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Why Is Santa Cruz Awash in Dead Squid?

Beaches are littered with a trail of rotting cephalopods stretching for 11 miles.


If you're the kind of person who likes to poke dead things with a stick, there's no better place to be right now than Santa Cruz County. Hundreds of corpulent squid recently washed onto local beaches and began decomposing in the sun, forming a squishy buffet line for seagulls nearly 11 miles long.

It's quite weird for this slimy squadron to have chosen Santa Cruz for a mass beaching. The Humboldt squids, large predators known for their aggression toward scuba divers, typically favor the deeper waters of the Pacific from southern California down to Argentina. But they've been appearing around Monterey Bay more often in recent years, with the previous wave of cephalopods slithering onto land in October in Pacific Grove.

When the dead squids started appearing around last week, researchers at Stanford University's Hopkins Marine Station – home to famed squid whisperer William Gilly – considered a couple of theories for their encroaching presence. One is that climate change is warming the waters around South America, driving the cold-loving creatures northward. Another is that a bloom of neurotoxin-excreting red algae addled the squids' brains, leaving their navigational systems twisted around.

This weekend, the researchers announced that toxic algae was probably to blame for the latest marooning, reports LiveScience:

Each of the strandings has corresponded to a red tide, in which algae bloom and release an extremely potent brain toxin, Gilly said. This fall, the red tides have occurred every three weeks, around the same time as the squid beachings, he said. (The squid have been stranding in large numbers for years, with no known cause.)

"It's not exactly a smoking gun, but it's pretty circumstantial evidence that there is some link," Gilly [said].

Santa Cruz residents must be getting used to suntanning next to rotting piles of tentacles and beaks. In 2008, the carcass of a 25-foot-long giant squid was found floating among the waves, without eyes and various body parts. During the summer of 2009, locals woke up to find dozens of heavy squid slapping around on the sand. What followed was an ill-fated salvage attempt, reported NBC:

It didn’t take long for the seagulls to swoop in and start feeding on the squid, so beachgoers ran to the rescue and tried frantically to save them by throwing them back in the water. That proved to be a difficult task for several reasons – they were extremely heavy, very slippery, and when the good Samaritans did manage to get them back them in water, the squid didn’t know where to go and kept washing back up.

That mass stranding was blamed by some on a 4.0 earthquake that struck miles offshore.

This is what strolling the sands of Santa Cruz looked like last week. Definitely not a good day to be walking in the surf barefoot:

Top photo courtesy of mikeledray on Shutterstock.

About the Author

  • John Metcalfe
    John Metcalfe is CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, based in Oakland. His coverage focuses on climate change and the science of cities.