An algae bloom stretching from the Olympic Peninsula in Washington state to the northern parts of Oregon has killed thousands of seabirds by stripping them of the natural oils that keep them waterproof. Without these oils, seabirds quickly get wet and succumb to hypothermia.

This is huge,” says Professor Julia Parrish, a marine biologist who leads a seabird monitoring group at the University of Washington. “It’s the largest mortality event of its kind on the West Coast that we know of.”

Similar mass-deaths have taken place along the coast of California before, but this is the first time it is reported from the states of Oregon and Washington. Also, as far as we know, the California die-offs affected hundreds of seabirds, not thousands.

The so called algae “bloom” consists of tiny single-celled algae of the species Akashiwo sanguinea.

Marine biologists have not been able to determine the reason for the sudden appearance of up to a million Akashiwo sanguinea cells per litre seawater, but recent storms in the area may have contributed to the severity of the problem by breaking up the algae.

When the algae get whipped, it turns into what can best be described as a bubbly soap which sticks to the seabirds.

It looks like they’re [the seabirds] lying in a sea of bubble bath,” said Greg Schirato, regional wildlife program manager for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.