El Nino sends rare tropical visitors to California waters

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This Years El Nino Is Strong


LOS ANGELES, Nov 13 (Reuters) - El Nino's warm currents have brought fish in an unexpected spectrum of shapes and colors from Mexican waters to the ocean off California's coast, thrilling scientists with the sight of bright tropical species and giving anglers the chance of a once-in-a-lifetime big catch.

Creatures that have made a splash by venturing north in the past several weeks range from a whale shark, a gentle plankton-eating giant that ranks as the world's largest fish and was seen off Southern California, to two palm-sized pufferfish, a species with large and endearing eyes, that washed ashore on the state's central coast.

Scientists say El Nino, a periodic warming of ocean surface temperatures in the eastern and central Pacific, has sent warm waves to California's coastal waters that make them more hospitable to fish from the tropics.

El Nino is also expected to bring some relief to the state's devastating four-year drought by triggering heavy rains onshore.

But so far precipitation has been modest, and researchers say the northern migration of fish in the Pacific Ocean has been one of the most dynamic, albeit temporary, effects of the climate phenomenon.

See photos of the El Nino phenomenon:

22 PHOTOS
El Nino's effects
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El Nino sends rare tropical visitors to California waters
NOAA has released an update to its El Niño advisory. This image shows the satellite sea surface temperature departure for the month of October 2015, where orange-red colors are above normal temperatures and are indicative of El Niño. This event is forecast to continue through the winter, likely ranking as one of the top 3 strongest events since 1950, before fading in late spring or early summer. El Niño has already produced significant global impacts, and is expected to affect temperature and precipitation patterns across the United States during the upcoming months. Seasonal outlooks generally favor below-average temperatures and above-median precipitation across the southern tier of the United States, and above-average temperatures and below-median precipitation over the northern tier of the United States. (Photo via NOAA)
This combo of images provided by NOAA (National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration), shows the three-month temperature, left, and precipitation forecasts for the U.S. Forecasters say this winter El Nino is about to leave a big wet but not necessarily snowy footprint on much of the United States, including parched California. NOAA on Thursday issued a winter forecast, heavily influenced by one of the strongest El Ninos on record. (NOAA via AP)
This combo of images provided by NOAA (National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration), shows the three-month temperature, left, and precipitation forecasts for the U.S. Forecasters say this winter El Nino is about to leave a big wet but not necessarily snowy footprint on much of the United States, including parched California. NOAA on Thursday issued a winter forecast, heavily influenced by one of the strongest El Ninos on record. (NOAA via AP)
These false-color images provided by NASA satellites compare warm Pacific Ocean water temperatures from the strong El Nino that brought North America large amounts of rainfall in 1997, left, and the current El Nino as of Oct. 1, 2015, right. Warmer ocean water that normally stays in the western Pacific, shown from cooler to warmer as lighter orange to red to white areas, moves east along the equator toward the Americas. Evidence is mounting that the El Nino ocean-warming phenomenon in the Pacific will spawn a rainy winter in California, potentially easing the stateâs punishing drought but also bringing the risk of chaotic storms like those that battered the region in the late 1990s. In the clearest warning yet that Southern California could be due for a deluge, meteorologists said in a report last week that the already strong El Nino has a 95 percent chance of lasting through the winter before weakening in the spring. (NASA via AP)
Roofer Chuck Jewett, right, and a worker with Hull Brothers Roofing & Waterproofing check a water leak from a an air condition unit before resurfacing a roof at town homes at the Marina del Rey seaside community of Los Angeles, Tuesday, Aug. 25, 2015. While drought-plagued California is eager for rain, the forecast of a potentially Godzilla-like El Nino event has communities clearing out debris basins, urging residents to stock up on emergency supplies and even talking about how a deluge could affect the 50th Super Bowl. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)
MAKASSAR, SOUTH SULAWESI, INDONESIA - SEPTEMBER 21: Two girls are seen walk behind of dried up ricefield at Manggara Bombang village, Maros district on September 21, 2015 in Makassar, Indonesia. Indonesia's national disaster management agency has declared that the majority of the country's 34 provinces are experiencing drought caused by the El Nino weather phenomenon, the worst drought in the past five years. The dry season forces villagers to walk long distances to find clean water. (Photo by Agung Parameswara/Getty Images)
NOAA issued an update to the El Niño analysis on September 10, 2015, in which forecasters from the Climate Predication Center say a strong El Niño is in place and likely to peak in late fall/early winter, and gradually weaken through spring 2016. This image shows the satellite-based average sea surface temperature data from the week of August 31 - September 6, 2015. Blue areas are cooler than the 1981-2010 average; red areas are warmer than that historical base period. The large pool of warmer than average temperatures along the equatorial Pacific is indicative of the El Niño conditions. (Photo via NOAA)
Sea surface temperature anomalies in November 1997 (left) compared to July 2015 (right). (Photo via NOAA)
This June 19, 2015 aerial photo shows a white heron taking flight over revealed fish nests, normally inches below the waterline in La Plata reservoir in Toa Alta, Puerto Rico. Thanks to El Nino, a warming of the tropical Pacific Ocean that affects global weather, less rain fell to help refill Puerto Rico’s La Plata reservoir, as well as La Plata river in the central island community of Naranjito. A tropical disturbance that hit the U.S. territory on Monday did not fill up those reservoirs as officials had anticipated. (AP Photo/Ricardo Arduengo)
This June 15, 2015 photo shows mud cracks at the drought affected Carraizo reservoir in Trujillo Alto, Puerto Rico. Thanks to El Nino, a warming of the tropical Pacific Ocean that affects global weather, the worst drought in five years is creeping across the Caribbean, prompting officials around the region to brace for a bone dry summer. (AP Photo/Ricardo Arduengo)
FILE - In this June 22, 2015 file photo, a combine moves on to the next field while an other makes its last cut while harvesting wheat near Andover, Kan. Concerns about the quantity and quality of the U.S. winter wheat crop and an El Nino weather pattern blamed for dry conditions in other wheat producing nations have sparked a recent run up in wheat prices. (AP Photo/Orlin Wagner, File)
FILE - In this July 12, 2006 file photo, a Joshua tree is engulfed in flames as the Sawtooth Complex fire burns out of control near Yucca Valley, Calif. In the California desert, Joshua tree seedlings are shriveling up and dying before they get the chance to put down strong roots. The species has weathered threats before. In the 1990s, moist El Nino conditions triggered explosive growth of exotic grasses that established themselves and left the forests vulnerable to large-scale brush fires. One such blaze charred 14,000 acres in 1999.(AP Photo/Nick Ut, File)
A couple tries to cool off from the heat caused by El Nino with water overflowing from a defunct but still watery reservoir called the Wawa dam in Montalban in Rizal, east of Manila on February 21, 2010. El Niño was expected to dehydrate the Metro Manila area over in the next two months, according to the Philippine Atmospheric Geophysical Astronomical Services Administration (Pagasa). Earlier this month the government warned a possible drought caused by the El Nino weather system could slash Philippines rice yields this year. AFP PHOTO / NOEL CELIS (Photo credit should read NOEL CELIS/AFP/Getty Images)
Tons of dead fish are seen on the banks of the Solimoes River due the water's low level, November 25, 2009 near Manaquiri, 120Km from Manaus. The dry season, affected by the weather phenomenon EL Nino, is worse this year. According a study from Brazil's universities USP,UNICAMP,UFRJ and Embrapa, the country could lose some USD 3.6 billion over the next 40 years. AFP PHOTO / ANTONIO SCORZA (Photo credit should read ANTONIO SCORZA/AFP/Getty Images)
This June 19, 2015 aerial photo shows the drought affected lakeshore of La Plata reservoir in Toa Alta, Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico expanded water rationing across several municipalities as it continues to confront a drought of potentially historic proportions. Thanks to El Nino, a warming of the tropical Pacific Ocean that affects global weather, and a quieter-than-normal hurricane season that began in June, forecasters expect a shorter wet season. (AP Photo/Ricardo Arduengo)
FILE - This Feb. 28, 2012 file photo shows a snow blower clearing a road after an overnight storm dropped several inches of snow near Echo Summit Calif. The weather forecast for this winter is mostly a shrug of the shoulders. For most of the nation, the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) predicts equal chances for unusual warmth, cold, snow, rain and even average weather. That’s because certain global weather factors, like El Nino, aren’t big and apparent. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli, File)
FILE - In this Wednesday, Aug. 3, 2011 file photo, Texas State Park police officer Thomas Bigham walks across the cracked lake bed of O.C. Fisher Lake in San Angelo, Texas. A combination of the long periods of 100-plus degree days and the lack of rain in the drought-stricken region has dried up the lake that once spanned over 5400 acres. The year 2011 brought a record heat wave to Texas, massive floods in Bangkok and an unusually warm November in England. How much has global warming boosted the chances of events like that? Quite a lot in Texas and England, but apparently not at all in Bangkok, according to new analyses released Tuesday, July 10, 2012. Researchers calculated that global warming has made such a Texas heat wave about 20 times more likely to happen during a La Nina year. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)
FILE - In this Feb. 24, 1998 file photo, a woman waits for a tow truck on the hood of her brother's pickup after a wall of mud plowed down Laguna Beach Canyon Road in Orange County, Calif. forcing her to evacuate her home, in background. A long anticipated El Nino weather warping is finally here. But for drought-struck California, it’s too little, too late, meteorologists say. The National Weather Service Thursday proclaimed the somewhat infamous weather phenomenon El Nino is now in place. It’s a warming of a certain patch of the central Pacific that changes weather patterns worldwide, associated with flooding in some places, droughts elsewhere, a generally warmer globe, and fewer Atlantic hurricanes. El Ninos are usually so important that economists even track it because of how it affects commodities. This year's El Nino that has arrived isn’t big and is late so it’s unlikely to do much to alleviate the current California drought. (AP Photo/Nick Ut, File)
Heavy clouds covers Indonesia's capital city of Jakarta on November 29, 2009. The month of November ends the dry season and starts the wet period but the weather bureau anticipates El Nino's dry spell to affect Indonesian weather. AFP PHOTO / Bay ISMOYO (Photo credit should read BAY ISMOYO/AFP/Getty Images)
FILE - In this Oct. 6, 2014 file photo, a dock sits high and dry at the end of a boat ramp yards away from the edge of Folsom Lake near Folsom, Calif. Don’t blame man-made global warming for the devastating California drought, a new federal report says. A report issued Monday by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said natural variations _ mostly a La Nina weather oscillation _ were the primary drivers behind the drought that has now stretched to three years. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli, File)
In this Monday Feb.22, 2010 photo, a fisherman works on his Tilapia farm at a lake in San Pablo, Laguna province south of Manila, Philippines as the country braces for a dry spell caused by El Nino phenomenon. On Friday Feb.26, 2010, with a reported fish kill in a dam in northern Philippines due to soaring temperatures, the Government's Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources, BFAR, advises fish pond owners slowly being affected by the phenomenon, to harvest their matured fishes to avoid fish-kill. (AP Photo/Bullit Marquez)
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Even as marine biologists up and down the coast gleefully alert one another to each new, rare sighting, the arrival of large numbers of big fish such as wahoo and yellowtail has also invigorated California's saltwater sport fishing industry, which generates an estimated $1.8 billion a year.

"Every tropical fish seems to have punched their ticket for Southern California," said Milton Love, a marine science researcher at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

Some fish made the journey north as larva, drifting on ocean currents, before they grew up, researchers said.

The first ever sighting off California's coast of a largemouth blenny fish was made over the summer near San Diego, said Phil Hastings, a curator of marine vertebrates at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography.

That species had previously only been seen further south, he said, off Mexico's Baja California.

Small, colorful cardinalfish were also spotted this year off San Diego, while spotfin burrfish, a rounded and spiny species, were sighted off the coast of Los Angeles, said Rick Feeney, a fish expert at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County.

Those tropical species are hardly ever found in Californian waters, he said.

'NEVER SEEN IT LIKE THIS'

Some small tropical fish could remain in the state's waters over the coming months, researchers said, as El Nino is expected to last until early next year.

"As soon as the water gets cold, or as soon as they get eaten by something else, we'll never see them again," Love said.

For sports fishers, it was so-called pelagic zone fish like wahoo, that live neither close to the bottom nor near the shore, which made this year special.

Before the El Nino, California anglers only saw wahoo, a fish with a beak-like snout and a slim body that often measures more than 5 feet (1.5 meters) in length, when they made boat trips south to Mexican waters.

This year, there were 256 recorded catches of wahoo by sport fishing party boats from Southern California, with almost all of those being taken on the U.S. side of the border, said Chad Woods, founder of the tracking company Sportfishingreport.com.

Last year, he said, the same boats made 42 wahoo catches.

Michael Franklin, 56, a dock master for Marina Del Rey Sportfishing near Los Angeles in the Santa Monica Bay, said this was the best year he can remember, with plentiful catches of yellowtail and marlin.

"I've been fishing this bay all my life since I was old enough to fish, and I've never seen it like this," he said.

Many hammerhead sharks also cruised into Californian waters because of El Nino, experts say.

Sport fisherman Rick DeVoe, 46, said he took a group of children out in his boat off the Southern California coast this September. A hammerhead followed them, chomping in half any tuna they tried to reel in.

"The kids were freaking out because the shark's going around our boat like 'Jaws'," DeVoe said. (Reporting by Alex Dobuzinskis; Editing by Daniel Wallis and Andrew Hay)

RELATED: See recent weather across the U.S.

33 PHOTOS
Recent weather across the U.S., November
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El Nino sends rare tropical visitors to California waters
In this Nov. 20, 2015 photo, Shelly Aase embraces her dog Mattie Jo as they view damage in north Spokane, Wash., after storms left many without power. Aase is wearing a head lamp to see inside her house. (Dan Pelle/The Spokesman-Review, via AP)
In this Nov. 21, 2015 photo, Jake Hines, left, and Ross Rukke, of Capstone Construction, work to remove a fallen tree in Spokane, Wash., after deadly storms swept through the state leaving many without power. (Dan Pelle/The Spokesman-Review, via AP)
In this Nov. 20, 2015 photo, crews clear downed trees tangled in power and utility lines in Spokane, Wash., after deadly storms swept through the state leaving many without power. (Jesse Tinsley/The Spokesman-Review, via AP)
A group of men paddle a canoe across a flooded roadway along the Snoqualmie River near the peak of the river's height there, Wednesday, Nov. 18, 2015, in Carnation, Wash. Cleanup crews took to the streets Wednesday in Washington state after a powerful storm killed three people, cut power to more than 350,000 residents and flooded rivers. The winds on Tuesday exceeded 100 mph in some areas of the Inland Northwest, where fallen trees were blamed for the deaths. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)
A man tosses a piece of soaked carpet onto a pile while helping to clean-up a small apartment building flooded the night before, Wednesday, Nov. 18, 2015, in Sultan, Wash. Cleanup crews took to the streets Wednesday in Washington state after a powerful storm killed three people, cut power to more than 350,000 residents and flooded rivers. The winds on Tuesday exceeded 100 mph in some areas of the Inland Northwest, where fallen trees were blamed for the deaths. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)
A rainbow appears near the Snoqualmie River, made from mist thrown up by the adjacent falls, Wednesday, Nov. 18, 2015, in Snoqualmie, Wash. Cleanup crews took to the streets Wednesday in Washington state after a powerful storm killed three people, cut power to more than 350,000 residents and flooded rivers. The winds on Tuesday exceeded 100 mph in some areas of the Inland Northwest, where fallen trees were blamed for the deaths. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)
Siri Erickson-Brown uses a "farm boat," an old Sears canoe with a shovel for a paddle, to float across the flooded Snoqualmie River and to her home about a half-mile away, Wednesday, Nov. 18, 2015, in Carnation, Wash. Cleanup crews took to the streets Wednesday in Washington state after a powerful storm killed three people, cut power to more than 350,000 residents and flooded rivers. The winds on Tuesday exceeded 100 mph in some areas of the Inland Northwest, where fallen trees were blamed for the deaths. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)
A downed tree that fell on power lines is shown blocking the NW Seabeck Highway near Bremerton, Wash.,Tuesday, Nov. 17, 2015. Rain, high winds, and power outages were expected throughout the Puget Sound area into the night Tuesday due to a Pacific storm system. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
Debris from the beach below is tossed up and over a seawall by wind-blown waves and toward traffic Tuesday, Nov. 17, 2015, in the West Seattle neighborhood of Seattle. Rain and high winds snarled the morning commute in the Puget Sound area and the Inland Northwest braced for severe weather that could include wind gusts to 70 mph. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)
A large tree lies across a street after being blown over by high winds near downtown Los Angeles on Monday, Nov. 16, 2015. The winds followed a front that moved through California during the weekend, dropping rain and snow while lowering temperatures. (AP Photo/Nick Ut)
An American flag flies half-staff in a strong wind at Los Angeles City Hall on Monday, Nov. 16, 2015. The winds followed a front that moved through California during the weekend, dropping rain and snow while lowering temperatures. Flags fly at half-staff in Los Angeles in honor of victims of terrorist attacks in Paris. (AP Photo/Nick Ut)
Palm fronds line the banks of Echo Park Lake after severe winds near downtown Los Angeles on Monday, Nov. 16, 2015. A cold front that whipped up a damaging tornado in a central California town moved south Monday, buffeting the Los Angeles area with gusts topping 60 mph. (AP Photo/Richard Vogel)
A man climbs Bernal Heights Hill on a cloudy day in San Francisco, Monday, Nov. 9, 2015. A storm system moving across California is bringing cool, wet weather to the low lands and snow in the Sierra Nevada mountains. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)
A man carries an umbrella as he walks across a street in San Francisco, Monday, Nov. 9, 2015. A storm system moving across California is bringing cool, wet weather to the low lands and snow in the Sierra Nevada mountains. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)
Storm clouds gather over Port of Oakland cranes as viewed from Berkeley, Calif., Monday, Nov. 9, 2015. A storm crossed the region Monday morning, bringing rain, thunder and lightning to the drought-parched region. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)
SANTA ANA, CA., NOVEMBER 9, 2015: Sarad Lopez (cq) holds an umbrella while her mother shops on Fourth Steet in Santa Ana during a light rain November 9, 2015 (Mark Boster/ Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
SANTA ANA, CA., NOVEMBER 9, 2015: Keisha Flores holds her umbrella while she shops on Fourth Steet in Santa Ana during a light rain November 9, 2015 (Mark Boster/ Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
Emergency workers transport an injured woman following a multi-vehicle collision on Interstate 80 in Berkeley, Calif., Monday, Nov. 9, 2015. A storm crossed the region Monday morning bringing rain, thunder and lightning to the drought-parched region. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)
WASHINGTON, DC - NOVEMBER 06: A plane flys above the Tidal Basin on a warm evening November 6, 2015 in Washington, DC. Unseasonably warm weather in the Eastern U.S. has made the first few days of November feel more like late Summer. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
Leaves change color on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, November 4, 2015. AFP PHOTO / JIM WATSON (Photo credit should read JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - NOVEMBER 06: A woman rides a bicycle around the Tidal Basin on a warm evening November 6, 2015 in Washington, DC. Unseasonably warm weather in the Eastern U.S. has made the first few days of November feel more like late Summer. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
People walk along Times Square in New York on November 6, 2015. New York recorded its hottest November 6 in nearly 70 years, as skaters splashed through puddles on a much-loved ice rink and commuters strolled around in T-shirts. AFP PHOTO/ JEWEL SAMAD (Photo credit should read JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images)
A woman has an ice-cream on a cone as she walks along a street in New York on November 6, 2015. New York recorded its hottest November 6 in nearly 70 years, as skaters splashed through puddles on a much-loved ice rink and commuters strolled around in T-shirts. AFP PHOTO/JEWEL SAMAD (Photo credit should read JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - NOVEMBER 06: A helicopter flies above the Tidal Basin on a warm evening November 6, 2015 in Washington, DC. Unseasonably warm weather in the Eastern U.S. has made the first few days of November feel more like late Summer. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
JACKSON, MS - NOVEMBER 07: Volunteers exit the course after play was called due to inclement weather during a continuation of the second round of the Sanderson Farms Championship at The Country Club of Jackson on November 7, 2015 in Jackson, Mississippi. (Photo by Michael Cohen/Getty Images)
Fallen autumn leaves on the road on Friday, Nov. 6, 2015, in Mundelein, Ill. As the cold front that triggered showers and thunderstorms overnight moves off to the east, colder air will ride gusting west winds into the Chicago area Friday. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)
MAMMOTH LAKES, CALIF. -- TUESDAY, NOVEMBER 3, 2015: Snow making in full force after a fall Sierra Nevada storm dropped nearly a foot of snow at Mammoth Mountain and less in town in Mammoth Lakes, Calif., on Nov. 3, 2015.(Photo by Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
MAMMOTH LAKES, CALIF. -- TUESDAY, NOVEMBER 3, 2015: A bike rose rides through snow in town after a fall Sierra Nevada storm dropped nearly a foot of snow at Mammoth Mountain and less in town in Mammoth Lakes, Calif., on Nov. 3, 2015.(Photo by Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
MAMMOTH LAKES, CALIF. -- TUESDAY, NOVEMBER 3, 2015: A fall Sierra Nevada storm dropped nearly a foot of snow at Mammoth Mountain and snowmaking is piling on in anticipation of a November 5 opening day in Mammoth Lakes, Calif., on Nov. 3, 2015.(Photo by Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
AUSTIN, TX - OCTOBER 30: Residents of the Onion Creek neighborhood were evacuated in the morning October 30, 2015 in Austin, Texas. After Hurricane Patricia's passing last week, the region was hit with more torrential rain and possible tornadoes. (Photo by Drew Anthony Smith/Getty Images)
AUSTIN, TX - OCTOBER 30: Residents of the Onion Creek neighborhood were evacuated in the morning October 30, 2015 in Austin, Texas. After Hurricane Patricia's passing last week, the region was hit with more torrential rain and possible tornadoes. (Photo by Drew Anthony Smith/Getty Images)
AUSTIN, TX - OCTOBER 30: Residents of the Onion Creek neighborhood were evacuated in the morning October 30, 2015 in Austin, Texas. After Hurricane Patricia's passing last week, the region was hit with more torrential rain and possible tornadoes. (Photo by Drew Anthony Smith/Getty Images)
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