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El Nino Expected to Bring Unusual Marine Sightings to Santa Monica Bay

Santa Monica Real Estate Company, Roque and Mark

Pacific Park, Santa Monica Pier

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Harding, Larmore
Kutcher & Kozal, LLP

Convention and Visitors Bureau Santa Monica

By Niki Cervantes
Staff Writer

August 12, 2015 -- It was just about a year ago this summer that they invaded the shores of Santa Monica Bay.  Bright blue saucer-like creatures, the “by-the-wind” Velella velellas arrived on Santa Monica beaches by way of San Francisco, ushered in by windy conditions and warm weather.

But the weird-looking creatures were, in a sense, just a sign of things to come – or already arriving -- at Southern California beaches, including Santa Monica Bay.

Experts say El Nino is likely to bring a variety of unusual marine-related life into view, thanks to the warmer-than-usual waters it produces.

On Saturday, a Hammerhead shark was caught off the Santa Monica Pier, a rare occurrence that experts said was likely tied to El Nino, which is also expected to bring another rarity this winter and spring – rain, though not enough to end California’s four-year drought, experts say.

The Hammerhead appeared to be a juvenile, and authorities were not sure how it ended up in the waters here. Hammerhead sharks are typically found in temperate and tropical waters worldwide.  Already, though, scientists think El Nino is the culprit.

El Nino “is definitely bringing in creatures that we normally wouldn’t be seeing,” said Jenna Segal, public education manager for the Santa Monica Pier Aquarium. “There are a lot of sightings (of marine life) that are very uncommon here.”

She said a Hammerhead was also spotted at Catalina Island recently.

Segal said another newcomer to Santa Monica’s waters now is the Pacific Burrfish, typical to coral and rubble areas of warm coastal lagoons and bays. It is also known as Blowfish, Balloonfish, Globefish, Swelltoads, Hedgehog Fishes, Webbed Burrfish, Spiny Box Puffer and  Bridled Burrfish.

In July, millions of red tuna crabs washed ashore Southern California coasts and were found on Santa Monica Bay beaches as well -- another odd sight and one that scientists say is reminiscent of the 1997-1998 El Nino.

Scientists are analyzing past El Ninos to predict what is to be expected. They noted that during the big El Nino of the late 1990s, yellow tuna, mahi-mahi and pufferfish typical to the Baja California coast were caught along central and southern coasts of California.

Another rare sighting occurred locally last summer, when scientists spotted an endangered Pacific green sea turtle in the Santa Monica Bay, an area the species is not known to travel. Those turtles are typically found much farther south, from San Diego to Mexico. Santa Monica’s waters are typically too cold for them, scientists say.

The Velella velellas, commonly known as by-the-wind-sailors, did make another appearance in the bay in April, Segal said, although the jellyfish-like creatures didn’t make the public splash they did when they suddenly arrived last year.

Segal said it was possible the Velella velellas arrived in smaller numbers this time around. No explanation for why, she said.

“They move with the currents,” Segal said. “It’s possible there was just a shift in the winds.”

Warm waters will also bring more bait fish, like anchovies, she said.

“It will be interesting to see the larger fish that come looking for them,” she said.

Others agree.

“You never know what strange and interesting creatures will wash ashore during these El Niño years,” Tara  Crow of the Santa Monica Bay Aquarium explained of the  coming of the jellyfish-like creatures, which are related to the Portuguese man-of-war.

She said 2014 marked only the third time she’d seen the creatures on Santa Monica beaches since joining the aquarium in 1999.

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