Tidepooling along coastline is ‘great entertainment’

Go tidepooling along San Diego’s coastline and you’ll find a “miniature zoo,” says Scott Rugh of the San Diego Natural History Museum.

“Here’s where the fun stuff is, when we turn rocks over,” intones Rugh, the museum’s collections manager of invertebrate (backboneless) fossils, with childlike zeal as he yanked back on another fair-sized cobblestone revealing a hidden colony of life underneath one day last week.

“This is out of this world,” he exclaimed as the “buried treasure” turned out to be a rare green abalone, a marine mollusk, many species of which are threatened or endangered. “This is the first one I’ve seen one alive on the beach: It’s a baby.”

A special showing

Underneath another rock is a host of hermit crabs with tiny legs rapidly scurrying around beneath their protective shells. By carefully turning them over on their backs, you can see a “show” as they flip themselves over and beat a hasty retreat.

“That’s great entertainment for classes with kids,” Rugh notes.

Before giving a tour to show off what to expect from a rock-combing excursion just south of Tourmaline Surfing Park in La Jolla on a sunny February weekday afternoon, Rugh gave a primer on tide pooling.

The adventure is a seasonal one and can only be done during low tides, which are best in the spring and fall during new and full moons when the Earth, moon and sun are aligned, creating a gravitational bulge intensifying tides.

Knowing the zones

There are also several intertidal zones - subtidal, midtidal and splash zones - in between low- and high-tide levels, each with its own distinctive animal and plant life forms.

Tide pooling is a lot like prospecting in that you have to dig to uncover what’s concealed beneath the surface, Rugh said. In the case of tide pools, animals and plants are largely submerged and buried under rocks for good reason.

“It’s very hot most of the year in Southern California, and even worse in Baja,” he explained. “You also don’t see these species on the surface because of birds and crabs, which eat them.”

Quite a selection

What you are likely to see while tide pooling along San Diego’s coastline are an array of hermit and other small crab species, several different types of mollusks and snails including the brown, lumplike sea hare and the “rock star” of the tide pool community: brittle stars.

In the palm of one hand, Rugh held an octopuslike brittle star, which had several arms squirming about a common, soft center. He was careful to handle it gently as they’re called brittle stars for good reason: The arms (which grow back) break off to allow the creature to escape.

All about etiquette

The most important thing about tide pool etiquette, said Rugh, is that you must always return everything you touch to the way it was before you started out of respect and concern for preserving life.

What you’re not likely to see on a given afternoon, which can turn out to be a special treat if you do run across them, are octopuses, starfish, lobsters and purple spiky sea urchins.

Above all, be curious and be patient, Rugh counseled, and you won’t leave disappointed.

And if you’re not lucky enough to find what you’re especially looking for, you can always find them full scale with a visit to the Birch Aquarium at Scripps at UCSD.

Where to go

  • Shell Beach, La Jolla, at the south end of Ellen Browning Scripps Park, but the surf is strong, so make sure it’s a minus tide.
  • Dike Rock, north of Scripps Pier. Go down the beach, past the rocky area until you reach the dike. Best spot is north of the dike.
  • Tourmaline Surfing Park, Pacific Beach. Walk north along the beach from the parking area west of La Jolla Boulevard at the north end of PB.
  • Ocean Beach, under the OB Pier at the foot of Newport Avenue.
  • Cardiff State Beach, by the bluffs at the south end of the parking lot.
  • Seacliff Park (Swami’s), Encinitas.
  • Cabrillo National Monument.

Best time to go is when the tide is low.

A 1-foot tide or lower is OK, but a minus tide is better.

Tidepool Field Guide:

Check the tide calendar before heading out: