Experts haven't seen one in these parts since the El Niño of 1983.
A rare yellow-bellied sea snake, a descendant of Asian cobras and Australian tiger snakes, was caught early Friday in Oxnard. The snake washed ashore alive and “lethargic,” according to its captor, Robert Forbes. It apparently later died and was taken to the Los Angeles Natural History Museum.
Gregory Pauly of the museum said one also washed ashore in 1972 in San Clemente. “It's actually very rare for them to bite,” he told Fox 11 News.
“This exotic, incredibly venomous sea snake has been spotted off Oxnard, likely due to a climate change and El Niño,” said the environmental group Heal the Bay.
The organization's Dana Murray writes:
This sea snake is a harbinger of El Niño — it typically lives in warm tropical waters. The last time the yellow-bellied snake was spotted in California was in the early 1980s during an El Niño. Scientists are calling for the public’s help to confirm occurrences of these sea snakes in California and your sighting could be published in scientific journals. A recent sighting took place in the Silver Strand beach area in Oxnard. As the yellow-bellied sea snake is highly venomous, the public should not handle it. Instead, take photos, note the exact location, and report any sightings in California to iNaturalist and Herp Mapper.
Waters in the equatorial and eastern Pacific are unusually warm, even for an El Niño year, which is measured by ocean warmth, experts say. That a tropical snake found its way all the way up in Oxnard, a northernmost record for the American Pacific, according to Pauly, says a lot.
Southern California's waters are usually kept cool by a northern current. But the El Niño is keeping wetsuits off surfers this fall as it quells “upwelling,” a natural phenomenon by which cold, deep water comes to the surface.
The warm water has brought some unusual creatures to our shores. Murray:
El Niño also quashes the usual upwelling of cold, nutrient-rich seawater along our coastline. The cold California current supports our oceanic food chain: from plankton and fish species, to kelp forests and marine mammals. Fish have responded to warming ocean temperatures this year by migrating north or out to sea in search of cooler waters. Consequently, sea lions have had to venture further from their young to look for those fish as their primary food source. This has had a cascading effect on California sea lion populations, leading to an unusual mortality event for sea lions this year. Following the warm ocean water, an influx of southern, more tropical marine life has moved up along California this year, such as whale sharks, pelagic red crabs and hammerhead sharks.
Forbes said on Facebook that he caught the sea snake Friday morning:
Rescued this sea snake today on the beach here at Silver Strand in Oxnard. Prior to this there was only a report of them being seen as far north as Orange County. El Niño has definitely brought a lot of strange and unusual aquatic fish and animals up. Caution these snakes are venomous and should be avoided and not handled.