In which I investigate why, on a sunny December afternoon in 2012, Pup and I discovered that Seacliff Beach was covered with thousands of beached squid . . . 

6:00 AM. They hadn’t yet beached when my neighbor took Daisy Duke out for her morning constitutional. He noticed something odd, though. He reported an enormous forest of kelp had been drifting just outside the swells. He assumed it had probably been torn up from the previous week’s rain and was drifting in on the high tide.

8:00 AM. The tide was ebbing when my friend Jen showed up for her beach walk. There was no fresh kelp, only the drying mounds that had been deposited several days several days earlier. But she DID see – piled on top of those briny vines – a few squid. Alive, fat, 2-3 foot long, with the clear black pupils of very fresh fish. She said some other beachgoers tried to drag them back to sea to save their lives, but the squid insisted on wriggling out of the water to breathe their last.

humboldt squid


Later in the day …

2:00 PM. I didn’t yet know about these earlier events. Pup and I arrived at the beach for our walk and were pretty darned shocked to see beached squid as far as the eye could see. They littered the sand in both directions. My son happened to call me on his break from work just then. As I described the scene, he identified them as Humboldt squid. We walked along the high tide line from Rio Del Mar to New Brighton and estimated there were thousands. People passing by were mildly freaked out. Did I know kind of squid they were? What happened? Why are they here?  Where did they come from? Is the ocean toxic? The squid were too fresh for the gulls to eat or for the dogs to start rolling in. It was fairly disconcerting.

beached humboldt squid


A little about Humboldt squid…

Humboldt squid are enormous, elusive creatures. They are rumored, in part because of videos like this one, to be voracious and aggressive, bringing down deep-sea divers in Mexico’s warm waters.

But these squid were neither enormous nor elusive. They were juveniles, all around two feet long, and were everywhere.

What happened to the squid?

Spectator speculation that afternoon was wild. People who normally mind their own business and get on with their beach walks wanted to talk. Everyone I spoke with had their own idea as to what had happened. They got tangled in the kelp and lost their way. The ocean had gotten so polluted they drowned. Maybe they were hungry, chasing bait, and washed up. Then the story hit the papers. In the weeks that followed everyone from ABC to NBC to CBS the Huffington Post to National Geographic reported on the mystery.

So many questions! First, why were the Humboldt squid in the cold waters of the Monterey Bay in the first place? At the time, their normal habitat was in warm Pacific waters from Chile to Mexico. That’s the easiest to answer; most likely warmer ocean currents lured the squid into the Monterey Bay. 2012 was the third warmest La Niña year on record, and the ocean temperature that day was several degrees warmer than average. I saw the occasional jellyfish and young sunfish washed up around this time, both creatures that chase warmer currents.

Secondly, why were thousands of juvenile Humboldt squid committed to beaching themselves en masse? Seems it could have been the result of a red tide – a type of algal bloom in which domoic acid is released. Even though it’s generally safe to swim during a red tide, lifeguards here will warn kids out of the water anyway. But it’s eating shellfish contaminated with the stuff that can make you seriously ill. Same follows for the ocean animals. Sea lions that eat contaminated krill have seizures and act in bizarre ways.

But it wasn’t the first time …

The effects of domoic acid poisoning is even the inspiration behind Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds.” One night in August of 1961, thousands of disoriented sooty shearwaters flew directly into walls and buildings in Santa Cruz.

Hitchcock lived in here at the time and was inspired by the following day’s headline by Santa Cruz Sentinel reporter Wally Trabing:

Seabird Invasion Hits Coastal Homes;
Thousands of Birds Floundering in Streets

A massive flight of sooty shearwaters, fresh from a feast of anchovies, collided with shoreside structures from Pleasure Point to Rio del Mar during the night.

Residents, especially in the Pleasure Point and Capitola area, were awakened about 3 a.m. today by the rain of birds slamming against their homes.

Dead and stunned seabirds littered the streets and roads in the foggy, early dawn. Startled by the invasion, residents rushed out on their lawns with flashlights, then rushed back inside, as the birds flew toward their light.

Television aerial supports were severed, and one power line was shorted out about 4 a.m. on Merrill Avenue when the birds hitting the lines slapped them together

The Sentinel followed the story all week. As the August 21, 1961 Santa Cruz Sentinel reported:

“Hollywood mystery producer Alfred Hitchcock phoned The Sentinel Saturday to let us know he is using last Friday’s edition as research material for his latest thriller.

Hitchcock, who owns a home in the hills near Scotts Valley, had phoned from Hollywood early Friday morning and requested a copy of the paper be mailed to him there.

(clipping courtesy

Speculation at the time was that the birds had become disoriented in a thick fog that had settled in that night. That’s the storyline that made it into Hitchcock’s film “The Birds.” If you don’t remember the exact dialogue, here’s a snippet:

Mitch: Mrs. Bundy, you said something about Santa Cruz. About seagulls getting lost in the fog, and heading in for the lights.

Deke: We don’t have any fog this time of year, Mitch.

Mitch: We’ll make our own fog.

Understanding the science behind beached sea animals

It wasn’t until 1991 that a UC Santa Cruz researcher hypothesized a domoic acid connection. Finally in 2012, the very year of this squid beaching, Scripps Institute scientists proved that a kind of zooplankton called Pseudo-nitzschia that makes domoic acid was definitely responsible for the 1961 shearwater disorientation. KQED has more information on the story you can read here.

Domoic acid poisoning has made it into other stories. It was a plot line in an episode of the Sherlock Holmes series “Elementary.” I’d be interested to know if there are any novels that use this as a device.

Sounds like a good idea for a biological science-fiction thriller some day called “The Squid” . . .


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