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TIDE POOLING 101

Nature is most definitely our greatest teacher. For proof, spend a couple of low-tide hours at the beach. San Diego’s coastline is blessed with several pristine spots where the tides rhythmically rise and fall, creating diverse and remarkable ecosystems for a plethora of adaptable sea creatures.

Although commonly thought of as an activity best-suited for winter and early spring, in reality any cool day that’s foggy and not too sunny is ideal for your next tide pool adventure. Choose a day when there’s not much on the calendar so you can take your time. To get the most from your experience, here are a few things to know before you go.

Dike Rock, La Jolla - Suzanne Ofeldt, Shewanders Photography
Dike Rock, La Jolla - Suzanne Ofeldt, Shewanders Photography

Tide pools are comprised of three distinct zones. At the highest, the “splash zone” is exposed most of the time and is only submerged at the highest tides. The second, the “middle intertidal zone” is submerged at high tide and exposed at low tide. The third and lowest zone is the “subtidal zone,” which is located below the reefs that are exposed at low tide. This zone stays submerged at low tide, but we’re able to look within and marvel at the fish and other creatures as though we’re peering in a window.

California Sea Hare
California Sea Hare
Sea Anemone
Sea Anemone

WHAT TO SEEK

Any time spent tiptoeing through tide pools is bound to be exciting, but you’ll get more out of the adventure if you know what to look for. The following are just some creatures to have on your radar:

Barnacles
Found in most tide zones, barnacles are small sea creatures with a shell. They attach themselves to rocks or other sea creatures and stay there for life. Seek: Tiny shells affixed to something. Their color usually matches their habitat.

Hermit Crabs
On their own, hermit crabs have a soft shell, so they adapt to a larger one. If you see a scrambling snail, it’s likely a hermit crab. They gather in calm pools of water and under loose rocks. Seek: Snail shells about an inch across or larger that aren’t attached to anything.

Limpets
There are many types of limpets. They are also plentiful and can be found in many parts of the tide pool including flat exposed areas of rocks and edges of mussel beds. Seek: Small cone-like shells that are firmly attached to rocks.

Mussels
Mussels
Shore Crab |  shutterstock.com
Shore Crab | shutterstock.com

Mussels
Mussels assemble themselves by the thousands forming massive clusters. They prefer areas where there is a high flow of water in the middle intertidal range. Seek: Long, almost wedge-shaped shells ranging in hues of dark blue, brown, and black.

Sea Anemones
Since they need to be covered by water most of the time, expect to find sea anemones in calm pools of water. Also check for them in deep cracks or in flat areas where the water congregates. Related to jellyfish, sea anemones can sting, so do not touch. Seek: Submerged organisms that resemble flowers with petal-like tentacles circling the mouth.

Sea Hares
The color of these slimy looking sea slugs changes based on what they’ve eaten recently. Watch for them in shallow rock pools and other intertidal areas where there is a good amount of algae. Seek: Blobs that resemble jelly with no obvious shell or limbs.

Sea Stars
The sea stars we find in tide pools commonly have five arms with eyes at the end of each. They propel themselves with tiny tube feet. Look for them in shallow spots within mussel and barnacle beds. Seek: Submerged creatures with multiple arms and many short spines or bumps on top in a wide-range of colors.

Shore Crabs
Shore crabs are wary of visitors, so be patient. Scooting this way and that, they hide in crevices and can be found in the water or on the rocks above it. Seek: Fast-moving critters with jointed legs and upturned spikes at the edge of their shells.

Marine Snails
Similar in appearance to garden snails, marine snails like calmer tide pools and attach themselves to a wall or floor of the tide pool. Seek: Organisms in a variety of colors with a hard outer shell, a singular foot, and eyes at the end of eye stalks.

Tide pooling at Cabrillo National Monument, Point Loma | bonandbon / Shutterstock.com
Tide pooling at Cabrillo National Monument, Point Loma | bonandbon / Shutterstock.com

WHERE TO GO

San Diego’s coastline boasts several excellent spots for tide pooling. Here are four of our favorites.

Cabrillo National Monument, Point Loma
Docents are available to answer questions at this vast, breathtaking tide pool area, located at the southern tip of the park. Visit at extreme low tide to get the most exposure.

Dike Rock, La Jolla
Located just north of Scripps Pier, Dike Rock’s diverse terrain provides habitats for a range of sea creatures. At low tide, it is also possible to expand your search to the tide pools and reef formation at La Jolla Shores Beach.

Tourmaline Surf Park, La Jolla
To the north of the surfing area, the tide pools are situated in a field of boulders and rocks. This area is inhabited by many interesting creatures that do not require fast water flows.

Birch Aquarium’s Preuss Tide Pool Plaza, La Jolla
Recently re-opened to the public, this beautiful outdoor exhibit guarantees you’ll see the organisms mentioned here, and more. A docent is always on hand to lead discussions and answer questions.

TIDE POOLING TIPS

1. Check the tide chart for the tide pools you’re visiting and plan to get there one hour before low tide.
2. Wear sturdy shoes with ground gripping, water resistant soles.
3. Step carefully to avoid crushing animals and plants.
4. Touch organisms gently and briefly, if at all.
5. Do not remove any animals, shells, or rocks.

HELPFUL RESOURCES

California Seashore Life Pocket Guide
californiatidepools.com
California Tidepools app (Apple Store)