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Red Crabs Invade Southern California Beaches In Search Of Warm Water


There's something strange happening along the coast of Southern California. It's the latest in a string of rare phenomena that scientists link to unusually warm ocean waters. NPR's Kirk Siegler went to have a look.

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: Gaze out over the wooden railing on the Newport Beach pier, and you can't miss this long, bright-red line cutting across the sand for miles on the beach. Get closer, and you can see that this red blob is moving.

UNIDENTIFIED BOY: There's a big one. There's a big one.

SIEGLER: These are actually rare pelagic red crabs, tens of thousands of them, in fact. They're a couple inches long. They look more crayfish than crab. They're a hit with kids.

TYLA ROBERTS: They're really cool because when people come and pick them up, they don't try to pinch you for some reason.

SIEGLER: Tyla Roberts is holding two in her palm.

TYLA: They have little hairs.

SIEGLER: It's pretty cool huh?

TYLA: And they eat from right there. They open from right there.

SIEGLER: These deep-water red crabs are usually only found in warmer waters off Baja, Mexico. The other weird thing is that they don't usually swim ashore. They're not adapted to sand, so most washing up here are dying or already dead.

TYLA: Let's go put it back in the ocean.

SIEGLER: Here in Newport, it's an active search-and-rescue operation.

TYLA: I probably saved like 20 - 15 to 20.

UNIDENTIFIED GIRL: In the morning I saved, like, 12, maybe.

SIEGLER: Armies of kids are combing the beaches, scooping up the live ones, trotting out to the waves and gently putting the red crabs back in the water.

ELISE LOCKWOOD: My brother's, like, helping putting them in the bucket, and I come pick take them out and put them into the sea 'cause he doesn't want to touch them.

RACHEL DELMASTRO: I think this one's dead.

ELISE: This one's not dead.

SIEGLER: Elise Lockwood and her cousin Rachel Delmastro are coordinating things.

ELISE: There's so many poor little crabbies dying.

SIEGLER: Their efforts are probably futile, but it is a learning experience. Scientists say this invasion of pelagic red crabs is offering a glimpse into a part of the marine world that's rarely seen.

DAVE BADER: Every now and then, the ocean sort of gives up some of her secrets and lets, you know, the lay person, the typical folk at the beach, get to see what she's really all about.

SIEGLER: At the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach, marine biologist Dave Bader says the last time there was a major sighting of pelagic crabs was back in the '80s. Then, like now, there was an El Nino warming the Pacific.

BADER: We've had the same temperature water we have right now we had back in January. Actually, it was a little bit warmer, even, back in January. So we've had just this anomaly of warm water, and with that, we're going to find those animals that live in that warm water as well, including the pelagic red crabs.

SIEGLER: There have also been rare sighting of by-the-wind sailor and black jellyfish, to name two. Bader says a prolonged warming event would be trouble for mammals like whales and sea lions. But for now, the crab sightings are pretty amazing and a little sad for tourists like Amy Maclean and her son Owen.

AMY MACLEAN: So I was back there watching him, and he kept picking them up and running to the ocean. He goes, I want to give them a second chance at life (laughter).

OWEN: I was like, second chance.

SIEGLER: Kirk Siegler, NPR News Newport Beach, Calif. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As a correspondent on NPR's national desk, Kirk Siegler covers rural life, culture and politics from his base in Boise, Idaho.