When the tide recedes, a coastal classroom is unveiled, giving a glimpse into the lives of creatures wedged between tidepools at rocky outcroppings exposed along Southern California’s shoreline.
Winter tides have extreme highs and lows, providing citizen scientists, ocean lovers and visitors in town for the holidays to learn about the marine habitat.
This weekend is expected to provide one of the biggest tidal swings of the year.
At Point Vicente Interpretive Center in Rancho Palos Verdes, docents direct beachgoers to the best places at nearby Abalone Cove Shoreline Park and Ecological Reserve. If you’re lucky, you might even see a gray whale pass with the help of volunteers perched on cliffs doing their annual census project.
Guided tours are scheduled through the holidays from Cabrillo Marine Aquarium in San Pedro, with a chance to ask questions from docents.
You can’t really learn to appreciate anything unless you know about it,” said Carl Carranza, aquarium educator for CMA. “The more you learn, the more you’re like, ‘Wow, that’s cool.’ Now you have a vested interest in keeping it safe and clean and protecting it. When you just read about it in a book or see it on the internet, you might not get that connection.”
Everything is trying to survive.
That’s how Andrew Dandy, outreach specialist for the Ocean Institute in Dana Point, explained life in the tidepools during a two-hour hike on a recent day.
“They have these incredible adaptations, and we do as well,” he said of the sea creatures commonly found in tidepools. “We’re all just striving to live. It’s interesting to get people down here to see how different species survive.”
Dandy started his tour talking about the tides — how the moon’s pull makes the water bulge, then pulls it back again.
He talked about the common sights as the tides go down, such as muscles sticking onto rocky outcroppings and sea anemones that cool beneath the sand and flinch when touched.
Once in awhile, explorers find a sea star — in recent years a rarer sight after a sea star-wasting disease a few years ago wiped out millions of the species all along the West Coast.
“They are coming back, that’s good news,” Dandy said.
During the hike, Dandy stumbled across a not-so-welcome sight — a lobster net wedged between rocks and some golf balls. He shook his head at the debris that washed up.
His favorite creature to find? A two-spotted octopus.
“I’m always excited when I see an octopus, just because they are so intelligent and clever with their disguise,” he said. “They don’t have any bone. They can fit into any space they want.”
Guided or on your own
Similar tidepooling tours are given by docents up and down the Southern California coastline, especially during extreme low tides.
At the Cabrillo Marine Aquarium, a series of tidepool hikes are being held daily through the end of the year, as well as a New Year’s Day hike at the Point Fermin tidepools. The tour starts with a slide show in the John M. Olguin Auditorium, followed by a naturalist-led tour on rocks to see the animals in their habitat.
Carranza said the tour is a good introduction for people new to tidepooling. He gives a lecture, talking about the creatures living in pools of water, such as hermit crabs that can be seen scampering through the water holes.
The advantage of the guided tour is that you have someone around to answer questions.
There are benefits of exploring on your own, as well, he said. But if you do go without a guide, know the rules.
“Be aware that you are experiencing the living spaces of many, many creatures. You can’t just go tromping through like it’s your living room,” Carranza said. “We encourage people to go out and walk around, even touch if they do it gently.”
Never remove an animal — and never step into the pools of water.
“You are definitely crushing animals if you do that,” Carranza said. “The animals in the water can’t handle the impact. Watch where you step — stop and look.”
Carranza has an insider tip for the best tidepooling: go during the cold, drizzly days. That’s when the creatures come out from hiding.
“The animals don’t like the sunny days,” he said. “Everything is more active because it’s cooler and things are wet. And there’s less people out there.”
Another tip: Rocks can be slippery, so make sure to wear tennis shoes. Also, always ask lifeguards about dangers such as big surf or incoming tides.
For Dandy, his hope is that beachgoers — especially visitors coming to town during the holidays — take away lessons from the tidepool tours that they’ll remember for the rest of their lives.
“I think when you understand something more, you’re more compassionate toward it,” he said. “That will create an atmosphere where people are more willing to conserve animals. If you don’t understand something, why should you care about it?”