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Still Waters Run Warm Off the Coast

Lack of wind lets the temperatures rise to Hawaiian-like levels. Surfers leave wetsuits at home, and fishermen pull in mahi-mahi.

July 29, 2006|Roy Rivenburg | Times Staff Writer

Hawaiian-like ocean temperatures have surfers shedding their wetsuits and anglers reeling in exotic warm-water fish, such as mahi-mahi, along the Southern California coast.

"It's almost tropical jumping into the water," said Andy Cox, a Huntington Beach State Park lifeguard. "It's wonderful."

The 75-degree surf has lured more swimmers to the beach -- and kept lifeguards busy. "We've had a lot of rescues, but that's good for us," Cox said. "It keeps everyone up on their skills."

Ocean temperatures have fluctuated considerably in recent days. Last week, underwater thermometers along Orange County dropped from 69 degrees to 62 in two days, then bounced back to 67 and continued to climb into the 70s this week, Cox said.

On Friday, one gauge near a Huntington Beach buoy registered 80 degrees. And boaters several miles off La Jolla have reported 83-degree waters, said Bob Vanian, who runs the fishing website 976bite.com.

Such readings normally would signal El Nino conditions, weather experts said, but not this year.

The culprit is the wind -- or lack thereof.

Most summers, northern breezes cause deeper, cooler waters to upwell toward Southern California shores, said National Weather Service forecaster Philip Gonsalves.

That isn't happening this year, he said, so water temperatures are rising. Does that mean the surf will feel like bathwater by mid-August? No, Gonsalves said. Water temperatures should remain as they are now.

Anglers and surfers are thrilled.

"It's a fisherman's paradise," said Bob Burhans, curator of fish at the Birch Aquarium at Scripps in La Jolla.

Yellowtail, dorado, skipjack tuna and other tropical fish are swimming up the coast, he said. Mahi-mahi have been caught a mile from Newport Beach, according to FishRap, a newspaper for anglers.

Such catches are "unusual but not unheard of," Burhans said.

Meanwhile, rockfish, albacore and other coldwater sea denizens are moving to deeper, cooler waters.

The warm water has been a boon for the surf industry, said Sean Collins, founder of Surfline.com. Some surf shops are selling out of clothing and gear, he said.

"It's like Hawaii has come to Southern California," Collins said. "Even if the waves are lousy ... to be able to jump in and surf without a wetsuit is just nice."

But the warm ocean has a downside.

"Kelp forests are shrinking," Burhans said.

And heat-related power outages have disrupted some of Surfline's operations.

Collins, who serves as Surfline's chief forecaster, predicted that the warm surf would continue into September.

However, if breezy weather returns, Southern California's wetsuit-free era will quickly dissipate.

Water temperatures respond rapidly to winds, Gonsalves said.

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