Imagine you are a creature that lives in an extreme habitat here in the Northwest.
Temperatures can fluctuate between 45-85 degress Farenheit – all in the same day. At times you are submerged under very cold water, and other times the sun bakes down and you have to protect yourself from dehydration for hours on end. When there is water surrounding you, sometimes it has a high salt content, other times it is mostly fresh. Some days, when you are not in the water, there are cold winds that blast you from all sides. Water and rocks often crash into you, putting you in danger of being dislodged from your chosen spot. And, throughout all of these extremes, you need to stay safe from predators too.
Where are you? In a tide pool on the Washington coast.
By definition, tide pools are simply holes or crevices that stay filled with water once the tide goes out. Some can be large and others can just be the wet area under a rock. Some tide pools are below the low-tide line and have ocean water in them most of the time. But tide pools that are above the low-tide line are exposed to air much of the day. These are the ones where the animals must survive the most extreme conditions.
What are you? Here in the Northwest, you could be one of many different creatures that call tide pools their home. There are several kinds of sea stars, crabs, anemones and barnacles. There are also gunnel fish, often mistaken for eels, and other kinds of small fish like sculpins. Snails, chitons and sea cucumbers also use the tide pools. There are also many interesting plants and kinds of algae that are found in or near tide pools. Two easily recognizable local favorites are Turkish towel and rockweed. And certainly there are birds using the areas around tide pools.
All of the plant and animal life found in tide pool habitats must adapt to the extreme conditions. How do they do it? Many have hard shells or tough skin. Some burrow down into the wet soil. Others hunker down and go into a kind of sleep to conserve energy and water.
Barnacles are a good example of how tide pool animals are well adapted to daily periods of extreme conditions. Their calcite shells are impermeable, and they possess two plates which they slide across their mouth opening when not feeding to keep the water in. These plates also protect against predation.
Since the animals you might see at low tide have such a hard life due to the extreme conditions, it is especially important that humans explore tide pools gently. Turning over rocks to look for critters is fun, but if the rock is not placed back carefully, whatever life is exposed will likely not survive as they dry out and burn in the sun.
Touching the animals can really add to the experience, but be careful. Crabs have pincers for a reason. And, it really does help the animals out if you wet your hands before touching. Finally, it is best to leave the animals where they are instead of trying to pry them off a rock, or scoop them out of the water. Call your friend or family member over to you when you want to share something. Don’t remove an animal from its home to wave it around. They don’t like it any more than you would.
Most of our local beaches are located in preserves or parks where all life is protected. That means that no collecting is allowed. Taking one crab or pretty rock off the beach may not seem like a big deal, but multiply that by the hundreds of people visiting a beach on a low tide day and you can imagine the impact.
Low tides are pretty good for tide pooling in Washington this month. To maximize your viewing opportunities, try to be at the beach at least 30 minutes on either side of low tide.
Some suggested dates to go tide pooling this summer include Aug. 1-2. Keep in mind that low tide times and heights depend on the beach you are visiting. For complete low tide information for each site and date you choose, use a website like saltwatertides.com.
Living on the Puget Sound, we have many wonderful beaches to explore during low tides. A list of some local favorites spots include Titlow Beach (Tacoma), Salter’s Point (Steilacoom), Kopachuck State Park (Gig Harbor), Joemma Beach (Key Peninsula), Saltwater State Park (Des Moines), the Purdy Spit (Purdy) and Tolmie State Park (Olympia).
TO LEARN MORE
• Download a colored field guide of beach life that you can use to explore a local beach at tacomanaturecenter.org.
• To learn more about the life you find along the shore, join one of the many programs offered by Harbor Wildwatch (harborwildwatch.org), Metro Parks Tacoma (metroparkstacoma.org) or South Sound Estuary Association (sseacenter.org).