Thousands of fiery red crabs wash ashore in Newport Beach

A pelagic red crab encounters a seashell on Balboa Island on Wednesday morning after thousands of the tiny crustaceans came ashore with the high tide.
(Don Leach / Daily Pilot)

Drawn north by warm ocean waters, thousands of candy-red crabs rarely seen in coastal Southern California have washed ashore in Newport Beach.

The tiny red pelagic crabs came ashore with the high tide this week, scampering across the sands, bobbing in the shallow waters and adding a splash of color to the beachfront.

“They look like baby lobsters,” said Kevin Kramp, a Balboa Island resident who spotted a cluster of the crustaceans relaxing in the shade of a dock. “Someone get the butter.”


The crabs, known as Pleuroncodes planipes, are about 4 inches long, have three small legs on each side of their bodies and two pincers in front, much like a miniature lobster. Their tails are segmented, causing them to swim backward.

The crabs more often inhabit the warm waters along the lower west coast of Baja California, experts say, and are believed to spend the majority of the year hiding on sandy ocean bottoms.

However, during the spring, the crabs travel in dense schools and occasionally wash ashore, said Southern California Marine Institute director Daniel Pondella II.

But this marks the first time in years that Pondella has heard of them being seen in Southern California.

“This is the first warm year we’ve had in quite awhile,” he said. “It could just be a sign of the warm water we’re currently experiencing.”

Some experts estimate that warm southern currents may distribute the crabs into Southern California every six to 10 years.

A thick blanket of the fiery red crabs surfaced in the late ‘90s, and again several years later in the Channel Islands and oceanographers at the time saw them as a possible indicator of an advancing El Nino weather pattern.

Their arrival puts them in league with other nonnative animals seen off the Southern California coast in recent years, such as blue marlin, whale sharks, wahoo, yellowfin tuna, manta rays and by-the-wind sailors – a blob-likejellyfish that skims along the surface of the ocean.

Newport Beach resident Darren Zinter initially thought the crabs were tiny frogs because of how close they were swimming to the surface of the water. Zinter grabbed one to get a closer look before setting it free.

“I’ve never seen these things before,” Zinter said. “It’s incredible.”