Thousands of little sea blobs called “by-the-wind sailors” have appeared on Orange County and Los Angeles-area beaches over the last couple of weeks, and biologists think their unusual arrival could mean there’s another El Niño brewing.
An unusual story out of Los Angeles TV station KTTV this week, as that station reports that thousands of “strange little blue creatures washed ashore.” They look like jellyfish, but they are in fact Velella velella, or known by the common name “by-the-wind-sailors” because they travel by riding wind currents. They’re not dangerous, but their appearance by the thousands on these beaches is definitely out of the ordinary. (A mass beaching of the creatures on local beaches happened in 2014, and there was something similar at Ocean Beach ca. 2003.)
Thousands and thousands of these small jellies called By the Wind Sailors (Velella velella) washed up on the beach today at Huntington Stare Beach. Their sails are made of chitin, the same substance used by insects to make their exoskeletons. pic.twitter.com/SJO24AwjKt— Connie Boardman (@Huntbeachcj) April 9, 2023
A few have been spotted closer to home, according to Marin County’s Point Reyes National. “Velella velella are flat, oval-shaped hydroid polyps (cousins of the jellyfish) that live in the open ocean but are often seen washed up on beaches in Point Reyes National Seashore... In the spring and early summer months when strong winds push them ashore,” the National Park Service explains in a Facebook post seen below.
According to the Bay Area News Group, the arrival of these creatures could indicate a coming El Niño pattern. “Typically, it means we’re seeing a change,” Dana Wharf Whale Watching boat captain Todd Mansur tells the News Group, referring to the appearance of these by-the-wind-sailors. “This could be a sign there’s something subsurface we’re not seeing from our sea temp gauges and sticking our toes in the ocean to check the temperature, that might be showing signs of this change.”
The change that may be coming is the arrival of another El Niño, or the warming of sea temperatures (as opposed to La Niña, which is the cooling of sea temperatures). “El Niño and La Niña are naturally occurring phenomena that result from interactions between the ocean surface and the atmosphere over the tropical Pacific,” according to the National Weather Service. “Changes in the ocean surface temperatures affect tropical rainfall patterns and atmospheric wiñds over the Pacific ocean, which in turn impact the ocean temperatures and currents.”
When we went down to the beach this morning we noticed it was covered in what looked like a blue film and when we looked closer, we realised it was hundreds of thousands of the tiniest by-the-wind sailors we have ever seen, many smaller than nurdles and fishing beads. #velella pic.twitter.com/uthCfLq2a1— Lego Lost At Sea (@LegoLostAtSea) April 1, 2023
It’s already been a wild weather year, and the emergence of a strong El Niño could mean a powerful hurricane season in the tropical Pacific. National Weather Service meteorologist Brandt Maxwell tells the Bay Area News Group, “That’s probably the biggest thing that happens in the summer, greater incidents of the hurricanes, that could bring up the surf in Orange County – if it happens.”
And while this winter that just ended proved that La Niña can bring a drenchingly wet rainy season to the Bay Area just as easily as it can produce a mild or dry one, longtime Bay Area residents can't forget strong El Niño years like 1997-98, which also produced months of near-nonstop rain.
Forecasters won't be able to say with certainty that an El Niño pattern is forming until mid- or late summer.
Image: (Getty Images) Velella are stranded by the thousands at Pacific Beach, Washington in early spring. The Velella are washed into shore on warm spring tides. Their deep blue color is bleached away by the sun as they slowly decompose. Velella are a relative of the Portuguese man o’ war and are actually a community of organisms that function as one. They are also known as sea raft, by-the-wind sailors, purple sail, or little sail.