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Smell that smell? Pass-a-Grille Beach has decomposing ‘sea squirts’

The seafloor critters were likely swept off the floor of the Gulf of Mexico and washed ashore by powerful Hurricane Laura.

ST. PETE BEACH — Planning to unwind at Pass-a-Grille Beach this weekend? That might not pass the smell test.

Grey clusters of shellfish covered most of the sand Wednesday, confounding sunbathers. Some thought they were rocks. Others wondered if they could be part of a beach rehabilitation project.

Nope. Just seafloor critters — doomed critters, that is, that were likely washed onto the beach by the waves caused by Hurricane Laura. The Category 4 storm is churning through the Gulf of Mexico on its way to Louisiana and Texas.

Those animals will soon start decaying, said University of South Florida geology professor Ping Wang on Wednesday.

“In the next couple of days, the beaches will get stinked up pretty bad,” he said.

The critters are marine tunicates, or “sea squirts,” said Teresa Greely, a biological oceanographer at the University of South Florida. The animals form colonies and attach themselves to the seafloor or hard surfaces, like docks.

“Sea squirts range in size from 0.1 cm to 6 cm, and are often brightly colored with round, leathery bodies,” she said. “Two openings, called siphons, are located near the top of the animal. One siphon is used to bring water into the mouth, while the other pushes water out of the body.”

They can look like rocks when they are dried out, but they’re actually squishy.

Her student also saw them dotting Madeira Beach and St. Pete Beach on Wednesday.

A marine tunicate — or "sea squirt" — washed ashore at Madeira Beach on Aug. 26, 2020. [ Kate Koenig ]
Marine tunicates — or "sea squirts" — washed ashore at St. Pete Beach on Aug. 26, 2020. [ Kate Koenig ]

Florida is feeling few effects from Hurricane Laura. But the suddenly surfaced “sea squirts,” along with sand dollars, crabs and fighting conchs, may be one of them.

“These storms will generate long period swells,” Wang said. “Sometimes they tend to wash up sand, but in this they case washed up whatever is living off-shore.”

Whatever the case, Wang said it may be best to skip the beach for a few days — at least until the smell gets better, or someone pressures Pinellas County into cleaning it up:

“I’ve never seen it at Pass-a-Grille like this.”

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