A wave crashes against a rock encrusted with numerous white volcano-shaped shells, and jointed legs emerge from those shells that sweep food particles out of the seawater. On the shore, a crab in a small pool pinches some of these volcano-shaped barnacles and puts them in its mouth. The glassy surface of the pool ripples when a wave bathes it. Also in that pool, it seems that someone left the sole of their shoe in the water, but that’s a shit. The five-armed starfish, also known as a starfish, is often there too, crawling on its dozens or hundreds of feet of tube. “Starfish” is now considered the correct name for this animal, yes, it is shaped like a star, but technically it is not a fish.
The tide is rising. And for the many organisms exposed to dry wind and sun, each advance of the waves means that the relief is getting closer. Some, like barnacles and anemones, are stuck in place, while others, like starfish, sea urchins, and chitons, move very slowly, while others, like the esculin, a small fish, they move quickly in the blink of an eye.
Along the California coast, where the coastline is rocky, you can go looking for plants and animals that live between high and low tides, the intertidal zone. Curiosity and keen eyesight are the most important tools to have for this activity, and a field guide can add to the enjoyment. A good beginner’s guide is “Pacific Intertidal Life” by Ron Russo and Pam Olhausen. Ron Russo also wrote a guide called “Fishes of the Pacific Coast” that could be helpful in identifying the smallest fish you can find in a tidal pool. If you’re only interested in shells, then Percy A. Morris’s “A Field Guide to the Shells of the Pacific Coast and Hawaii” may be the book for you. A good reference book with lots of pictures is “California Intertidal Invertebrates” by Morris, Abbott, and Haderlie. Finally, if you are also interested in observing other types of wildlife, consider the “Complete Field Guide to the Wildlife of North America (Western Edition)” published by Harper and Row. And if you have a smartphone, you can download a tide pooling app called “California Tidepools” to use as a guide. Just make sure you don’t get your phone wet.
When planning a combined tide trip, first check the tide tables, available in navigation and dive stores, online and as a smartphone app, and find out when the lowest tides will occur. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration website lists the tide tables for the United States.
California’s two low tides per day are not the same. The lowest tides during the summer are usually very early in the morning. On the other hand, the lowest tides in autumn and winter usually occur in the afternoon or at night. In any case, try to get to a rocky spot well before the expected low tide, such as 1½ to 2 hours before, so that the tide will continue to drop when you get there, exposing more area for exploration and giving yourself more time to explore. With so many people using smartphones, you can set alarms on your device to alert you when it is time to go to the tide pool and when it is time to leave, to help ensure your safety. And with that smartphone in hand, you have a convenient way to image the plants and animals you find so you can identify them later.
The WikiHow website has an excellent article on how to use tide tables. One thing to note about the tide table is that zero indicates average low tides, not sea level. You can see the low tides listed with a positive number, which simply means that the low tide at that time is not as low as average, while the negative low tides are lower than average. In this system, high tides are always positive numbers. A low tide that is shown as zero is right in the average of the area that the tide table refers to. Negative low tides are especially good for viewing tide pools because there will be more exposed surface to explore. Tide pools that are not normally accessible may also be available.
With today’s sports / action camcorders, which come in their own waterproof housing, you can use a camcorder at the end of a selfie stick to record videos of hard-to-reach creatures in the pool for later review. These cameras can have varying degrees of wide-angle recording, so you’ll want to reduce the angle as much as your action camera allows so that objects appear closer.
Seven tips will help you get the most out of the combination of tides:
- Rocks in the intertidal zone can be slippery, especially when covered in algae. Watch your step.
- The water in the waves and in the channels will be cold, so it may be worth buying neoprene shoes and gloves to protect your feet and hands from the cold. Neoprene can also protect you from sharp rocks and sea urchin spines.
- The ocean occasionally forms an unusually large wave that could wash you away. Be on the lookout for these “unruly” waves.
- Don’t let the incoming tide block your outflow, as when the shoreline has points of land that form cliffs on either side.
- Treat all life with respect. Many good tidal pool areas are on state beaches, where intertidal organizations are protected by law. Beyond that, remember that these creatures are not visitors like you, they live here. Searching for them under rocks is fine, as long as you replace them as you found them.
- If you are trying to see fish swimming in a tidal pool instead of hiding, try getting closer to the pool so that your shadow doesn’t fall over the pool and scare the fish away. You can also try approaching from a crouch rather than standing up straight.
- Although names are important, don’t get obsessed with them. As one biologist wrote: “Names … contain such satisfying magic that we often fool ourselves into thinking that labeling something correctly is knowing everything. ‘That’s Arbacia, a sea urchin!’ we say, and we move on, satisfied that we have dealt properly with the beast and now we understand its niche in the cosmos. “
Loosen the kidneys of your curiosity and see each “beast” for how wonderful it is. If you go often enough, you will find that these animals will get to know you and each trip will be like visiting old friends.
According to the California Beaches website, the best places to see tide pools are:
Cabrillo and La Jolla National Monument, San Diego County; Little Corona del Mar, Orange County; Abalone Cove and Leo Carrillo, Los Angeles County;
Oro Mountain, North Point Beach and Shell Beach, San Luis Obispo County; Asilomar, Moss Landing, Natural Bridges and Point Lobos, Monterey County; Half Moon Bay and Moss Beach, San Mateo County;
Agate County Park, Marin County; Sonoma Coast State Beach, Salt Point State Park, Fort Ross State Historic Park, Sonoma County; Russian Gulch State Park and MacKerricher State Park, Mendocino County; Patrick’s Point State Park, Humboldt County, and Del Norte Coast Redwoods State Park, Del Norte County.
Learning to read a tide table is well explained in a WikiHow article.
This website dedicated to California beaches has information on places to go to tidal pools: http://www.californiabeaches.com
The California state park system has a website for teachers who may be taking classes on tide pool excursions: https://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=24075