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Surfing Snakes Hit the Beach After Storms : Wildlife: Recent weather has washed the creatures out of their hillside homes and into the sea. Lifeguards at Del Mar and Solana Beach are sending them slithering home.

March 09, 1995|TONY PERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

DEL MAR — Beach party equipment list: Sunscreen. Picnic lunch. Beach umbrella. Plastic bucket and shovel for the children. Snakebite kit.

Snakebite kit?

Believe it . Live snakes have begun washing up on two of San Diego County's most popular beaches at Del Mar and Solana Beach.

The dazed serpents, plus assorted lizards and frogs, were apparently swept away from their brushy inland homes by the San Dieguito River, which empties into the sea between the two coastal cities north of San Diego.

Twenty-six snakes--predominantly poisonous rattlesnakes--were plucked from the Del Mar Beach and four from Solana Beach when this week's storm relented. Snakes were also found in businesses on Jimmy Durante Boulevard and at the Del Mar Fairgrounds.

With another storm anticipated soon, lifeguards in Del Mar and Solana Beach believe there may be more snakes on the beach. "We're ready," said Dave Lichtenstein, lifeguard sergeant in Solana Beach.

Although the number of snakes, particularly at Del Mar, was unusually high for a beach, the appearance of snakes amid the joggers, surfers and sun worshipers at Southern California beaches is not unprecedented.

As far as can be determined, the snakes are not some biblical curse visited on the region to punish the wicked and sybaritic, just a natural result of the region's winter storms that send coastal rivers cresting and wash away small trees and bushes.

In January, rattlers were spotted at San Buenaventura State Beach in Ventura and Point Dume Beach in Malibu. The beaches in Oceanside in northern San Diego County occasionally get snakes that have floated down the San Luis Rey River.

Snakes regularly slither into view at San Onofre State Beach in southern Orange County. Two years ago, a surfing contest was canceled near the Trestles, a famed surf spot near the Orange-San Diego county line, because of the combined negative impact of rattlesnakes and water pollution.

"We've learned to expect it all on the beach in Southern California, including snakes," said Bill Robinson, senior ocean lifeguard for Los Angeles County.

In Del Mar, lifeguards used long poles to snag the snakes and plop them into a box so they could be relocated to the hinterlands. Snake removal is not specifically listed in the job description for lifeguards.

"It's down there as 'other duties as assigned,' " said Del Mar City Manager Lauraine Brekke-Esparza. "We're pretty versatile in Del Mar."

The snakes were found curled inside the flotsam and jetsam that wash ashore after a heavy storm. Some were found miles from the mouth of the river, a testament to the snakes' survival and swimming skills.

In Solana Beach, the snake area was cordoned off with the kind of tape used at crime scenes. In both Solana Beach and Del Mar, people were warned about the presence of snakes but nothing, not even the prospect of some venom in your ankle, can discourage the truly dedicated beach user.

"I think I can run faster than any snake," said Barbara Shimek, out for a brisk morning walk with her husband, Bill, on the beach at Del Mar.

Although no governmental agency has organized a task force to decide what to do when snakes appear on your neighborhood beach, an ad hoc philosophy of "live and let live" has emerged.

"When snakes are seen on a beach, there is always somebody who wants to grab them, for some reason," said Mike Brousard, lifeguard at San Onofre State Beach. "We tell people: 'Just stay away from them. They're part of the natural habitat.' "

Snakes have considerable lung capacity in relation to body weight and have been known to float for miles unharmed--which provides even more reason not to approach a beach snake or go poking around in the bamboo, kelp and other debris.

"Snakes are pretty hardy creatures," said Craig Sap, a lifeguard at Buenaventura. "They're about as buoyant as firewood and driftwood and they can stand some exposure to the ocean."

Still, snakebites at the beach are extremely rare.

No one can remember any bite at a beach in San Diego County. Brousard remembers only two in his 20 years on the job in Orange County. Steve Saylors, lifeguard captain for all beaches in Malibu, recalls only two in 28 years.

"After a really big storm, the beach is covered with heavy debris," Saylors said. "What worries us is a little kid turning over the wrong stick and the stick turning around and biting him."

The Del Mar snakes--rattlers, rosy boas, king snakes, racers and gophers--were not their usual selves when they arrived involuntarily within the city limits.

"They're moving kind of slow, kind of sluggish," said Del Mar Fire Chief Jim Baker, whose department received numerous snake-removal calls from businesses. "The water is cold, and they're coldblooded. But we figure when it warms up and they thaw out, they'll go faster."

John Kinkaid, reptile keeper at the San Diego Zoo, is not surprised at the snake invasion at Del Mar and Solana Beach. The region is thick with rattlesnakes, Kinkaid said, including the red diamond, Southern Pacific and speckled varieties.

This is about the time of year when snakes leave their winter burrows where they have been hibernating, thus making them vulnerable to a fast-rising stream. The heavy rains the past two winters have provided the high grass and bumper crop of insects and mice that can produce a snake population boom.

"Last year was a good one for snakes," Kinkaid said. "This should be a good one too."

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