Surfers ditched their wetsuits and anglers reeled in loads of fish as the waters off Southern California's coast warmed to record highs in some locations Tuesday, turning miles of shoreline into near-tropical playgrounds.
Local waters have heated up to summerlike temperatures over the last two weeks because of an unusual absence of the high winds and spring storms that normally force colder water to the surface this time of year, marine experts said.
"It's the warmest water for this time of year that I've seen in 20 years," said San Clemente Marine Safety Lt. Bill Humphreys.
The water off Santa Monica Pier registered a comfortable 69 degrees Tuesday, 11 degrees higher than the same day a year ago. A few miles down the coast, in Hermosa Beach, the temperature peaked at 70 degrees.
The warming trend showed itself across the region, although forecasters predicted cooler water temperatures by the weekend. Ventura Harbor recorded 65 degrees. In Orange County, San Clemente reported 70-degree temperatures and Huntington Beach enjoyed 67-degree temperatures--up from a chilly 59 this time last year.
Surfers and swimmers didn't care much about the numbers. They were simply thrilled at the prospect of spending hours on end splashing around in the wet stuff.
"It's almost Hawaii," said Stephen Hart, 27, who was surfing at El Porto, a popular surfing spot in Manhattan Beach.
Scott Gow, a Dana Point surfer, chuckled about leaving his heavy wetsuit at home.
"I trunked it over the weekend and it feels so nice," Gow said. "But it was crowded, especially at Salt Creek where I surfed."
The balmy temperatures managed even to impress old-hand lifeguards.
"Seventy degrees in May is unheard of," said Joel Gitelson, senior ocean lifeguard at Los Angeles County's Hermosa Beach lifeguard headquarters. "It usually gets this warm around August."
Marine experts traced the cause of the warm water to mild weather.
They cite an unusually small number of spring storms out of the Gulf of Alaska. Such storms punch the coast with high winds and usually cause colder water from the depths to move toward the surface.
"[This phenomenon] causes the water to stratify on top--that is, it remains on top where it can get cooked by the hot sun," said Richard Cosgrove with the Fisheries Science Center in La Jolla. "This is affecting an area off Southern California beginning south of Ventura near the Channel Islands."
In addition, a huge high-pressure zone stretching from Southern California to Colorado has pushed storms from the northwest over the Los Angeles region, scientists said. They added that the current trend is unrelated to the well-known El Nino phenomenon, which is generated by warm tropical ocean currents off the equator.
"Some of these temperatures have been record highs for this time of year," Jinx Wible, a spokeswoman for the Los Angeles County lifeguards, said of warm water at Hermosa Beach and other locations. "This is pretty early in the season for the water to get this warm."
Marine biologists expressed concerns that higher ocean temperatures could harm sea life by stripping nitrates and other vital nutrients from the water. Scientists worry in particular about the effects on deep-green kelp forests that thrive along the California coast.
"When there are short, quick changes in ocean and current patterns, the effect is . . . food and nutrients for kelp are very scarce," sad Mia Tegner, a biologist at Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla. "When that stretches [from] weeks to months, such as during an El Nino, the kelp starts to deteriorate and shows some problems."
Lifeguards, meanwhile, expressed concerns about human safety, noting that warm weather and warm water have combined to attract more beach-goers.
Lifeguards rescued more than 100 people from the water at beaches between Marina del Rey and Topanga Canyon last weekend, accounting for nearly a fifth of the rescues in that area since January.
But such concerns were far from the minds of fishermen, who were hauling in warm-water catches that normally would not show up for months.
At Catalina Island, fishermen were catching yellowtail and large bonita, fish that migrate north from the warm waters off the Baja California coast. San Diego and Orange County fishing boats reported huge success taking in yellowtail.
Early Tuesday, a fisherman at the Santa Monica Pier hauled in a 24-pound halibut, setting off a buzz among the several dozen anglers there.
Keith Sanders of Los Angeles showed up, hoping that he too would bag a big one. He paused from his fishing for a moment to reflect on what he would do with such a catch.
"Have a giant fish fry and call up all my friends," said Sanders, 40.