Beasts of the Sea…Alive!

Step aside strange dead aquatic creatures like beaked whales and oarfishes – there’s plenty of other interesting beasties that can be found in our SoCal waters.  In fact, two such critters were recently caught by fishermen off the Manhattan Beach pier. And they were alive, not dead…

First, a young salmon shark raised eyebrows from pier fishermen and nearby Roundhouse Marine Studies Lab and Aquarium staff.  The spunky youngster was a complete surprise to the fisherman who regularly fishes the pier, says Roundhouse Marine Studies Lab and Aquarium Facility Director Eric Martin.

Salmon shark, photo by the Roundhouse Aquarium
Salmon shark, photo by the Roundhouse Aquarium

“We weren’t sure if it was a salmon shark at first because we didn’t have time to check out its teeth,” says Martin explaining that shark – a relative to the white and mako shark – needed to be put back in the water quick lest it dies. “It’s the first one I’ve ever seen here caught from the pier,” says Martin.

After posing for pix, the small shark – which can, when full grown, be 10 feet long – was quickly returned to the ocean where, Martin says, “it had a burst of energy and took off. We were glad to see that.”

Oddly enough, Martin was out on the water a few days earlier checking dolphins and whales and spied what he thought was a larger salmon shark.  “It was about 4 foot long and I didn’t get a photo of it,” he says. “But it’s extremely weird that a few days later a salmon shark shows up at the pier.”

Apparently though, it’s not that weird. Not oarfish or beaked whale weird at least.

“There’s been lot of reports of salmon sharks in our area this year,” confirms shark expert Dr. Christopher Lowe, a professor at CSULB who heads up SharkLab. “It’s not uncommon since the Southern California bight is a nursing ground for many sharks including the salmon shark.”

The adult salmon shark hangs out in the warm months up in the northern waters of Washington and British Columbia (they aren’t called salmon sharks for nothing) and they swim down to our neck of the woods to give birth in the winter.

What’s been odd for salmon sharks this year, says Lowe, is that about five youngsters have been found stranding on SoCal shores from San Diego to Santa Barbara, something that hasn’t ever been seen before.  Pathologists are tracing that behavior back to a possible biological culprit that attacks the shark’s nervous system producing a form of meningitis. More to come on that front.

Lowe was pleased that the fisherman who caught the young salmon shark on the Manhattan Beach was released back into the water.  “That was the right thing to do,” he says.

Last week another fisherman also had the chance to do the right thing at Manhattan Beach pier when he hauled in a butterfly ray. “This was a very big ray, about 4-feet in wingspan,” says Martin. “In the last 20 years, I only know of three that have been caught around here.”

Butterfly Ray, photo from the Roundhouse Aquarium
Butterfly Ray, photo from the Roundhouse Aquarium

The triangular-shaped ray was quickly examined and then also released.

Once again, however, this was not a weird rare critter according to Sandy Trautwein, curator of fishes and invertebrates at the Aquarium of the Pacific. “But it’s a beautiful ray,” she says, “and these catches remind us of all the diversity that we have in our waters.”

Butterfly rays are common off our coast but apparently they are picky eaters which is why you won’t find them in the tanks at the Aquarium of the Pacific. “You can find this kind of ray from here all the way down to Peru,” says Trautwein.

These two recent catches at Manhattan pier might not make headlines with their weird factor, but like Trautwein says, they illustrate there’s so much more wildlife in our waters than we can envision.

Still, Martin is excited to witness these recent finds, critters he’s never seen before at the pier. “What’s next?” he says. “A colossal squid? Hey, it could happen! I’m waiting for that!”

— Brenda Rees, editor