Environment & Science

Scientists think El Niño might be bringing exotic sea life to California

A blue whale takes a deep dive off of the Long Beach coast. While the blue whale is commonly seen off of the California coast until October, warmer water is bringing marine life into the area that is normally seen farther south near Mexico.
A blue whale takes a deep dive off of the Long Beach coast. While the blue whale is commonly seen off of the California coast until October, warmer water is bringing marine life into the area that is normally seen farther south near Mexico.
Benjamin Brayfield/KPCC
A blue whale takes a deep dive off of the Long Beach coast. While the blue whale is commonly seen off of the California coast until October, warmer water is bringing marine life into the area that is normally seen farther south near Mexico.
Hammerhead sharks are one among many ocean creatures making an unusual appearance off Southern California shores. Scientists believe El Nino conditions could be behind the migration.
Courtesy Ocean Institute
A blue whale takes a deep dive off of the Long Beach coast. While the blue whale is commonly seen off of the California coast until October, warmer water is bringing marine life into the area that is normally seen farther south near Mexico.
A sailboat tacks off of the Doheny State Beach sore as warmer temperatures are encouraging people to take to to the water. The warmer water temperatures typically seen in August are luring marine life farther north that normally live near Mexico.
Benjamin Brayfield/KPCC
A blue whale takes a deep dive off of the Long Beach coast. While the blue whale is commonly seen off of the California coast until October, warmer water is bringing marine life into the area that is normally seen farther south near Mexico.
A dolphin jumps out of the water off of the coast of Long Beach. Dolphins are commonly seen in this area, but warmer temperatures are drawing marine life farther north that usually live south of California.
Benjamin Brayfield/KPCC
A blue whale takes a deep dive off of the Long Beach coast. While the blue whale is commonly seen off of the California coast until October, warmer water is bringing marine life into the area that is normally seen farther south near Mexico.
Paddle boarders cruse around the harbor at Dana Point. Warmer weather and water temperatures are great for beach-goers, but the warmer water temperatures are luring marine life farther north that normally live near Mexico.
Benjamin Brayfield/KPCC


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Sport fishermen and whale watchers have been getting an unexpected treat recently.

A slew of rarely seen fish and sea mammals like yellow fin tuna, hammerhead sharks and Bryde's whales have been turning up in local waters.

Typically, these animals live further south or far off shore, but researchers think the warmer water associated with a developing El Niño climate pattern is bringing them here.

Related: Are brown pelicans forecasting an El Niño?

Sam McClatchie with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says right now the coastal water is about 4 to 5 degrees F higher than average.

“You can feel that it’s warmer, it’s definitely more comfortable.”

These conditions are great for a variety of typically tropical swimmers like blue and yellow fin tuna, needlefish, sei whales, false killer whales and humpbacks.

In fact, all of these species have been spotted recently around the region in greater than usual numbers.

Related: Study finds that whales serve as ocean's 'ecosystem engineers'

But whale researcher Alisa Schulman-Janiger says these animals probably didn’t come north just for the cozy waves.

“Everything is basically about food," she remarked. "Where are you going to find the food?”

Schulman-Janiger thinks the emerging El Niño system likely first warmed up waters off the coast of Mexico earlier in the year.

Sensitive small creatures like krill and anchovies probably escaped the rising heat by heading north to California's relatively cooler ocean, she explained.

“If the prey moves northward into cooler water, large predators might be expected to move up.” 

This has been the case during previous El Niño events.

She notes that during an El Niño in the early 1980s, bottlenose dolphins moved up the California coast, reaching as far north as Monterey Bay.

"So we may be getting animals into the area who find food and decide to stay, she said."