In a year that brought so much anguish, tens of thousands of Twitter users considered the fleeting thought of being a birthday cake set free into the sea. "Oh to be a sheet cake floating on the ocean in the sunshine," read a viral tweet from March that included a lo-fi image of exactly that: a cake piped with blue frosting and roses that hovered in the water's crest, bathed in bright light. The tweet has earned over 120,000 likes to date.
Photos of cakes in the ocean have circulated on Twitter, Tumblr, and Instagram for years. In 2015, for example, a similar image of a cake—though more destroyed, with the ocean's spray having swept some of the frosting—was a hit on the Gender of the Day Tumblr. Another Tumblr user once pointed out the absurdity that a picture of a cake in the ocean could earn over 5,000 notes on the platform. It's hard to pin down every usage, but the ocean cake is out there.
In its many uses, the ocean cake's appeal is that it's nonsensical, bizarre, even off-putting—and yet, inexplicably relatable too. As my colleague Gita Jackson wrote this summer, "The distillation of complex feelings into more easily digestible images [is] something the internet is very, very good at." As an unexplained curiosity, the cakes floating in the ocean become a canvas onto which viewers project their own feelings or the meme of the moment.
But these cakes, lost at sea, are no coincidence: They're part of a yearly series by Florida-based artist Sierra Grace, who's known on Instagram as @lushsuburb. Despite common references to DNCE's chart-topping "Cake by the Ocean," Sierra Grace is clear that the two are unrelated; she photographed the first cake in January 2015, and the song wasn't released until that September. She told VICE how the ocean cakes became a personal tradition, how they went from Tumblr to all over the internet, and how in all years but especially this one, the cakes capture the weird feelings sloshing around inside us.
VICE: When did you start taking pictures of cakes in the ocean and why?
Sierra Grace: I began doing ocean cake five years ago in January of 2015. Tumblr had been my favorite website for years, and I was running a pretty popular blog that I updated often with my images. It was also when "aesthetic" was like, a super important thing to people on the internet, and it was normally the word used most to describe my work—so I guess the idea of how the internet reacts to the way an image looks had been on my mind.
I live in South Florida, so I’m always near the water, especially on my birthdays. I often hold things out in front of my iPhone and photograph them, and I was doing that (strenuously) with my birthday cake. Through the lens, I saw the cake and the backdrop of the ocean behind it, and the whole idea hit me hard. Intuitively I knew it would be viral content. It was also sort of a test, to see if the internet would eat it up, too.
The process developed a much deeper sense of meaning the moment after I released my first cake. On that day, every single action felt guided and intentional as I recorded it drifting away. I felt an immense relief, like there was a great release of the year’s troubles and energies. After the experience, I realized my personal intentions for the series more clearly.
How often do you take new pictures of cakes in the ocean and how do you choose the cakes?
I only take pictures of ocean cake once a year on my birthday (January 5th). I set them free on the beaches of Hollywood, Florida because that’s the city where I was born. It doesn’t hurt that it has one of the most gorgeous beaches in the world, either.
All the ocean cakes are my actual birthday cake, so they have a deeper meaning as an offering than just a regular cake would have. I would never disrespect the process by doing it too often or too casually. I’m also really into numerology and what each year’s numbers/themes hold for the world and me personally. My birthday is always right after the new year, so doing ocean cake is also a gesture to indicate the passing of time, letting go of guilt, what does not serve you, and welcoming the new lessons of the next year.
I buy my cakes at Publix, a popular Florida grocery store. To me, it’s all about what the cake looks like, and they decorate cakes the best. I am most attracted to the round, white cakes with pastel rose borders. They always have to have roses. Each year, I have a different idea of how I want to do it; however, the cakes always end up having their own personalities and unique situations when in the ocean.
How did these pictures get so popular online?
The first ocean cake I posted was on Tumblr, and the community had an almost fanatical reaction to it. I photographed it with a half-broken iPhone and the photos looked super hazy and lo-fi. Maybe that’s what helped contribute to the image’s popularity, I’m not sure, but it is certainly one of my more mysterious and forlorn-looking ocean cakes.
Each year, the series has gotten more and more online attention. I think the uniqueness of the image really contributes to its shareability. I only use Instagram and Tumblr to post my images, but I noticed they get reposted a lot on sites that I don’t use, like Twitter. Normally my friends will see when people repost it and let me know. It’ll often be on some random mood board-esque blog with like 60k followers and no credit. It can be annoying and used to give me a lot of anxiety, but I get why it happens. With that said, I don’t think it matters who reposts ocean cake or how popular their blog is. No matter where it exists online, it always generates reactions.
2020’s definitely went the most viral, probably because everyone’s been glued to their screens this year more than normal. It could also be because it’s the first sheet cake I’ve ever used; I normally pick round ones, but I thought the sheet cake might float longer and I wanted to try something new.
Why do you think these images resonate with people, especially in 2020?
The depiction of a cake floating off into the ocean seems to be a "mood" for people, especially this year. Everything has been so topsy turvy and ocean cake is a pretty absurd scene—everyone is just really about it right now. It’s kind of like a 'blursed' image, both blessed and cursed, and so it causes a bunch of different reactions.
People tend to personify the ocean cakes, and insert their own stories and feelings onto them, like where are they going? What are they planning? What are they thinking? The cakes make people feel emotional, hopeful, angry, confused, happy, sad. Some are genuinely appalled. The series is partly serious, but it’s also very humorous, so there’s a lot of room for making jokes and memes out of it. Not everyone likes it though; ocean cake has haters too.
Mostly, it makes me feel good that everyone enjoys it so much and that they have fun with it. I’ve always been about my images being an escape, something really pretty and nice to look at, so if that’s the effect it has on people, that’s cool by me. It’s great that it makes so many people happy during an awful time.