Our Window on Nature

. . . exploring the world around us

Tidepooling Weather

Filed under: Environment — Lowell Christie -- July 1, 2006 @ 3:44 pm

Sea Anemone

Easterners call it the seashore; in the west it’s known as the beach. Either way, that alluring band of land at the ocean’s edge attracts countless visitors hoping to escape the summer heat. There strange creatures live in a watery world of sand, rocks, shells, and seaweed. It’s a place for exploration at a snail’s pace – for a leisurely look into the hidden wonders of a tidepool.

You won’t find tidepools just anywhere along the ocean. Where you look, what time you look, and to some extent even the season you choose determines whether you see a broad variety of life forms or merely sterile sand.

Tidepools occur more commonly on the Pacific than on the Atlantic coast because of its abundance of rocky shoreline. Where crashing waves carve out basins in the rock, tiny crabs, snails, and fish go about their Lilliputian business even when the tide goes out.

The further the tide recedes, the more life you find. And if you arrange your visit to coincide with the lowest tides of the year, you’ll uncover an exciting new world to explore.

All tides not being created equal, the height of the tide depends upon where and when you stand at the water’s edge. The Atlantic coast has two tides daily of roughly equal height, yet on the Gulf of Mexico there is only one. And over on the Pacific, that land of extravagance and extremes, the heights of its two daily tides differ greatly, giving rise to such confusing nomenclature as high-high tides and low-high tides.

The highest and lowest tide of the year occur only six hours apart, and naturally it is the lowest low tide that most interests the beachcomber. Then you find tidepools that emerge from the ocean only once a year. But again east and west go their individual ways with their schedules of maximum tides occuring in different seasons.

Maximum tides on the Atlantic occur dependably with the spring and autumn equinoxes – on the Pacific it’s during midsummer and midwinter instead. And it was during the June minimum tide that we discovered our personal tidepool treasure trove.

On the California coast, about 75 miles north of the Golden Gate, lies Salt Point State Park. Because of its somewhat isolated location, Salt Point is overlooked by nearly everyone but the abalone divers who congregate at times of minimum tides to collect their limit of this Pacific Coast shellfish.

But even though we can expect to be surrounded by crowds in the campground, when the tide is at its lowest we are still able to explore the undersea world accompanied only by the sounds of the surf and the gulls. For within Salt Point State Park lies Gerstle Cove Marine Reserve, a small patch of unspoiled shoreline where the taking of any species of marine life is absolutely forbidden. Far from the abalone hunters searching for mollusks, we lose ourselves in the wonders of a rocky shoreline drained of water.

It’s fortunate that minimum tides occur in summer here, because when you explore this cove you are sure to get wet. Wear tattered jeans and sneakers with tread, and use caution as you clamber over rocks coated with slippery seaweed. But wet feet are forgotten in the joy of finding orange gumboot chitons as large as your foot and twenty-armed sea stars in vibrant red and blue.

Progress over the rocks is slow, but that doesn’t matter since it takes time to peer into every cranny looking for octopus eggs and spiny sea urchins. Sea anemones cluster in colonies that look like undersea gardens as they wave their colorful tentacles in a constant search for food. Most of them are stay-at-homes, permanently attached to the rocks, but one species of anemone makes its home on the “roof” of a hermit crab. The hermit carries around the empty snail shell home that it has appropriated from the ocean floor, and the Adamsia anemone attaches itself to this shell for a free ride.

That’s not the only anemone that has a long-standing relationship with another species. The green anemone so common on the west coast is rather colorless by itself, but within its tissues lives an algae that gives the anemone its seafoam green appearance.

But the most vivid colors of the tidepools are the nudibranchs. These elusive little creatures are occasionally found clinging to wisps of seaweed. You see a startling flash of brilliant red, purple, or gold – perhaps striped with lateral lines of a contrasting color. Like a tiny piece of pop art fabric wafting in the current, these “naked snails” are among the most delightful tidepool creatures.

If you’re heading toward the ocean this summer, take along a tide table and some wading shoes, and leave your collecting bucket behind. Tidepooling is a sport for any age, and if you carry away only memories, those who come after you won’t be cheated of their own experience. Whether you use guidebooks to identify the creatures or simply sit and watch their antics, it’s one of the best ways we know of to spend a summer afternoon.


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