Starstruck: A beach littered with stranded starfish is work of the winds, tide

Thousands of starfish stranded on the Isle of Palms beach over the weekend.

ISLE OF PALMS — Thousands of big reddish starfish washed up on the beach over the weekend. Children and adults braved icy ankle-deep water to toss them back.

The phenomenon is a little eerie when seen for the first time, but it happens a few times each winter on Lowcountry beaches. Usually it’s strong offshore winds pushing them onto the beach at high tide, leaving them stranded when the tide goes back out.

And wind gusts were coming in stronger than 20 mph over the weekend. Similar-strength winds stranded thousands of starfish on Fripp Island in late December.

On our sandy bottom, the stars have nowhere to cling to keep it from happening, said Mel Bell, S.C. Department of Natural Resources fisheries management director.

Diandra Dellucci, of Goose Creek, said some of stars she and her children picked up were clinging to shells or each other, and she could feel the tiny suction of the tube feet trying to cling.

It’s doesn’t signal calamity for the starfish population, Bell said.

“There are a lot of these animals out there and many more outside the immediate beach areas in slightly deeper water that are most likely doing just fine,” he said.

It can signal trouble, though. In 2011-12, when prolonged cold spells dropped water temperatures near the 40-degree mark, hundreds of thousands of menhaden and starfish washed ashore on Folly Beach, alarming biologists. At that temperature, mass die-offs can occur with any number of species, including shrimp.

But water temperatures currently remain in the low 50s, and as warm as 70 degrees farther out near the Gulf Stream.

The starfish washed ashore with horseshoe crabs and whelks, two other creatures that tend to strand. Bell identified them as common starfish, regularly found in Lowcountry waters.

Tossing back the starfish might have helped at least some of them survive, if they had not been stranded too long, Bell said. One way or another, a sprawl of stars made for a one-of-a-kind day at the beach for more than a few people.

“It was awesome,” said Dellucci, who had never seen so many starfish, much less starfish that big. “My daughter, and she’s 2 years old, went running into the icy water to throw them back.”

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