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El Niño Sends Venomous Sea Snakes to Southern California!

A Sign of The Times.

In the past 2 days there have been 2 separate reports of yellow-bellied sea snakes washing ashore at the Silver Strand beach in Oxnard, California, approximately 70 miles north of Los Angeles and 200 miles north of San Diego.  These sea snakes are usually found in Baja California and in other parts of the world where ocean temperatures are in the vicinity of 72 degrees or warmer (the Indian and Tropical Pacific Oceans and the coasts of Africa, Asia, Australia, Central America and Mexico).

The snake described in this CNN report was discovered by surfer Robert Forbes on Friday, October 16, 2015.  Forbes retrieved the snake in order to give it to an expert herpetologist from the natural history museum in Los Angeles for identification.  The snake later died.


The day before Forbes’ discovery, Anna Iker took the following photo of a dead yellow-bellied sea snake on the same beach.



Sea Snakes Have Not Been Seen in Southern California for 30 Years

The California Herps website reports that sea snakes were observed in California in the San Diego area in 1985, near San Clemente beach in 1983 (a major El Niño year), and in Los Angeles Bay in 1961.  The herpetologist who visited Robert Forbes told him that a specimen was collected in San Clemente in 1972 (the specimen in the jar in the CNN video), and that this week’s Oxnard sea snake sightings are the northernmost sightings on the Pacific Coast to have been documented and confirmed.

Other out-of-place tropical sea creatures including whale sharks, a hammerhead shark, pelagic red crabs, and Australian jellyfish have been reported off of the Southern California coast recently due to the El Nino-induced high sea temperatures.


If You See a Sea Snake

If you are in Southern California and see a sea snake (try to say that 10 times fast 🙂 ), scientists ask that you take photos, note the exact location, and report any sightings to iNaturalist and Herp Mapper.  And above all, do not handle the sea snake. Give it a wide berth, because it is highly venemous!


Sea Snakes are Highly Venomous and Bites are Often Lethal.

Yellow-bellied sea snakes have some of the most lethal venom in the world, having descended from Cobras and Australian tiger snakes, and there is no known antivenom.  So one bite can kill a human. I wonder if the surfer knew that prodding and handling this animal was life-threatening to him?  He is very lucky that unlike venemous land snakes, sea snakes are not very aggressive, are usually reluctant to strike, and when they do strike, they often strike without injecting venom.

However, National Geographic Emerging Explorer Zoltan Takacs states that two people were killed by sea snake bites during National Geographic’s filming of the following 3 minute video.  The video is somewhat graphic, showing the swollen limbs of one of the sea snake bite victims.


Eating Venemous Sea Snakes Contributes to Rhinoceros Poaching!

An additional horrifying fact that this video reveals is that since there is no known antivenom, the local folk medicine cure for sea snake bite involves treating the wound with a mixture of garlic and rhinoceros horn.  So the harvesting of a quarter million sea snakes from the Gulf of Thailand per year for food is directly contributing to the demise of the African Rhino.  Incredible.


Other Sea Snake Factoids

Sea snakes are air-breathing reptiles. They have a huge lung that takes up nearly the length of their entire body and they can take in air through their skin to extend the time between breaths. The yellow-bellied sea snake is capable of spending up to three hours underwater without surfacing and sea snake studies estimate that it spends up to 87% of its life underwater, preferring to surface when the seas are calm. It’s young are liveborn instead of hatched from eggs.


The ARkStorm

As the CNN video mentions, the sea snakes are showing up in Southern California due to higher than normal sea temperatures caused by a strong El Niño.  This year’s El Niño is expected to be one of the strongest El Niño years ever.  While California certainly needs urgent relief from its ongoing drought, let’s hope this winter won’t be as bad as the worst deluge that California experienced in recorded history. Although not due to an El Niño, it was caused by “atmospheric rivers” coming from a warm Pacific ocean.

That deluge is known as the Great Flood of 1862, the “Arkstorm” (Atmospheric River 1000 Storm) and “The Other Big One”.  In 1861, after 2 decades of drought, it started raining prior to Christmas and rained biblical amounts for 43 days and nights without end.  According to Wikipedia, the resulting flooding

“extended from the Columbia River southward in western Oregon, and through California to San Diego, and extended as far inland as Idaho in the Washington Territory, Nevada and Utah in the Utah Territory, and Arizona in the western New Mexico Territory.”


“it was estimated that approximately one-quarter of the taxable real estate in the state of California was destroyed in the flood.
Dependent on property taxes, the State of California went bankrupt. The governor, state legislature, and state employees were not paid for a year and a half.  Approximately 200,000 cattle drowned, and the state’s economy shifted from ranching to farming.”

And according to Scientific American,

“One-quarter of the state’s estimated 800,000 cattle drowned in the flood, marking the beginning of the end of the cattle-based ranchero society in California. One-third of the state’s property was destroyed, and one home in eight was destroyed completely or carried away by the floodwaters.”

The California central valley became a large lake, 300 miles long and 20 miles wide, reaching depths up to 30 feet, destroying nearly every house and farm in the region.  Sacramento, which sits along the confluence of the Sacramento and American rivers, was underwater for 6 months and the state capitol was temporarily moved to San Francisco.   Sacramento residents had to get around by boat as this drawing from the time shows.


The San Francisco Bay Area wasn’t spared either.  Four feet of water covered the town of Napa and the entire San Ramon valley

We saw the mudflows on the Tejon pass that closed Interstate-5 this week.  The road from Tejon to Los Angeles was nearly washed away in 1862 as well due to the ARkStorm that brought 4 times the normal amount of rain to the Los Angeles area.

This map from the USGS shows the flooding from a hypothetical ARkStorm similar to the one that happened in 1861/1862.  If another ARkStorm occurred, it would cost $725 billion in damage and affect 25% of California’s homes.  These ARkStorms occur every 100 to 200 years, so one is due anytime now…


List of Sources

The 3 Week Diet