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Lost sea creatures wash up on California shores as ocean climate shifts - The Washington Post

Lost sea creatures wash up on California shores as climate shifts

BODEGA BAY, Calif. – The Pacific Ocean off the California coast is mixed up, and so are many of the animals that live there.

The violet, thumbnail-size snails washing up in Horseshoe Cove have never been this far north. By-the-wind sailors, a tiny relative of warm-water jellyfish, sprinkle the tideline by the dozen.

And in the pools along the cove’s rocky arms, as harbor seals about to pup look languidly on, a slow-motion battle is underway between native Giant Green and Starburst anemones, a species common in Mexico. The southern visitors are bludgeoning their northern hosts with poisonous white-tipped tentacles.

Then there are the whales.

As many as five at a time have been foraging in San Francisco Bay, the vast inlet about an hour south of here along the Sonoma and Marin coasts. The number is far larger than in a normal year, when one or two might wander in beneath the Golden Gate Bridge for a day or two at most.

These whales now are staying for as long as a month. And, for the first time, there are two species in the bay at the same time – grays and humpbacks, both usually speeding north to their Bering Sea feeding grounds this time of year.

Instead, whale-watching boats are having more luck in the opaque waters off Berkeley on the bay’s eastern edge than in the open ocean. Three grays have also washed up dead on bay shores in recent weeks, their stomachs empty.

“Our guess is that they are superhungry, maybe looking for a little food before continuing north,” said Bill Keener, a marine mammal biologist who has been tracking whales, dolphins and porpoises in the bay for decades as head of Golden Gate Cetacean Research. “But why are they staying this long? We can’t really figure out what these guys are doing.”

The likely culprits: “the blob” and “the boy.”

Five years ago, the Gulf of Alaska warmed to record temperatures, likely because of a sudden acceleration in the melting of Arctic sea ice. Usually, a cold southern current flows along California. That year, the warm “blob” spread down the coast and, instead of blocking tropical species from moving north, it served as a balmy welcome to a variety of animals far from home.

Then came El Nino, the roughly once-a-decade temperate current that flows north and east from the equatorial Pacific to the California coast. The two warm-water events came together – one rare but understood, one unprecedented and baffling – to form an ocean heat wave whose real-time and lingering effects might have permanently scrambled California’s coastal ecosystem.

“This was like opening a door temporarily for southern species to move northward,” said Eric Sanford, a professor of biological sciences who runs a lab at the Bodega Marine Laboratory of University of California, Davis. “And the longer you hold the door open, the more opportunity you give southern species to move north.”

The door was not just ajar but wide open for several years. Today, there are still pockets of unusually warm water off California, doggy doors that continue to beckon tropical species that are strangers to its usually chilly 840-mile coastline.

Last year, scientists identified a yellow-bellied sea snake that had washed up on Newport Beach in Orange County, the first time the tropical species had been found in California in a non-El Nino year. Then, in March, an olive Ridley sea turtle was spotted by lobster fishermen off Capistrano Beach, in part because a sea gull was resting on its back. The turtle migrates on warm currents, one of which may have swept it so far north.

Things got even weirder a few hours’ drive north in Santa Barbara County, where a hoodwinker sunfish washed up in March. The fish, about 7 feet long and weighing a ton, is among the more bizarre-looking creatures of the sea. So, too, was its place of death: A hoodwinker had not been seen in the northern hemisphere for more than a century.

“These extreme events exaggerate the rate of change that is taking place in our oceans,” said Jacqueline Sones, research coordinator at the Bodega Marine Reserve, referring to the back-to-back blob-El Nino phenomenon. “And if you have more of these extreme events, you will see an even greater rate of change.”

Sones and Sanford, research partners as well as spouses, published a paper with several other scientists in Nature that identified 67 marine species now pushing the northern boundary of their commonly known habitat.

The violet, thumbnail-size snails washing up in Horseshoe Cove have never been this far north. By-the-wind sailors, a tiny relative of warm-water jellyfish, sprinkle the tideline by the dozen.

And in the pools along the cove’s rocky arms, as harbor seals about to pup look languidly on, a slow-motion battle is underway between native Giant Green and Starburst anemones, a species common in Mexico. The southern visitors are bludgeoning their northern hosts with poisonous white-tipped tentacles.

Then there are the whales.

As many as five at a time have been foraging in San Francisco Bay, the vast inlet about an hour south of here along the Sonoma and Marin coasts. The number is far larger than in a normal year, when one or two might wander in beneath the Golden Gate Bridge for a day or two at most.

These whales now are staying for as long as a month. And, for the first time, there are two species in the bay at the same time – grays and humpbacks, both usually speeding north to their Bering Sea feeding grounds this time of year.

Instead, whale-watching boats are having more luck in the opaque waters off Berkeley on the bay’s eastern edge than in the open ocean. Three grays have also washed up dead on bay shores in recent weeks, their stomachs empty.

“Our guess is that they are superhungry, maybe looking for a little food before continuing north,” said Bill Keener, a marine mammal biologist who has been tracking whales, dolphins and porpoises in the bay for decades as head of Golden Gate Cetacean Research. “But why are they staying this long? We can’t really figure out what these guys are doing.”

The likely culprits: “the blob” and “the boy.”

Five years ago, the Gulf of Alaska warmed to record temperatures, likely because of a sudden acceleration in the melting of Arctic sea ice. Usually, a cold southern current flows along California. That year, the warm “blob” spread down the coast and, instead of blocking tropical species from moving north, it served as a balmy welcome to a variety of animals far from home.

Then came El Nino, the roughly once-a-decade temperate current that flows north and east from the equatorial Pacific to the California coast. The two warm-water events came together – one rare but understood, one unprecedented and baffling – to form an ocean heat wave whose real-time and lingering effects might have permanently scrambled California’s coastal ecosystem.

“This was like opening a door temporarily for southern species to move northward,” said Eric Sanford, a professor of biological sciences who runs a lab at the Bodega Marine Laboratory of University of California, Davis. “And the longer you hold the door open, the more opportunity you give southern species to move north.”

The door was not just ajar but wide open for several years. Today, there are still pockets of unusually warm water off California, doggy doors that continue to beckon tropical species that are strangers to its usually chilly 840-mile coastline.

Last year, scientists identified a yellow-bellied sea snake that had washed up on Newport Beach in Orange County, the first time the tropical species had been found in California in a non-El Nino year. Then, in March, an olive Ridley sea turtle was spotted by lobster fishermen off Capistrano Beach, in part because a sea gull was resting on its back. The turtle migrates on warm currents, one of which may have swept it so far north.

Things got even weirder a few hours’ drive north in Santa Barbara County, where a hoodwinker sunfish washed up in March. The fish, about 7 feet long and weighing a ton, is among the more bizarre-looking creatures of the sea. So, too, was its place of death: A hoodwinker had not been seen in the northern hemisphere for more than a century.

“These extreme events exaggerate the rate of change that is taking place in our oceans,” said Jacqueline Sones, research coordinator at the Bodega Marine Reserve, referring to the back-to-back blob-El Nino phenomenon. “And if you have more of these extreme events, you will see an even greater rate of change.”

Sones and Sanford, research partners as well as spouses, published a paper with several other scientists in Nature that identified 67 marine species now pushing the northern boundary of their commonly known habitat.

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