What’s With All This Sea Life Washed Up?

Are they suicide plunges? Is it our fault?
BY: BART ALLEN BERRY

Is it Fukushima radiation?  Water Pollution?  Global warming?  How come all of these animals are washing up on our beaches lately?  Are human beings irreparably damaging the planet? 

Not hardly.

Many locals have been truly freaked out by the sight of thousands of little blue jellyfish washed up on our beaches.  Then there’s all those piles of tiny baby lobsters! 

pelagic red crab on beach.jpgNo Bunky, the world is not coming to an end. There is a logical explanation and it’s not that alarming.

Let’s take the jellyfish first. They’re called Velella and are Hydrozoans.  Hydrozoans are a class of very small predatory animals that live in a colony attached together and in the case of Velella, live on the surface of the ocean.  Each apparent individual Velella is in really a hydroid colony, and most are less than three inches long.

Sealed air pockets in their sails keep them afloat while the rest of the organism hangs in the water to hunt for food. They are usually deep blue, but their most obvious feature is a small rigid protruding sail that catches the wind and propels them across the surface of the sea. Under certain wind conditions, they may be stranded by the thousand on our local Baja beaches and up the entire Pacific coastline. These carnivorous little creatures, related to the Portuguese Man of War, have small tentacles that hang down about a centimeter and catch their prey, generally plankton, and their nematocysts sting their prey with a debilitating toxin.  Relatively harmless to humans, one should still not put their fingers in their eyes after handling these little devils. 

Known as ‘by the wind sailor’ or ‘purple sails’, offshore boats commonly report seeing them in all of the world’s oceans in mostly warm and temperate climates.   When the wind blows in certain directions Velella may wash up on beaches by the thousands and even millions.

Baby lobsters?  No they aren’t lobsters and they aren’t babies. They are tuna crabs, or as they are known by biologists, pelagic crabs, pleuroncodes planipes, and they commonly wash up on Pacific beaches purely for their own reasons, and by no fault of human beings. Resembling small lobsters, these small ocean travelers survive on even smaller plankton caught on the hairs on their legs.

These small red animals travel on warm ocean currents and are stranded on the shore by wind and currents, not by choice, as some people think. This is no suicide plunge.  They are a significant source of food for baleen whales and are popular with tuna, yellowtail and just about any predatory fish that swims.  Many an offshore fisherman has been cursed with a tuna bite that has turned completely off, despite the presence of huge schools of fish.  This is often because the fish have gorged themselves on pelagic crabs.

Generally found in shallower waters south of San Diego all the way to Chile, tuna crabs seems to correlate with El Nino years when the water is warmer and some speculate that they are congregating in large numbers for mating and then get swept ashore. 

They are a food source for loggerhead sea turtles as well as many gulls and other shorebirds that take advantage of the unexpected red bounty. 

What about the purple striped jellyfish?   These true jellyfish, chrysaora colorata, or pelagic colorata wash ashore at all times of the year, but particularly during storms where they are stranded in very shallow water, or up on the sand.  Places like Punta Banda Beach can serve as a catch-all for anything that is blown ashore after a storm and can see hundreds of these jellyfish washed up at a time, making people think it isn’t safe to go in the water. 

Of course jellyfish like these do have tentacles that sting their prey, and can deliver a painful sting to a human, but it is very rare, and certainly none can sting you when they are washed up on the beach.  The sad thing is that the fear of jellyfish makes people poke and prod at them, tear their bodies apart, which can be very fragile, or roll them around in the sand, which is not good news for this ocean going creature.

Rather than damaging or killing this gentle creature, why not have some real fun and see if you can get it back into the water?  This takes a little bit of guts because let’s face it, they are all squishy and weird, but if you handle them carefully and make sure you kind of scoop them up, touching only the bell shaped top, then you can pick them up for a very short time and run out into the water - maybe up to your shins, and try to drop them in on an outgoing wave  so they can get sucked back out to sea.  

We don’t know if jellyfish have emotions, but you will see a visibly happier jellyfish once he gets back into water deep enough to get some propulsion going and head back out to sea.  You might get your shoes wet, but that creature gets another chance at life. My policy is that if it’s still alive and not in its natural habitat, I like to help them back into it.  Nature will take care of the rest.

From young sea lions beat up on the shore after a storm to dead whales and dolphins, you shouldn’t get freaked out about the cycle of life and think everything bad that happens on the beach is the fault of us humans.  Most of the time, the sea lion will recover its energy and head back out when it’s ready and doesn’t need you or Sea World to take him home.  There are cases where perhaps injured gulls or pelicans could use a wing splint and some free meals while they recover and this is where you can actually help. Maybe you don’t think you can make a difference with all of these natural creatures washing ashore, but maybe you can make a difference for a few of them by helping them back into the water whether it’s a jellfish, a crab or even a sea slug.

Instead of labeling all of us as irresponsible bad humans who have screwed up the planet, be glad that Baja is still very alive and our local ocean waters are teeming with life and an infinite variety of natural species.  So get down to the beach and check it out yourself!