During a beach cleanup last week at Bolsa Chica State Beach, Surfrider foundation volunteers found the usual assortment of plastic bottles, discarded towels, fishing gear. They also found an unusual visitor to our waters: a venomous yellow-bellied sea snake. The exotic reptile has been seen only three times on California’s shoreline in the past three decades. Like the last one found in October, the sea snake was dead by the time a volunteer had found it. It was unclear whether it was alive when it initially washed up on the beach.
The species can stay underwater for up to three hours, and has the ability to swim both backward and forward. They breed in warm waters and typically lives in warmer waters off the coasts of Mexico, Africa, Asia and Australia. It’s the most widely distributed sea snake and is capable of living and giving birth entirely in the open sea (it is completely pelagic). It is also the only sea snake to have reached the Hawaiian Islands. This air-breathing sea snake has developed a flat, oar-like tail and valved nostrils since leaving the land millions of years ago.
Tony Soriano, the Surfrider foundation’s chairman, said the 275 volunteers who had showed up for the beach cleanup initially did not realize what species the snake was, and didn’t know it was venomous. His son figured it out after doing a search on Google. After learning of the discovery, the curator of the Museum of Natural History contacted him.
The appearance of the snake in Southern California was possibly related to El Niño, Santa Monica-based Heal the Bay stated in a blog post back in October after the first discovery of the snake in October. “There is belief that the El Niño temperature change could have enticed the creature to swim north in search of small fish and eels, which they use their venom to paralyze,” the Surfrider Foundation stated in its Facebook post.
Anyone who spots a sea snake should not attempt to handle or interact with it, according to Heal the Bay. The organization requests that if you do see one, take photos, note the exact location, and report the sighting to iNaturalist and Herp Mapper.