It appears that poisonous yellow-bellied sea snakes have washed up on the California coast, probably as a result of warming waters associated with El Niño.
A surfer made this shocking discovery on Friday, at Silver Strand Beach in Oxnard, Ventura County. As reported by representatives of Heal the Bay and the Natural History Museum, the encounter involved a highly dangerous yellow-bellied sea snake, Pelamis platurus.
The reptile was taken to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s office in Ventura, in order to be more closely analyzed, but unfortunately it died shortly afterwards.
It may be that the snake had been ill or injured, speculates Greg Pauly, herpetology curator at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County.
The species is by definition entirely aquatic, swimming at least a few miles away from the coast, so the fact that it actually reached the shore indicates that something was amiss.
It’s the first time in 30 years that such reptiles have been identified on the Southern California sea shore. The previous occasion when such an event took place had been during the 1982-1983 El Niño, at San Clemente beach, Orange County.
Moreover, no such sighting has ever been reported in Ventura County, but now it appears other locals have also encountered the snakes since the incident on Friday.
Normally the habitats of the yellow-bellied sea snake are usually much farther south, according to zoologists. The snakes are usually found in the Indian and Pacific Oceans, and their northernmost sighting along the American continent’s Pacific Coast had been in Baja California, Mexico.
Therefore, it is believed that El Niño may be once again to blame for bringing the reptiles across the equatorial Pacific, out of the tropical waters they prefer to inhabit.
“It’s only when we have these warming ocean events that they come into California. I’m a scuba driver and I’m in the ocean all the time, and have never seen one”, explained Dana Murray, senior marine scientist for the environmental advocacy organization Heal the Bay.
The sea snakes, whose lineage actually includes Australian tiger snakes and Asian cobras, are extremely poisonous. Although they’re rarely aggressive to humans, their venom can be fatal, scientists warn.
The species can be distinguished thanks to their bi-colored appearance: brownish black or greenish gray above, with a plain yellow or brown belly.
Given the highly dangerous nature of these snakes, locals are urged to refrain from touching or provoking them. Instead, as herpetologists recommend, those who encounter them should keep a safe distance and immediately report their discovery to local lifeguards.
Alternatively, they could photograph the reptiles and inform authorities about these sightings, on the iNaturalist and HerpMapper websites.
Image Source: Waikiki Aquarium