Meteorologists have been promising drought-stricken California an El Niño event since sometime in 2014. That year the rising temperature of Pacific Ocean waters characteristic of the phenomenon came too little, too late to combat the Pacific “blob,” a new and puzzling region of unusually warm water and its associated high pressure system that kept storms well off the West Coast for three long years. By the fall of 2015 everything had changed…according to the models at least. The Blob and El Niño had duked it out and the latter emerged victorious. In theory nothing now stood between California and inches upon inches of glorious rain – likely too many inches for fire-blighted regions. But until late December the forecasts for the Central Coast continued their drearily familiar pattern. In the mid-range: Yes, it’s going to rain in two weeks! And as the forecast storm days drew closer: Oh, just kidding.
It was easy for me, irrigation still on at the trickle allowed under mandatory conservation goals, carrying buckets of sink water out to the thirsty potted citrus trees, to mutter under my breath that the meteorologists were a pack of ignorant fools. But whatever rain did or didn’t fall on my parched little patch of ground, out at the coast it was clear that El Niño was well and truly underway.
We drove out to Cambria for the weekend on a whim. Our dog loves the beach, there are several cozy hotels along Moonstone Drive that allow pets and well, to be honest, Cambria has terrible cell phone reception and sometimes that’s A Good – nay, nigh unto a Necessary – Thing. Usually the afternoons are quiet – languid waves rolling gently toward the sand, all but a few seagulls tucking themselves into coves for preening and napping, a few lines of pelicans coasting perilously close to the waves on their mysterious business.
But that day the shore was a madhouse. Pelicans and cormorants wheeled around in chaotic bands, crashing into the water and narrowly avoiding colliding with each other. Seagulls dive-bombed anyone lucky enough to emerge with a catch. The snowy egrets kept their distance and their dignity, walking through the shallow waters in search of crustaceans, maintaining a broad personal space between each other and making the occasional irritable lunge toward the sanderlings when they crowded too close, but even they were gathered in greater numbers than I had ever seen in the area.
The locals on the boardwalk were also gathered in chaotic bands, pointing out to sea. “Did you catch a glimpse yet? They’ve never been so close, not in all the years I’ve lived here!”
Just as I was going to ask what had never been so close, I caught sight of a telltale column of spray and a grey whale breached the surface of the water. The harassing spiral of birds scattered as the massive body heaved itself upward, then collapsed back into a tight knot as it descended again. A trio of kayakers, with what struck me as dubious sanity, made haste to follow the behemoth.
“El Niño,” one of the spectators said knowledgeably. “It’s El Niño that’s pushing them closer to shore.” He gave me a condescending glance. “If you’re patient, you’ll catch a glimpse.”
I resisted the petulant urge to wave my Nikon under his nose and snap, “I shoot wildlife for fun. I think that maybe I know a thing or two about patience.” But sadly glimpses were all I caught. The whales swam tantalizingly close in relative terms, but not close enough for a decent shot. The best I could manage – since I was unwilling to chase one down in a kayak – were shiny black fin-like projections that could just as easily have been a seal or a surfer. So I sighed and settled for egrets, and working toward the still-elusive clear, crisp image of a cormorant.
A few weeks later at Morro Rock, whither I’d gone in search of raptors, a similar scene repeated. Sans whales this time, but with a bedlam of shorebirds circling and diving amidst pockets of sea lions, tracing erratic spirals that I supposed marked passing schools of fish. Again there were seagulls and egrets and cormorants in profusion, and a single great blue heron standing still as a statue on the shore.
But what caught my eye that day were the pelicans. I’ve always been fond of them: their serene soaring, their high-speed vertical dives as they slam into the water tin pursuit of a meal, their antediluvian aspect that puts me in mind of not so distant cousins of pterodactyls. And in fact fossil records suggest that pelicans have been around for at least thirty million years, and haven’t changed much in all that time.
I don’t think I’d ever seen more than a dozen or so in one place, beak to tail feathers in their martial lines. And more often still in pairs or alone, preening their feathers as they bobbed on shallow waves. But that morning in Morro Bay there were hundreds of them, crowded onto a sand spit like an occupying army, holding the beach head against all intruders and forcing sullen seagulls to retreat to rockier shores.
An elderly man standing nearby said, “It must be El Niño, driving the fish closer to shore.”
Curious, I finally looked up the effects of El Niño on sea life. And found conventional wisdom, as it often is, to be both true and not true. The rare appearance of bluefin tuna and yellowtail and, for beachgoers at least, less salutary venomous sea snakes off the coast of California is a benign consequence of the temporarily expanded warm waters, and the piscine and ophidian tourists will return to their more southerly homes as the phenomenon dissipates.
The movement of whales and sharks, on the other hand, reflects systemic stresses on the overall ocean ecology. Under ordinary meteorological conditions, the food chain-grounding phytoplankton, that prefer colder depths, are propelled toward the surface via a circulatory exchange with warmer surface waters. El Niño weakens this process, and the amount of phytoplankton decreases. This has a cascade effect on the fish who feed on phytoplankton, their predators and so on up the line, in effect forcing the entire ecosystem to drift about in search of food. Sometimes that means coming closer to shore.
And for certain shore birds – murres, and boobies and certain subspecies of cormorants among them – the presence of El Niño can be catastrophic. Much of their preferred diet also prefers cold temperatures, and being more ambulatory than plankton flees westward and down to escape the ocean’s warming, well out of reach of their predators. As a result starving or dead birds have been sighted all along the western seaboard, and even after El Niño has dissipated the populations will struggle to recover.
So what may seem to a casual observer to be the fruits of abundance is in fact a manifestation of privation. To the land dwellers of California El Niño promises relief; to those who live in its epicenter, it brings something quite different.