Along with the promise of a very stormy winter, the El Niño weather pattern that California is experiencing this year has brought other visitors: highly venomous yellow-bellied sea snakes.
Yellow-bellied sea snakes require warm water and normally inhabit tropical areas of the Pacific and Indian Oceans. They are somewhat common around Australia and Central America, but they occasionally drift up to colder latitudes on warm currents, particularly during strong El Niño years like this one.
Still, the waters off California are generally too cold for the animals to breed, so they can’t become permanent residents.
The snakes (Pelamis platura) are one of few truly pelagic, or open ocean, sea snakes. They have a bright yellow belly and a paddle-shaped tail, and can stay underwater up to three hours between breaths. They grow to be up to 35 inches in length.
Although sea snake venom is highly toxic, the animals have small mouths and they rarely bite people unless handled. So if you see a yellow-bellied sea snake, leave it alone.
If the snakes do wash up on a beach, they are at much more risk than beachgoers because they often die. The most recent specimen was discovered at Bolsa Chica State Beach, located just north of Huntington Beach, during a beach cleanup. The snake was dead at the time it was found.