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Jellyfish Jamming Local Beaches

Thousands of slimy creatures leave warm waters to die in the sand. But they can still sting.

July 26, 2005|Lomi Kriel and Sara Lin | Times Staff Writers

Jessica Jaramillo figured she'd make a small dent Monday in the hundreds of wobbly creatures that have washed ashore in Newport Beach. Call it jelly-fishing.

One by one, Jessica, 12, and her sister, Amanda, 11, scooped up the purplish jellyfish and stored them in a giant red bucket. By late afternoon, the bucket was overflowing with what she guessed were more than 75 jellies.

"But we've buried about 30 of them," she said. "We didn't want anybody to get stung."

Thousands of jellies as big as car tires are washing up on beaches in Los Angeles, Orange and San Diego counties, an invasion that biologists say could be related to the hot weather and warming ocean temperatures. The invertebrates are black in the water, but appear to be a deep red or plum color once they're beached.

While some kids appeared to be having fun poking and prodding the slimy carcasses, the jellyfish floated offshore in enough numbers to scare most people out of the water.

"I was going to let the kids run through the water, but now I don't think so," said Jody Vandervort, 31, who had come to Newport Beach for the day from Victorville with her husband and six children.

The jelly onslaught, which lifeguards said started Wednesday, tapered off at Newport Beach this weekend only to return Monday.

"I haven't seen this many, ever, at one time," Lifeguard Capt. Eric Bauer said of the jellies. "From here to 28th Street there's almost no one in the water. Normally there [are] thousands."

Bauer said lifeguards hadn't posted any warnings or asked people to clear the beach because the presence of the jellies wasn't "a life-safety issue. It's just a nuisance."

Usually seen off Baja California, the jellyfish have been spotted as far north as British Columbia in recent weeks, but are thickest in San Diego and Orange counties, biologists said.

"They are one of the most beautiful jellies I've ever seen," said Sandy Trautman, curator of fish and invertebrates at the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach. "They're really striking."

With parachute-like tops as wide as 3 feet and tentacles sometimes three times that length, the translucent creatures -- known as Poralia in the scientific world -- are larger than most jelly species. They are commonly called black jellyfish because they appear so from a distance. Most jellies seen off Southern California's coast are light blue or clear.

"They're actually very strange-looking as far as jellyfish go," said Matt McClain, a spokesman for the Surfrider Foundation, a nonprofit organization concerned with the coastal marine environment. "They've got four big tentacles and kind of look like a tulip on top."

While most West Coast jellies don't sting, McClain said, the jellies washing ashore Monday "have stingers and they can absolutely sting you after they're dead."

Huntington Beach lifeguards said they treated 105 people for jellyfish stings Saturday, and 1,400 Sunday. The treatment usually involves rubbing the affected area with vinegar, which eliminates the sting.

That method seemed to work for Jessica. "It doesn't hurt that much," she said, holding out her hands as her mother sprayed on the lifeguard-provided salve.

The appearance of the jellies has coincided with a red tide that has lasted about five months. In the past, biologists say, the seasonal bloom of microscopic plankton off Southern California that stains the water a cocoa brown has lasted less than four weeks.

This year's extended bloom, said Dennis Kelly, a marine science instructor at Orange Coast College in Costa Mesa, is probably the result of urban runoff laden with mineral nutrients that nourish the ocean's phytoplankton and zooplankton.

Kelly surmised that the abundance of the black jellies, which feed on zooplankton, could be linked to the red tide.

On the other hand, he said, "that could just be a complete coincidence."

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