It’s the day before Summer Solstice and it’s only 79 degrees Fahrenheit outside. I’m considering whether I need to put a sweater on because there’s a brisk breeze blowing in off the sea that is chilling me as it hits my bare shoulders. A week ago, I had to put a lightweight hooded sweater on over my t-shirt in the middle of the day and resorted to donning full length yoga pants because I was so cold. The mercury didn’t get much higher than 77 degrees that day. Normally at this time of year I’d be sweating in shorts and a tank top. Conclusion? This is possibly the coldest June in the history of Baja’s East Cape. However, before you accuse me of being melodramatic, and in the absence of any definitive long term historical proof, let me say instead that it is definitely the coldest June I’ve personally experienced in this region.
Admittedly, this is only my eleventh June in Baja. Eleven is neither a big number, nor is it small in the context of time passage. But it is more than a handful and a decade plus one. Never before in the month of June have I needed to put a sweater on in the middle of the day. Remove my t-shirt? Definitely. Change my sports bra because it’s soaking with sweat? You bet. Take a shower and lie down under a fan on high in the middle of the day because it’s 105 degrees outside? Several times. But put on more clothes at what is the hottest time of day? Never!
Air temperatures have been uncharacteristically low because they reflect sea water temperatures, which have been near frigid. Since the middle of May, they’ve fluctuated wildly between extremes. From 84 degrees Fahrenheit one day to 62 degrees the very next – that’s a whopping 22 degree drop.
The colder the water, the thicker the wetsuit a surfer needs to wear. Wetsuit thicknesses are measured in millimeters (mm) and water temperatures of 62 degrees mean wearing a full-length wetsuit of at least 2mm thickness or going out for super short sessions in which your muscles tend to seize up. I don’t own a 2mm full suit. My shorty suit wasn’t up to the job and on more than one occasion I got out of the water with blue lips and legs that were numb from the knees down. By the end of several sessions, I had to blow into my cupped hands between sets in an attempt to warm my frigid digit. It took all my willpower to put my hands back in the biting cold water and keep my arms paddling for the next wave. Back on land again it took almost an hour of sitting in the direct sun to warm up again. While I know that there are many a surfer who experiences this regularly and to an even greater extent, bear in mind that we’re talking about surfing in the normally tepid, turquoise waters of the Sea of Cortez.
I have furthermore never seen the sea turn green. Two weeks ago, I thought I’d been teleported and was surfing in South Central California when overnight the water changed from its characteristic turquoise and azure blues to a brilliant emerald green. Apparently the colder water resulted from an upwelling event that brought nutrients from deep down in the sea to the surface causing a serious algal bloom. Then there were the jelly fish, or, as I like to call them, the Helly fish, feeding on all that phytoplankton. At the risk of being repetitive, I’ve never seen so many large gelatinous jelly fish in the water here. The water was amuck with them and more than once I managed to squeeze their fire-wielding tentacles between my leg and my surfboard to produce the kind of stinging you only wish upon your worst enemies. The resulting welts were impressive and the itching lasted for days.
It’s not just June weather that’s been strange. May was uncharacteristically cool and foggy too. From the middle of May onwards we’ve had the equivalent of what Californians call June Gloom in the East Cape – fog, wind, and shockingly cold water.
So what gives?
At first I thought it was because it’s a La Niña year. La Niña is a period during which sea surface temperatures across the equatorial Eastern Central Pacific Ocean are lower than normal by 3-5 degrees Celsius (6-9 deg F). In the United States, an episode of La Niña is defined as a period of at least five months of these types of conditions. The name La Niña is Spanish for “the girl,” analogous to El Niño meaning “the boy,” the term used for periods when sea surface temperatures are abnormally high. The only trouble is that according to meteorologists the period of La Niña weather conditions that began last year ended in March. In other words, La Niña is dead.
So I’m still scratching my head. If this weather can’t be ascribed to La Niña (abnormally low sea surface temperatures) then what is causing these cool sea breezes the temperature of which seem so abnormally low?