What Happens to Poop in the Ocean? What You Should Know

If you are a surfer or an avid beach goer, you may have wondered what happens to poop in the ocean. Whether it’s your own or someone else’s, poop is not something you want to encounter while riding the waves or swimming in the water. 

How does poop affect the ocean and its inhabitants? How does the ocean deal with fecal matter? How can you tell if your local beach is contaminated with fecal matter?

In this article, you will learn how poop decomposes, how it impacts the water quality and the marine life, and how you can protect yourself from exposure to fecal matter in the ocean. Keep reading to find out more.

The decomposition process of poop in the ocean

what happens to poop in the ocean

When fecal matter, whether from humans or animals, enters the ocean, it begins a process of decomposition and dilution. The ocean, vast and ever-moving, dilutes the fecal matter over time. However, the immediate area where the fecal matter enters can experience higher concentrations. 

Marine bacteria play a critical role in breaking down this waste. As they consume the organic matter in the feces, they convert it to other forms, such as carbon dioxide, water, and biomass. The presence of sunlight, salinity, and other factors also affect the decomposition process. 

Over time, the majority of the fecal material is rendered harmless, but if there’s a significant influx, like from untreated sewage, the local environment can suffer, potentially leading to oxygen-depleted zones or algal blooms.

Do surfers need to worry about poop in the water?

Surfers, as frequent ocean-goers, do need to be aware of the water quality in their chosen surf spots. While the vastness of the ocean often dilutes many contaminants, certain conditions can increase the risks. 

For instance, after heavy rainfall, urban runoff can carry a cocktail of pollutants—including fecal matter—from streets, storm drains, and overflowing sewage systems into the ocean. This runoff can cause local concentrations of contaminants, which may pose a health risk. 

Monitoring local water quality reports and being informed about recent rainfall can help surfers make safe decisions.

How can fecal contamination affect surfers?

Coming into contact with or ingesting water contaminated with fecal matter can have several health repercussions. The primary concerns stem from pathogenic organisms often found in feces. These can include bacteria like E. coli, viruses, and protozoa. When surfers swallow contaminated water or have open wounds exposed to it, they can contract illnesses like:

  • Gastroenteritis: This involves symptoms like stomach cramps, diarrhea, vomiting, and nausea. It’s often caused by bacteria or viruses found in fecal-contaminated water.
  • Skin Rashes: Skin can become irritated or infected after prolonged exposure to contaminated water. Conditions like “swimmer’s itch” are possible, which is a rash caused by an allergic reaction to tiny parasites.
  • Eye, Ear, and Throat Infections: Pathogens in the water can lead to infections in exposed areas, such as the eyes or ears.
  • Hepatitis: Some types of this liver disease can be contracted from water contaminated with fecal matter.

To be safe, rinse off with fresh water after a surf session, and if any symptoms manifest after exposure to ocean water, seek medical care.

How do I know if my local surf spot is contaminated with fecal matter?

Monitoring water quality is crucial for ensuring safe recreational activities in the ocean. Many coastal areas have water testing programs conducted by local health or environmental departments. These tests typically measure levels of indicator bacteria (like Enterococcus or E. coli) that suggest the presence of fecal contamination.

  • Websites & Apps: Often, water quality data is available on government or local municipality websites. Some regions even have dedicated apps or websites tailored to surfers, providing up-to-date water quality information for popular surf spots.
  • Beach Postings: If fecal bacteria levels exceed safe limits, authorities may post warning signs at the affected beaches. Always look out for these signs before entering the water.
  • Local News: Local media sometimes reports on water quality issues, especially after significant rain events known to impact water conditions.

How long should I wait to surf after it rains?

Rain can substantially affect coastal water quality. As rainwater flows over streets, rooftops, and through storm drains, it collects a myriad of pollutants, including motor oil, pesticides, trash, and yes, fecal matter. This cocktail then flows untreated into the ocean.

As a rule of thumb, many experts and health departments recommend waiting 48-72 hours after heavy rain before engaging in water activities like surfing. This waiting period allows time for the pollutants to disperse and dilute, reducing health risks. 

However, the exact time can vary based on local conditions, sewage infrastructure, and the volume of the rainfall. It’s always best to consult local advisories and rely on up-to-date water testing data.

Can marine animals get sick from human poop in the water?

Marine animals have evolved in their respective environments, so they’re generally more resilient to naturally occurring pathogens in the ocean. However, a significant influx of fecal matter, especially from untreated human sewage, can disrupt marine ecosystems.

For one, the bacteria breaking down the fecal matter can multiply rapidly, consuming a lot of oxygen in the process. This can create oxygen-depleted or “hypoxic” zones where most marine life struggles to survive. 

Secondly, the nutrients from the sewage can spur algal blooms. Some of these blooms produce toxins harmful to marine life, leading to large fish kills or poisoning marine mammals and other animals that feed on contaminated organisms.

Moreover, certain pathogens that are not naturally found in the ocean—those that come specifically from humans—can potentially affect marine life, though such instances are not as commonly documented as the direct impacts on humans.

In essence, while marine animals have some resilience, excessive pollution can gravely affect marine ecosystems, and, by extension, the animals that inhabit them.

Is it true that sewage sometimes gets dumped into the ocean?

Yes, it is unfortunately true that in various parts of the world, untreated or partially treated sewage is directly discharged into the ocean. This practice can have several reasons:

  • Insufficient Infrastructure: In some areas, especially in developing countries, there may be a lack of adequate sewage treatment facilities.
  • Sewage System Overflows: Even in developed nations with proper sewage treatment, heavy rainfall or infrastructure failures can lead to system overflows. This can result in untreated or partially treated sewage entering waterways and eventually reaching the ocean.
  • Illegal Dumping: Sometimes, ships or industries might illegally discharge waste into the ocean to save on the cost of proper disposal.

Releasing untreated sewage into the ocean poses severe risks to marine ecosystems and human health. It introduces harmful pathogens and nutrients that can disrupt the delicate balance of marine environments.

Does seawater naturally “clean” or “sanitize” fecal matter?

While seawater does have a diluting effect on contaminants, including fecal matter, it doesn’t necessarily sanitize or neutralize all the harmful components. Salinity and various marine microorganisms can aid in breaking down fecal matter over time. 

However, the pathogens, like bacteria and viruses present in feces, can survive for varying durations in the marine environment. Seawater’s natural cleaning ability largely depends on several factors:

  • Sunlight: Ultraviolet (UV) radiation from sunlight can kill or deactivate many pathogens. However, this process is not instantaneous and can vary based on the pathogen and water clarity.
  • Temperature: Warmer waters can sometimes promote faster microbial decay, but they can also boost the growth of harmful algal blooms when combined with excessive nutrients from sewage.
  • Marine Bacteria: The ocean’s native bacteria compete with pathogens for nutrients, sometimes inhibiting their growth or directly consuming them.

While the ocean has a remarkable capacity to heal itself and handle natural waste inputs, excessive or concentrated pollution overwhelms these natural processes, leading to environmental and health issues.

What are the health risks if I accidentally swallow seawater?

While swallowing a small amount of seawater is usually harmless, if the water is contaminated with high levels of fecal bacteria or other pollutants, there are potential health risks:

  • Digestive Issues: Bacteria, viruses, and parasites in contaminated water can cause symptoms like diarrhea, stomach cramps, and vomiting.
  • Respiratory Infections: Some pathogens or toxins in the water might lead to respiratory problems if ingested.
  • Neurological Effects: Harmful algal blooms, sometimes spurred by nutrient pollution, can produce toxins that, if ingested, might lead to neurological issues.

To reduce risks, always rinse your mouth with fresh water after a surf session, especially if you’ve swallowed seawater. If you feel unwell after exposure, consult a healthcare professional.

What are the signs to look out for which indicate the presence of fecal matter in the water?

While direct observation can give some hints, definitive knowledge about fecal contamination usually requires water testing. However, some general signs might suggest compromised water quality:

  • Murky Water: While many factors can cause water cloudiness, a sudden change in clarity after a rain event could indicate runoff pollution.
  • Strong Odors: Unusual or foul smells, especially those that are sewage-like, might be indicative of contamination.
  • Floating Debris: The presence of visible waste or debris, particularly after rainfall, can be a sign of polluted runoff.
  • Algal Blooms: An unusually high concentration of algae, often green or red, can indicate nutrient pollution, which may accompany fecal contamination.

Despite these signs, it’s crucial to rely on official water testing results to ensure the water’s safety, as many contamination events might be invisible to the naked eye.