Inadvertent Visitors

When I was a kid in northern California, we used to go to the ocean beaches of Marin County on the weekends. The long, sweeping scythes of Drake’s Beach and Limantour still count among my favorite ocean shorelines. Beachgoers wore swimsuits on warm days, but we could always tell the tourists from the locals because the tourists were the ones trying to swim in those suits instead of wade or sunbathe.

Locals usually considered swimming the Pacific water too cold for our tender hothouse skin, even in summer. Non-neoprened swimmers venturing into the waters for a swim were a rare sight.

Drake's Bay, Point Reyes National Seashore Photo: Richard Blair
Drake’s Bay, Point Reyes National Seashore
Photo: Richard Blair

This year, researchers and fishermen have seen even rarer sights: Several species that would normally be found far south have been observed in northern waters. An endangered green sea turtle, usually at home in the waters of southern Mexico and around the Galapagos Islands. The tiny striated sea butterfly and a Guadalupe fur seal, both of Baja California, Mexico, common dolphins, blue buoy barnacles and purple-striped jellyfish of southern California.

Striated Sea Butterfly (Hyalocylis striata), collected offshore from Bodega Marine Laboratory. Photo: Eric Sanford/UC Davis
Striated Sea Butterfly (Hyalocylis striata), collected offshore from Bodega Marine Laboratory.
Photo: Eric Sanford/UC Davis

It’s an influx of inadvertent tourists, animals that would normally encounter the cold water barrier of the northern Pacific and turn around, much as I used to do on the beach when I waded in above the knee level.

According to several sources, water temperatures are 5-6 degrees Fahrenheit (2-3 °C) higher than average this year, likely due to a slackening of winds from the north that would normally keep warm waters further south. The annual winds would also normally cool and push surface waters down, causing colder water to churn up from below (‘upwelling’).

And what about the local species that like it cold? The krill, the salmon? They are scarce, as are the animals that feed on them, the whales and birds.

It’s a 30-year autumnal anomaly, which most expect to pass and with it, the strange and wondrous visitors.