Whale shark spotted off Southern California

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Whale shark swims alongside Triton; photos via Long Beach Sportfishing

The number of bizarre catches or sightings off Southern California continues to rise, and on Sunday perhaps the rarest visitor to date was documented: a whale shark.

Whale sharks are the world's largest fish, reaching lengths of 30-plus feet. And while these docile plankton-eaters are often seen by divers at destinations such as Hawaii, southern Mexico, and the Sea of Cortez, they're almost never encountered off Southern California.

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The whale shark spotted Sunday, east of Santa Catalina Island, was estimated to measure 20 to 25 feet. It approached and even bumped the Triton, which runs from Long Beach Sportfishing, as anglers fished for yellowfin tuna.

"He was curious, almost playful," Triton Capt. Ryan Gengler told Phil Friedman Outdoors Radio, which broke the story. "When he bumped into us, you could feel the boat shake. I could not believe my eyes."

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The whale shark that bumped into the Triton; photo is a screen grab

Like the tuna, and other exotic visitors this summer, the whale shark ventured far north of its typical range because of a wide swath of unusually warm water, stretching from southern Baja California into California.

Chris Lowe, who runs the Shark Lab at Cal State Long Beach, was asked via email how rare this event might be. The scientist replied:

"I'd say that is very rare for our neck of the woods. I have heard accounts of occasional manta, scalloped hammerhead sharks, and wayward tiger sharks, but whale sharks are pretty rare this far north."

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Whale shark swims into shadow of the Triton; via Long Beach Sportfishing

Also on Sunday, an angler lost a four-hour battle with a blue marlin, another rare visitor to Southern California waters.

Earlier this month, a wahoo was caught off Orange County. That was another visitor from tropical or sub-tropical waters, and an extremely rare catch.

For nearly two months anglers have been catching yellowfin tuna and dorado at the offshore fishing grounds west of Orange County.

These fish sometimes venture into Southern California waters during late summer, but this invasion is the most prolific in several decades.

Sea surface temperatures off Southern California range from 70 to about 76 degrees, about five degrees above normal in many locations.

Many are crediting a developing El Niño, a warming in the equatorial Pacific, which alters weather patterns. The latest forecast from NOAA states that there's a 60 to 65 percent chance of El Niño becoming fully developed during the Northern Hemisphere fall and winter.

In any case, the sea surface warming stems from a lack of coastal upwelling that is typical in late spring and early summer, and caused by strong winds.

When upwelling occurs, cool waters from deep in the water column are brought to the surface and chilling occurs. Without upwelling, the water warms and gates open for species that typically are found off Mexico and elsewhere in warmer climates.

Among other rare visitors to Southern California this summer have been Bryde's whales, also called tropical whales, and pilot whales.

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