Sighted at Ventura County beach, venomous sea snake may venture north

Poster on website for Heal the Bay, www.healthebay.org.
Poster on website for Heal the Bay, www.healthebay.org.

Warm ocean temperatures from El Niño-like conditions in the Pacific Ocean are being blamed for the rare appearance of a poisonous sea snake on a Southern California beach.

A yellow-bellied sea snake was spotted Friday at a Ventura County beach. The poisonous snake species, which is dark brown or black with a yellow underside, thrives in the warm waters of the tropical Pacific. It is rarely seen on California beaches.

The snake has not been spotted on any California beach for decades and scientists say that a temperature more than 3 degrees higher than normal off the coast of Southern California is a reason the snake has appeared there. The ocean temperature off the Ventura County coast was 72 degrees, according to the latest reading by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

“It’s not surprising to have animals that are dependent on the environment to follow warm water – and sea snakes would be one of them,” said Michael Murray, director of veterinary services at the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

Murray said the warm water will likely bring rarely seen species of sea turtles, fish and invertebrates to California. A rarely seen invertebrate – the pelagic tuna crab – has already begun washing up on Monterey beaches, Murray said.

“If the water is warm enough and that warmth is persistent enough, you may start seeing the yellow belly sea snake further north as well,” Murray said.

Murray said it was highly unlikely the snake would be encountered north of Monterey. If seen, the public should avoid any contact with the highly venomous snake.

“I’ve never heard of the sea snake being seen as far north as Ventura County,” said Mike Cardwell, a herpetologist at Sacramento State. “The snake showed up years ago during an El Niño year, but only as far north as Orange County.”

When species follow warm waters during El Niño years, it creates the possibilities that they can be marooned. If El Niño subsides and the water begins to cool, it will strand animals in cold water – the kind usually found off California’s coast. “Then, we will start seeing cold, stranded reptiles,” Murray said.

Murray said he has seen sea turtles that have been stunned by cold water. It is a phenomena that is seen frequently on the East Coast, he said.

El Niño-like conditions have also affected other species, such as seabirds. The International Bird Rescue Center in Fairfield has been busy rescuing a seabird called the common murre, and it is doing so at the highest rate in 18 years. The birds are being found at beaches between Monterey and Point Reyes. It is not common for beachgoers to encounter the birds on beaches. They are being found severely malnourished.

The murres’ presence is significant to scientists because they’re considered a marker species, whose movements and numbers signal changes in the ocean’s food supply. Scientists at the rescue center say warmer temperatures are forcing the birds to dive deeper than normal to find schools of fish, and that young and weaker birds are not strong enough to feed themselves and have been beaching themselves as a result.

Edward Ortiz: 916-321-1071, @edwardortiz