewage looks whitish-grey, not brown, when it’s pumped out into the ocean.)

The number of beaches worldwide where surf zone diatom accumulations occur is so small – less than 100 – that Odebrecht et al could enumerate them in a 2013 paper. I hope this helps to convince you that the brown water at Muizenberg beach (and beyond) is something special and interesting, not to be feared. Go surfing!

Published by

Clare

Lapsed mathematician, creator of order, formulator of hypotheses. Lover of the ocean, being outdoors, the bush, reading, photography, travelling (especially in Africa) and road trips.

4 thoughts on “What causes the brown water at Muizenberg beach?”

  1. What a great and informative read! Well written and I now have a better understanding of the “brown ” water of that stretch of beach. Thank you!!

  2. Interesting, but perhaps is a bit glib/overlooks the fact there is indeed sewage discharge there as well – overflow in water from the treatment plants – and that these treatment plants don’t deal with all the chemicals in our waste, and the latest I’ve heard, from scientific studies of fish there, is that a bio-accumulation of chemicals present in the sewage discharge is indeed occurring in marine life in False Bay.

    1. I’d love a link to the studies you refer to, please! As I mention in the piece, there is deliberate discharge of treated water from the Strandfontein plant, which is high in ammonia (and likely some other nasties). This obviously has an impact on local biodiversity, but it also feeds the diatoms, which feed everything else so the effects are mixed. I am hoping we’ll see a move towards recycling of sewage waste for drinking water, once the city decides to focus on water security instead of their internal political issues. This will reduce the outflow into False Bay, which would leave us with the polluted Zandvlei estuary to tackle!

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