Surfing Snail – The Amazing Real-Life Wonder

Today, I’d like to introduce you to the adrenaline junkies of the gastropod world: surfing snails. This is not an actual name of a snail. The term ‘surfing snail’ could apply to several different species. But they all do surf the waves, in a way.

If you’re intrigued, you will not believe what is about to come next.

Are Surfing Snails Real?

Yes, they are 100% real – and they 100% surf, too!

Well, actually, it’s more like sailing or zorbing, but we’ll get to that in a moment.

Lots of violet surfing snails

What is a Surfing Snail?

A surfing snail is a type of sea snail that uses its body, also known as the foot, as a sail. It quite literally surfs (or sails). Technically, it should be known as the “sailing snail,” but let’s not get picky.

Some types of surfing snail ‘surf’ on the surface of the water. Other surfing snails use their foot as a sail underwater, exploiting the currents of the tide, letting it guide them. Then, there are the gastropods that create their own rafts to hang from and surf on.

The gastropod world really is quite incredible!

Surfing Snail Species

There isn’t one single surfing or surfer sea snail species. In fact, the following are all known to surf the waves… in a fashion:  

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Finger Plough Snail (Bullia digitalis)

This snail uses its foot as a sail on the surface of the water and just below, letting a mixture of the tide and wind guide them to the beach. They do this to feed, attracted to the scent of decomposing animal matter (carrion).

plough snail

Smooth Plough Snail (Bullia rhodostoma)

These are said to be one of the best surfing snails, because of their lower center of gravity.

Dwarf Snail (Olivella semistriata)

This dwarf olive snail uses its foot to sail under the waves, and it ‘fishes’ for food, with a very clever dragnet made of mucus. As the tidal waves ebb and flow, the mucus net captures lots of pieces of organic material, which the snail then feeds on. Other Olivella snails adopt the same approach, including Olivella columellaris. This is known as suspension feeding.

Violet Snail (Janthina exigua)

surfing snail uses bubbles to surf

The violet snail (Janthina exigua) is described as a “bubble-rafting species” by National Geographic, and it also has the nickname bubble raft snail.

The female violet will create mucus masses for egg laying and protection, but they also use the bubbles as a flotation device, like bubble wrap. It’s a little bit like zorbing. Instead of being in the ball(s), however, the gastropod hangs from the surfer snail bubbles.

How Big Are Surfing Snails?

Most types of surfing snail grow up to 2 to 2.5 inches (5 to 6cm).

The finger plough snail can reach lengths of 2.5 inches (6cm).

The smooth plough, on the other hand, is a little smaller: between 1 and 2 inches (2.5 to 5cm). These are said to be slow-growing after the first year of life, with some taking more than a decade to reach not-quite full size.

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Violet Snail -Janthina exigua

Where Do Surfing Snails Live?

There are a few different species of surfing snails, and the different species live in different places. The finger plough, for example, is very common in South Africa, particularly the west, south-west, south, and lower-east coasts along Atlantic shores.

The smooth plough snail is also native to coastal South Africa, and the pleated plough can be found along South Africa’s east coast as well as the coast of Mozambique.

What Do Surfing Snails Eat?

The plough snail family are voracious and carnivorous feeders. The smooth plough, commonly found on the beaches of South Africa, like the siphonophore, man o’ war (Portuguese or Pacific, or ‘blue bottle’ – they are all the same species). You might know them as jellyfish, but scientifically, that’s not what they are.

Most surfing snails surf for food, exploiting the tidal waves and movement to surf up to the beach, catching microorganisms with makeshift nets, and feeding on dead marine life that ends up washed up on the beach. Anything meaty that ends up on the beach or in the shallows is prime pickings for this gastropod!