Hundreds of thousands of peculiar sea creatures wash up on California beaches – SFGate

By-The-Wind Sailors (Velella Velella) by Jonathan Lidbeck CC BY 2.0 DEED via Flickr.
By-The-Wind Sailors (Velella Velella) by Jonathan Lidbeck CC BY 2.0 DEED via Flickr.

By-the-wind sailors are an early sign of spring

Marine biologist Carolyn Belak has a thing for small and unusual sea creatures.

So when hundreds of thousands of Velella velella — gelatinous creatures better known as by-the-wind sailors — drifted ashore on Trinidad State Beach over the weekend, Belak decided to play a game. She called it: “Can I find the smallest velella?”

The creatures are not particularly hard to spot, considering their flashy blue color and saillike fins, which catch wind and allow colonies to travel over very long distances. Trinidad State Beach is about 300 miles north of San Francisco, but Belak lives close, so she was able to visit multiple times. She also explored a couple of nearby beaches, and found by-the-wind sailors everywhere she went.

The tiniest of the bluish creatures perched atop a piece of driftwood, and she snapped a photo of them next to her pinky nail, because they were smaller, “Maybe 2 millimeters wide?” she says, still delighted. “They were so tiny.”

Although it’s hard to estimate how many were out there, Belak thinks there were hundreds of thousands, and possibly even a million. She’s seen these “blooms” blown ashore in previous years, particularly in springtime during El Nino years, when the ocean temperatures are on the warm side (which leads to a proliferation of northern anchovy eggs, a food source for by-the-wind sailors). But this year they’ve turned up earlier than usual, she says, which could be related to human-caused climate change.

“This has been the highest year on record for sea surface temperature,” Belak says. “And so winter temperatures have been high, and they’ve had the opportunity to bloom. Then with this amount of wind we’re currently having, they’re getting blown on shore…”


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