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Warmer Ocean Temperatures Luring Dolphins, Rare Turtle To Northern California Coastline

(CBS SF) -- It's no bathtub, but Northern California's warm water is attracting visitors from as far as Ecuador and Alaska.

Scientists and researchers alike have documented tiny species of ocean snails and fur seals, typically found off Baja California in Mexico, roaming the waters of Northern California. Last September, one fisherman off the coast of San Francisco even caught and released an endangered green turtle that usually lives off in the waters of Mexico and the Galapagos Islands.

Marine biologists are connecting this phenomenon to rising ocean temperatures, which are now about 5 to 6 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than historic averages for this time of year in Northern California.

The ocean hasn't been this warm since 1983 and 1997, two years when El Niño dumped winter rain on the West Coast

But experts say El Niño isn't behind this year's rise warm-water. And neither is climate change. Instead, the rare changes lie in the wind patterns.

Winds that normally blow from the north and trap warm water around equator have slowed down since the summer, allowing warm water to move north.

"If the wind doesn't blow, there's no cooling of the water," Nate Mantua, a research scientist with the National Marine Fisheries Service in Santa Cruz, told the Bay Area News Group. "It's like the refrigerator fails. The local water warms up from the sun, and is not cooling off."

But why the winds are slacking or when they will return again remains a mystery. And in the meantime, the rare sea life sightings have been a treat for researchers.

UC Davis marine biologists and scientists at Point Blue Conversation Science in Petaluma have documented more than 100 common dolphins off the Farallon Islands, located 27 miles west of San Francisco, in the past two months. They're typically seen hundreds of miles away off Southern California.

They've also documented blue buoy barnacles and purple-striped jellyfish, Hawaiin ono, giant sunfish from Alaska and the Guadalupe murrelet from Mexico.

The changes in ocean temperature is also affecting birds. Less krill rising from the depths resulted in several species of birds, including common murres, having high rate of egg failure on the Farallon Islands. It's also led to less humpback whales sightings in the area.


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