What are the odd sea creatures that look like fingers found recently off California’s coastline?

They looked like little severed fingers, or big bumpy worms, dotting the sand.

Another odd sea creature has been washing up on Orange County’s shoreline recently, the latest ones called free-floating colonial tunicates, which are typically found out in the open ocean.

A few dozen dotted the sand in San Clemente Friday, June 25, pushed up by the extreme high tides and unable to get back into the ocean – until a group of kids plucked them up and put them back in the water.

“I’ve never seen them here before,” said Susan Latin, who marveled with a group of nearby kids who found the creatures. “We thought they were a toy, but then we saw them all over the place. They are so cool. I’m a teacher, so this sort of stuff fascinates me.”

Marine biologist Julianne Steers with the Beach Ecology Coalition identified the sea creatures, which have also been spotted in recent weeks sporadically off Huntington Beach and Laguna Beach, but not in the numbers as found in San Clemente last week, she said.

She’s seen the tunicates floating out in the ocean during dives off Catalina and San Clemente islands, but recent swells likely pushed them to shore.

“There’s been an outrageous bloom of them lately, over the past couple months,” she said. “The current has been tracking them south toward San Clemente, probably with the recent swells.”

They are made up of thousands of individuals, or clones, that function together as a colony, uniting together to make one long tubular structure, she said. The free-floating colonial tunicates also have a bioluminescent feature, glowing in dark waters.

They can get massive, up to 10-feet long or more, though the ones spotted in San Clemente were only about 3 inches.

“You almost want to put them on each one of your fingers and make little puppets – they are just so peculiar looking,” Steers said.

They are not strong swimmers, moving by taking in water and expelling it.

“If there’s a current, they can’t get out of it – they just ride it all the way back to shore and can’t turn around and go back,” Steers said. “They just land on shore and with the extreme high tide and low tide we had this past week, they get up and they are stranded for a while. The high tide comes and take it back.”

Those that get stuck on the sand, however, dry out and die.

“They need to be immersed to stay living,” Steers said. “Their way of breathing and feeding is all by being in water and propelling themselves through water – if they are not propelling, they are not breathing. In a sense, it’s suffocation on the shoreline. If they can get back without drying out, there’s some hope.”

A group of friends helped the stranded critters found at the Linda Lane beach north of the San Clemente Pier, plucking them from the sand and setting them down into the ocean.

Sarah Dunivant, an 11-year-old from San Clemente, was especially intrigued, feeling one of the tunicates’ firm-but-squishy, bumpy texture. Most were put back into the sea, but a few went home with her, stored with sea water inside her face mask, for further inspection as an at-home marine biology project.

The tunicates are more common than some of the other ocean oddities that have washed up on shore the past few months, such as the sharp-toothed football fish found dead at Crystal Cove and a slender snipe eel that washed up a few weeks back at Linda Lane.

Steers speculates the cooler water is helping increase the tunicates’ food supply – temperatures have been cooling after the warmer waters seen five years ago during El Nino summers.
“We just haven’t seen a lot of them for a while,” she said. “With warm water, there was a decrease in supply. Now, it’s had enough time to bounce back from that.”

Steers thinks there may be food – microscopic plankton – offshore helping them bloom.

“They are happy and healthy and they will be in full abundance,” she said. ”They are very, very cool.”