Is there anything better than the moment at the beginning of a beach vacation when you smell your first sea smell? That cold, salty and slightly sulphurous air is almost better than the first sight of the sea and is often one of the main scents of candles and air fresheners.
But what makes the sea smell like the sea or the seafood taste like seafood? This author once ran a gourmet cheese shop, and his report is that he smelled the sea every time he brought out the most mature cheeses. Why is that?
It turns out that there are several chemicals, abundant in marine life and processes, that give saltwater environments their characteristic odor.
Dimethyl sulfide, or DMS, is the classic sulfur smell of the sea, and it is produced a lot of by the species of bacteria that eat phytoplankton. These tiny anchors in the marine food web are essentially plants that use photosynthesis to extract energy from the sun.
DMS comes from the self-generated sunscreen of plankton, which after its death is converted into DMS gases by the bacteria that eat it. One the article points out that seabirds follow the scent of the DMS to locate hunting areas, as the marine food web begins with plankton, which are eaten by tiny fish, which are eaten by larger fish, which are then eaten by seabirds for lunch.
In addition to being produced by bacteria that eat cheese proteins, dimethyl sulfides are also quite pungent in the air of coastal marshes and tidal wetlands. This, instead of plankton, is due to various species of salt marsh cordgrass. Plankton may be absent in one area of the ocean, but the salt marsh is teeming with cordgrass species, and this is one of the reasons why the California coastal marshes smell much more of the sea than the shoreline.
Another compound of the food web that gives smell to the sea are bromophenols. This chemical is often described as having a fishy odor and, in high concentrations, it can smell like iodine. It’s also likely to add a lot of iconic flavor to fresh crustaceans, fresh fish, or the best oysters.
Acquired through the diet of these animals, often by eating sea worms, other bottom feeders, or fish eggs, bromophenols are added to farm-raised fish to try and give it the most identifiable taste of the ocean.
Finally, a chemical produced in the eggs of seaweed species was found to have a very strong “beach smell” and was the calling card for seaweed sperm. When isolated it smells strongly of algae, as you would expect, and if you are relaxing on a beach where a lot of algae and algae have been washed, you could be smelling the pheromones of the plant.
The three together, along with a few others, are likely to account for the distinctive and unmistakable scent of a day at the beach.
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