Tide Pools of the West Coast

Visit six locations, from California's W.R. Hearst Memorial Beach to Washington's Olympic National Park, to behold the intertidal beauty of the Pacific Coast.

green anemone at Fitzgerald Marine Reserve, image

Green anemones flower at Fitzgerald Marine Reserve in Moss Beach, Calif.

Anemones and a sea star on rocks at W.R. Hearst Memorial Beach, image

Anemones cover the rocks at W.R. Hearst Memorial Beach in San Simeon, Calif.

lemon nudibranch at Fitzgerald Marine Reserve, image

Fitzgerald Marine Reserve harbors a rainbow of cool creatures, including the lemon nudibranch.

giant green anemone at Sea Lion Cove Stornetta Public Lands, image

Photosynthetic algae live in a giant green anemone's skin at Sea Lion Cove in Point Arena, Calif.

purple sea urchins at Fitzgerald Marine Reserve, image

You'll spot spiky purple urchins during a docent-guided tour at Fitzgerald Marine Reserve.

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Few places in the world teem with as much fascinating life as the rocky reefs and tide pools of the West Coast.

Consider the cute little dogwinkle, a sea snail that drills through barnacle shells with a rasplike tongue. Or the delicate beauty of the 24-armed sunflower star—actually a voracious carnivore on the prowl for its next urchin meal.

All along our shores, prevailing winds and currents drive surface water away from land, causing nutrient-packed colder water to rise and form a vigorous soup for marine algae. This feeds plant eaters, which in turn nourish predators and scavengers.

“The variety is astounding,” says Peter Raimondi, an intertidal ecologist from UC–Santa Cruz, “and each organism is adapted for where it lives, whether out by crashing waves, in mid-zone pools, or higher on the beach.”

Tide pools are also incredibly fragile habitats. Many critters who live here can withstand frigid water, baking sun, and churning surf, but they’re as defenseless against stomping, prodding humans as they are against the larger insult of oil spills and other pollution. So proceed with caution.

The author John Steinbeck believed that “the impulse which drives a man to poetry will send another man into the tide pools.” The outstanding and easily accessed tide pools profiled here allow you to pursue that impulse. When you stare into one, noting the beauty and struggle it contains, the poetic spirit might just visit you.

Fitzgerald Marine Reserve Off Highway 1 in Moss Beach, about seven miles north of Half Moon Bay, Calif.

You might think “garden of the sea,” on first seeing Fitzgerald’s water-filled furrows full of urchins, anemones, and iridescent algae. But tide pools, like gardens, can be too loved. Before it became a protected reserve in 1969, visitors had long gathered food and souvenirs here. “Some people would collect an entire shopping bag of sea stars to decorate a house,” says Bob Breen, the reserve’s former naturalist. “The problem now is the huge number of visitors.” To stem wear and tear, docents accompany groups, and signs remind people of intertidal dos and don’ts. A new stairway allows you to visit tide pools along the beach and return by coastal bluffs. The nearby Moss Beach Distillery makes a fine perch for a sunset drink. (650) 728-3584, www.co.sanmateo.ca.us/portal/site/parks.

Sea Lion Cove, Stornetta Public Lands Off Highway 1, about three miles north of Point Arena, Calif.

For generations, Sea Lion Cove was a de facto marine reserve enjoyed only by its owners, a local farming family. “I was very fortunate to have been raised here,” says Larry Stornetta, whose family sold the site (and about 1,000 more acres) for public use in 2004. Though the rich stock of abalone declined after the public gained access—leading the state to declare the cove a protected marine conservation area—the pools remain exceptionally vibrant. Marine biologists have counted 115-plus species, including sea stars, crabs, urchins, nudibranchs, chitons, sponges, and anemones. (707) 468-4000, blm.gov/ca/st/en/fo/ukiah/stornetta.html.

Indian Beach, Ecola State Park Off Highway 101, about two miles north of Cannon Beach, Ore.

Anyone know how a sea star eats mussels?” asks naturalist Ramona Radonich. “It pries open the shell with suction-cup feet and sticks its stomach inside.” The kids on Radonich’s guided walk ooh appreciatively; the adults look squeamish. In the company of a good guide, Darwinian drama unfolds at Indian Beach. Backed by headlands where the Clatsop Loop Trail follows an 1806 Lewis and Clark route, the sandy stretch is strewed with massive rocks covered in critters like snails (“Awesome drillers,” Radonich says), chitons (“iron teeth”), and sea stars (“super predators”). Nearby Cannon Beach offers lodging, restaurants, and more tide pools around Haystack Rock. (503) 436-2844, oregonstateparks.org/park_188.php.

Beach 4, Olympic National Park Off Highway 101, about three miles north of Kalaloch, Wash.

Two years ago, a sharp-sighted visitor to this remote, foggy site made an astounding discovery: a rare sea star fossil buried in an underwater landslide as many as 20 million years ago and only recently exposed. The rock basins here are on lands occupied for millennia by the Quinault Indians, whose reservation now lies to the southwest. “From tide pools we once ate anemones, limpets, large barnacles, and seaweed,” says Leilani Chubby, curator of the Quinault Tribal Museum. “Mussel shells were used for cutting and for making leggings worn during dances. We still collect mussels on the reservation and bake them in a pit.” You’ll see a cast of the sea star fossil on tide-pool walks organized by the Kalaloch Ranger Station. (360) 962-2283, nps.gov/olym.

W.R. Hearst Memorial Beach Off Highway 1 in San Simeon, about seven miles north of Cambria, Calif.

Ruddy hermit crabs scuttle past anemone-covered rocks, bright-orange bat stars, and a bumpy purple sea star. Translucent shrimp the size of a baby’s eyelash perform an aqua ballet while strands of sea grass undulate in the current. In their quiet way, these pools are just as stunning as the over-the-top castle William Randolph Hearst built on a hilltop across the highway. You’ll find the pools to the left of the pier, beginning about a quarter mile down the beach. The Coastal Discovery Center, run by the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, loans binoculars and fanny packs containing tide-pooling guides. Five miles to the north, a coastside platform affords great views of gargantuan elephant seals, which can weigh up to 5,000 pounds. (805) 927-6575, slostateparks.com/hearst_memorial.

Cape Perpetua Scenic Area Off Highway 101, about three miles south of Yachats, Ore.

James Cook, the English sea captain, long ago chose the name Cape Perpetua for this spot where mountains plunge into the sea and dazzling pools dot a shelf of black rock above the surging surf. Today’s visitors arrive by car at a U.S. Forest Service interpretive center where you can rent a walking stick or attend a ranger program. From the center, a half-mile trail leads to pools that hold white and pink worms, purple urchins, and giant green anemones as big as saucers. A ranger can show you how to feed an urchin by gently placing a bit of sea lettuce on its outermost spines; tubular feet will rise from the prickly mass and pass the morsel to a central mouth. (541) 547-3289, www.fs.fed.us/r6/siuslaw.

Photography by David Collier

This article was first published in March 2011. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.

Tide pool etiquette Please mind your manners—and your safety.

To limit your impact on tide pools and avoid the ocean’s dangers, follow these guidelines:

  • Step on sand or bare rock, not on mussels, anemones, barnacles, or other animals. Use caution stepping on seaweed; it can be as slippery as ice.
  • In places where touching animals is allowed, do it gently with a single finger after first wetting your hands; dry fingers can damage delicate surfaces. Never pry an animal from rocks, and don’t collect anything. It’s best not to move rocks, shells, animals, or plants.
  • Never turn your back on the ocean. Check local tide tables and begin your visit at least an hour before low tide, starting close to the ocean and working your way back toward shore.
  • Stay at least 50 feet away from marine mammals—especially huge, surprisingly quick elephant seals. Getting too close disrupts animals’ natural behavior and can put you in danger.
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