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Meet the neighbors: The tropical sea creatures El Niño is bringing to SoCal shores

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Photos by Jackie Mora, Nathan Rupert and Kimball Garrett

It's more than just the sea snake. Dozens of tropical marine species are moving into Southern California's coast as El Niño brings abnormally warm water north.

There's something new in the water.

We know a strong El Niño means rain this winter, but scientists at the Natural History Museum say that's not the only thing the seasonal storm will bring. As warm El Niño water moves into the Southern California coast, it's bringing a whole new slate of tropical marine species with it.

How does that work? Unlike "The Blob," its water warming cousin to the North, El Niño warms waters across the Pacific. "Some species were responding to warming from before," said Rick Feeney, fish collections manager at the NHM. "But lately there's been much more, and a variety of species."

So meet Southern California's new exotic neighbors, coming to a beach near you:

1. Yellow-bellied sea snake

(Mark Pampanin/KPCC)

Last reported: Oct. 16, Oxnard. The last time before that was on San Clemente Beach in 1972. The second yellow-bellied sea snake ever found in California, pictured here, was found on the coast of Oxnard last Friday. Though they are highly venomous, Dr. Greg Pauly, herpetologist at the Natural History Museum, says their jaw and fangs are very small, and there have been no known human deaths from a yellow-bellied sea snake bite.

2. Spotfin burrfish

(Credit: Tam Warner Minton/Flickr Creative Commons)

Last reported: August, Santa Monica Bay. The spotfin burrfish gets it's name from the immovable spines on it's inflatable body. Different kinds of burrfish are found from the West Indies to Florida, but are exclusive to the tropics. That is, of course, except for during a strong El Niño, when they hang out just off of Los Angeles's coast.

3. Various sport fish species

(A blue-striped marlin. Credit: Jackie Mora/Wikimedia Creative Commons)

Last reported: All over Southern California throughout fall 2015. Dorado, yellowfin tuna, blue-striped marlin, wahoo and more sport fish species known to be native to Mexico are being caught off the coast of San Diego, Orange County and Catalina Island. Rick Feeney, fish collections manager at the museum, calls it a "boon" for the sport fishing industry. No need to travel down to Baja California for sport fishing, because here in Southern California, "there are so many marlin, they are being caught and released routinely," Feeney says. "They say there are more sport fish up here now then there is at Cabo San Lucas."

4. Hammerhead shark

Last reported: Oct. 19, Newport Beach. These sharks live throughout the world, but prefer warm water. Which is why there have been at least 30 sightings of hammerhead sharks off the coast of San Diego and Orange County beaches this year, and one attack, as opposed to zero sightings in non-Niño years. Still, Feeney says, the numbers of hammerheads off Southern California's shores is low enough that it doesn't pose a huge risk for beachgoers. That won't stop them from closing local beaches, however.

5. Oarfish

(An oarfish washed up on Catalina's Emerald Bay this past June. Credit: Tyler Dvorak/Catalina Island Conservancy)

Last reported: Sept. 14, La Jolla. Also called a sea serpent for its massive size and slithery demeanor, the oarfish is the longest-known bony fish species alive today. Human encounters are uncommon, which makes the four oarfish that have washed up on Southern California beaches in 2015 all the weirder. Before 2015, two oarfish washed up on Southern California beaches in 2013, and zero in 2014.

6. Red-footed booby

(Red-footed booby at the International Bird Rescue seabird rehabilitation facility in San Pedro.)

Last reported: September 2015, Orange County. Kimball Garrett, bird collections manager at the Natural History Museum, has a record of six red-footed boobies in Southern California so far this year. Before 2015, there have only been 19 records of red-footed boobies ever in California. Garrett believes the tropical birds are following warmer water north, but many are having trouble finding food, with many in Southern California found dead or starving. 

7. Butterfly fish

(Credit: Nathan Rupert/Flickr Creative Commons)

Not yet reported. However, based on previous El Niño events, Feeney expects we'll see the butterfly fish, as well as an array of tropical fish species, on the Southern California coastline this winter. Our coast will have "things that you can only find on a tropical reef," Feeney says. "This might be a good time to go snorkeling." 

8. El Niño's biggest loser: Sea lions

(Credit: Gloria Hillard/NPR)

There have been a record amount of abandoned sea lion pups this year, says Jim Dines, mammalogy collections manager at the Natural History Museum, creating a problem with Southern California's local sea lion population. The problem starts with, unsurprisingly, El Niño. The warm waters have pushed sea lions' natural prey, like anchovies, further away from Southern California's coast. This forces mother sea lions to search further for food, and many young sea lions are forced to begin searching on their own. Just like their mothers, they rarely find anything, which may be why one brave pup tried a Balboa Peninsula bar and grill.

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