Go Tidepooling in California

A wave crashes over a boulder encrusted with numerous white, volcano-shaped shells, and out of those shells jointed legs emerge and sweep food particles out of the sea water. Down shore, a crab in a small pool pinches off some of these volcano-shaped barnacles and pops them into its mouth. The pool’s glassy surface ripples as a wave showers it. Also in that pool, it looks like someone left the sole of their shoe in the water, but that’s a chiton. The five-armed sea star, aka starfish, is often there, as well, crawling around on its dozens to hundreds of tube feet. “Sea star” is now considered the correct name for this animal, yes, it is star-shaped, but it’s not technically a fish.

The tide is coming in. And to the many organisms exposed to the drying wind and sun, each advance of the waves means that relief is getting nearer. Some, like barnacles and anemones, are stuck in place, while others, like sea stars, sea urchins and chitons, move very slowly, while others, like the sculpin, a small fish, dart around in the blink of an eye.

All along California’s coast, where the shore is rocky, you can go tidepooling, looking for plants and animals that live between high and low tide, the intertidal zone. Curiosity and keen eyes are the most important tools to have for this activity, and a field guide can add to the enjoyment. A good guide for beginners is “Pacific Intertidal Life” by Ron Russo and Pam Olhausen. Ron Russo also wrote a guide called, “Pacific Coast Fish” that could be useful for identifying the smaller fish you might find in a tidepool. If you’re just interested in shells, then “A Field Guide to Shells of the Pacific Coast and Hawaii” by Percy A. Morris may be the book for you. A good reference book with lots of photographs is “Intertidal Invertebrates of California” by Morris, Abbott, and Haderlie. Finally, if you’re also interested in observing other kinds of wildlife as well, consider the “Complete Field Guide to North American Wildlife (Western Edition)” published by Harper and Row. And if you have a smartphone, you could download a tidepooling app called “California Tidepools” to use as your guide. Just make sure not to get your phone wet.

When planning a tidepooling trip, first consult tide tables, available at boating and diving shops, online, and as a smartphone app, and find out when the lowest tides will occur. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s website lists tide tables for the United States.

California’s two low tides per day are not equal. The lowest tides during the summer are usually very early in the morning. On the other hand, the lowest tides in fall and winter usually occur in the afternoon or evening. In any case, try to get to a rocky spot well before the predicted low tide, like 1-½ to 2 hours early, so that the tide will still be going out when you get there, exposing more area for exploration and giving yourself more time to explore it. With so many people using smart phones, you could set alarms on your device to let you know when it’s time to go to the tidepool and when it’s time to leave, to help ensure your safety. And with that smartphone in hand, you have a convenient way to get pictures of the plants and animals you encounter so you can identify them afterward.

The WikiHow website has an excellent article on how to use tide tables. One thing to keep in mind about the tide table is that the zero indicates the average of the low tides, not sea level. You can see low tides listed with a positive number, which simply means that the low tide at that time is not as low as the average, while negative low tides are lower than the average. In this system, high tides are always positive numbers. A low tide shown as zero is right on the average for the area to which the tide table refers. Negative low tides are especially good for viewing tidepools because there will be more surface area exposed to explore. Tidepools that aren’t normally accessible may become available, as well.

With today’s sports/action camcorders, that come in their own waterproof case, you could use a camcorder at the end of a selfie stick to record video of hard-to-reach critters in the pool for examination later. These cameras might have different degrees of wide angle recording so you’ll want to narrow the angle as much as your action cam allows so that objects appear closer.

Seven tips will help you get the most enjoyment from tidepooling:

  1. The rocks in the intertidal zone can be slippery, especially when they’re covered with algae. Watch your step.
  2. The water from waves and in channels will be cold, so it might be worth it to acquire 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.
  3. The ocean occasionally musters up an unusually large wave that might sweep you away. Keep an eye out for these “rogue” waves.
  4. Don’t let the incoming tide block your way out, such as when the shore has points of land forming cliffs on either side of it.
  5. Treat all life with respect. Many good tidepooling areas are at state beaches, where intertidal organisms are protected by law. Beyond that, remember that these critters aren’t visitors like you are – they live here. Looking for them under rocks is all right, so long as you replace those rocks as you found them.
  6. If you’re trying to see fish swimming in a tidepool instead of hiding, try approaching the pool such that your shadow doesn’t fall across the pool and startle the fish. You can also try approaching in a crouch instead of standing up straight.
  7. Although names are important, don’t get hung up on them. As one biologist wrote: “Names..contain such satisfying magic that we are often deluded into thinking that to label something properly is to know all about it. ‘That is Arbacia, a sea urchin!’ we say, and tramp on, satisfied that we have dealt with the beast appropriately and now understand its niche in the cosmos.”

Loosen the reins on your curiosity and see each “beast” for the wonder that it is. If you go often enough, you’ll find these animals become familiar to you and each trip will be like visiting old friends.

According to the California Beaches web site, the best places to see tide pools are:

Southern California:

Cabrillo National Monument, and La Jolla, San Diego County; Little Corona del Mar, Orange County; Abalone Cove and Leo Carrillo, Los Angeles County;

Central California:

Montaña de Oro, 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;

Northern California:

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 how to read a tide table is well explained in a WikiHow article.

This website devoted to California’s beaches has information on places to go tidepooling: http://www.californiabeaches.com

California’s state park system has a website for teacher’s who might be taking classes on field trips to see tidepools: https://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=24075

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