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Giant, blue bales washed up on California beaches. What are they?

Some unusual flotsam and jetsam — big bales of cotton and a few empty wine barrels — washed up on San Luis Obispo County shores over the weekend, drawing curiosity from beach-goers.

Social media postings about the odd items began showing up on Sunday. Observers reported seeing them as far north as the elephant seal rookery near San Simeon and as far south as Grover Beach.

Some of the bales were wrapped in heavy blue plastic, or, where the plastic has shredded off, they appeared to be wire-wrapped, densely packed cotton.

Officials from various agencies, including the U.S. Coast Guard and State Parks, confirmed Monday that they’d had reports about the ocean-borne trash.

Bales of cotton wrapped in blue plastic washed up on San Luis Obispo County shoes on Sunday, March 3, 2024, including at elephant sea beaches near San Simeon.
Bales of cotton wrapped in blue plastic washed up on San Luis Obispo County shoes on Sunday, March 3, 2024, including at elephant sea beaches near San Simeon.

One bale which came ashore about 100 feet from Cayucos Pier, “turned out to be a large bale of cotton, with ‘Cotton USA’ on it,” CHP Officer Efrem Moore said Monday afternoon by phone. He added that the investigation then determined that “it was on a lost load from a ship during the storms last November.”

Beyond that, “we don’t have a whole lot of info,” Eric Hjelstrom, a coastal superintendent of State Parks’ San Luis Obispo Coast District, said by email Monday morning.

What have officials found so far?

“We have some bales of cotton on state beaches. ... We have also received reports of empty wine barrels,” Hjelstrom said, adding that “we reported it to Coast Guard and county sheriff, and we are developing plans for removing the bales when and where we can. Some areas are still populated with (elephant) seals so we may hold off in those areas.”

Officials may have already removed one or more of the bales, including the one by the pier, according to online comments.

“It’s not uncommon for cargo to fall off ships in transit,” said Stuart MacDonald, a commander with the San Luis Obispo Sheriff’s Office.

Bales of cotton washed up on San Luis Obispo County shoes on Sunday, March 3, 2024, including at elephant sea beaches near San Simeon.
Bales of cotton washed up on San Luis Obispo County shoes on Sunday, March 3, 2024, including at elephant sea beaches near San Simeon.

“Remember the rubber duckies that landed on our shores?” he said, referring to an incident in 1992 in which 29,000 plastic yellow ducks, blue turtles and green frogs that washed ashore after a January storm. “Those were from a cargo container that fell off a ship.”

NPR dubbed that rubber-duck spill “Moby Ducks.”

“We’ve had incredibly stormy seas” lately, MacDonald said. “And that’s what beachcombing is all about, seeing what washes up. Once in a while, it’s illicit cargo, but oftentimes, it’s just treasures from the sea that found their way to the shore.”

Bales of cotton wrapped in blue plastic washed up on San Luis Obispo County shoes on Sunday, March 3, 2024, including at elephant sea beaches near San Simeon.
Bales of cotton wrapped in blue plastic washed up on San Luis Obispo County shoes on Sunday, March 3, 2024, including at elephant sea beaches near San Simeon.

While some people made the social-media leap into possible shipments of illegal drugs, harkening back to panga boat captures in the past, Hjelstom said, “we have not found any contraband at this point.”

Other commenters wrote that they believe in some instances, the cotton is batting around steel containers, Hjelstrom said, but “I am not aware of any steel boxes. The only thing my staff has encountered is bales of cotton wrapped in plastic and empty wine barrels.”