El Nino brings venomous sea snakes to California’s coast
CALIFORNIA — El Nino is bringing more than just rain to California.
A highly venomous sea snake was spotted in Ventura County on Thursday evening.
By Friday, a surfer had captured footage of the sea snake lying on the beach.
“It looked lethargic when I approached,” Bob Forbes told CNN. “I touched it lightly and it started to move.” Fearing that children might come across the aquatic snake, Forbes placed it inside a five-gallon bucket with some ocean water and alerted local wildlife experts.
The discovery is a rare Southern California record, according to Greg Pauly, curator of herpetology of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County.
“It was the northernmost sea snake ever documented in the Pacific Coast of North America,” he said.
The last sea snake species to be documented washed up on shore in 1972 in Orange County, which is about 100 miles south of Ventura County.
“I never would have thought that a sea snake would wash up that far up north,” Pauly said.
Normally, yellow-bellied sea snakes are found in tropical waters closer to Baja California and Central America.
These snakes are not traditionally located along the California coast. Normally, sea water in this area is cooler due to upwelling in the Eastern Pacific, which is when deep, cold water rises toward the surface.
This year’s El Nino, which NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center described in August as “significant and strengthening,” is warming up water temperatures in eastern Pacific Ocean, mainly along the Equator. These warmer waters are typically confined to the western Pacific by winds that blow from east to west, pushing the warmer water toward Indonesia and Australia.
During an El Nino, the winds slow and can even reverse direction, allowing the warmer water to spread eastward all the way to North and South America.
Warmer water temperatures are bringing more tropical species to California, including hammerhead sharks, tropical fish and sea snakes.
Although venomous, Pauly said yellow-bellied sea snakes are generally harmless when left alone. Bites to humans are rare and normally occur when people try to handle the snakes.
“We average five snakebite fatalities in the United States a year,” Pauly said, explaining that majority of those bites are from land snakes.
Though uncommon to California, yellow-bellied sea snakes can be found in many parts of the world. They are usually spotted in the water swimming next to floating debris or by coral reefs.
They use their venom to paralyze their prey, which is typically small fish.
These creatures spend their entire lives in the water. If they do make it onto the beach, it generally means they are injured or ill, according to Pauly.
The sea snake Forbes discovered in Silver Strand Beach died shortly after being transported to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s office in Ventura that afternoon. The Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County will be preserving the animal and will make it available for future research.
As warmer ocean water temperatures continue, there will probably be more sightings of sea snakes in the upcoming weeks and months, Pauly said.
In order to understand how sea snakes are responding to El Nino conditions, scientists are asking people who see them to take a photo and share it with the Natural History Museum by using the hashtag #NatureInLA.