Venomous Yellow-Bellied Sea Snake Washes Up on Coronado Beach

Scientists believe the rare appearance is due to El Nino

A 20-inch-long, venomous, yellow-bellied sea snake, rarely seen on the California coast, washed up on Coronado's north beach Tuesday.

Coronado lifeguards snapped a picture of the potentially dangerous creature, showing it not far from a lifeguard tower. The species is distinctive because of its black top half and bright yellow lower half.

A spokesperson with the City of Coronado said the sea snake was first discovered by a citizen around 2:30 p.m. on Dog Beach near Naval Air Station North Island.

That citizen brought the snake – which was barely alive – to the attention of lifeguards, who then placed the snake in a bucket to secure it. The snake died shortly after being secured by lifeguards, the city spokesperson confirmed.

Lifeguards reached out to several local snake experts who confirmed the creature was a yellow-bellied sea snake normally found in tropical oceanic waters.

This is the second yellow-bellied sea snake to wash up on Southern California shores in the past month. On Dec. 12, another one was discovered in Huntington Beach.

The Coronado discovery would be the fourth time this dangerous animal has been found in California. Multiple snakes were seen in Oxnard in October.

Before that, a yellow-bellied snake hasn’t been seen since one came onto San Clemente Beach in 1972, according to the Surfrider Foundation.

Surfrider experts previously told NBC that the snakes are now appearing due to El Nino. As the water temperatures get warmer, the snakes could be coming farther north to feed on small fish and eels.

The species is typically spotted in the warmer waters of the Pacific and Indian oceans. Scientists say it can swim backward and forward and can stay underwater for three hours. The snakes can reach up to 35 inches in length.

According to the spokesperson with the City of Coronado, the snake’s venom, typically used on prey, is highly potent. However, no human deaths have been reported in connection with the species.

The California Department of Fish and Game officials has advised the City of Coronado to turn the reptile over to Scripps Institution of Oceanography for further research.

Phil Hastings, PhD, of Scripps Institution of Oceanography spoke with NBC 7 Wednesday about the yellow-bellied sea snake and its possible ties to the current El Nino conditions.

“They’ve been appearing in our water primarily because of the warmer water we’re seeing from El Nino,” he explained. “It’s a reflection of the warm water event that we’ve had with the El Nino event. This may increase in the future, we don’t know, potentially with global warming we could have an increased frequency of species like this from the tropics in our area.”

Though encounters are rare, Hastings said anyone who comes across this type of sea snake should be very cautious.

“It’s not aggressive, but people should be careful. It’s highly venomous, and they should not pick them up if they see them on the beach. They should avoid touching them,” Hastings warned. “[It’s] best to stay away, and inform area lifeguards or something if they find one.”

“To my knowledge this has never caused a fatality in humans,” he added.

Hastings said biologists at Scripps Institution of Oceanography and researchers at the San Diego Natural History Museum are very interested in learning and understanding more about this species. He said experts would like to hear from the public if more sea snakes of this type are seen in San Diego.

“It is really exciting to see an unusual species that we don’t normally see here,” said Hastings.

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