Story last updated at 7/8/2009 - 11:36 am
Low tide beachcombing ranks as one of my favorite activities. It's fascinating to explore the habitat of the intertidal area (the part of the beach that is submerged at high tide and exposed at low tide) as it presents a unique environment that changes dramatically twice a day.
With the new moon in June, there occurred a dandy minus tide (-4.4), prompting my incentive for a research expedition down through the thick, slippery layers of bull kelp, sea lettuce and other colorful seaweeds to the now distant water's edge. Seaweed - smooth, frilly, ribbed and convoluted - completely concealed the long, shallow beach, producing lovely abstract patterns of bright greens and golds over a broad expanse. By placing my steps slowly and carefully, I was able to slosh along on the huge, sometimes 10-inch long blades of seaweed covering the uneven sand and rocks.
I proceeded for a time on a flat area with about 6-8 inches of water where three-inch coonstripe shrimp darted and hopped among the kelp. Tidepool sculpin and small flounders zipped by from their hiding places in the mud and under the plant life at my provocation. All around were a scattering of sea stars, up and down the beach and in the water, sporting different textures and designs, in chromatics of pink, orange, blue, purple and brown ,or combinations thereof, like the pretentious striped sunstar, dazzling everyone with dark purple striped arms, offset by blue, pink, and red highlights.
Just a few feet out in the water, a fabulous yellow/white, translucent nudibranch rested on the sandy bottom. Surprisingly, very few sea cucumbers were in attendance, while last year at this time they were plentiful along the shorelines. There are two rather dissimilar looking cukes that I've observed - the red sea cucumber, which has an elongated body of mottled orange, white and brown with little spikey-looking fleshy appendages all over, and the orange sea cucumber, which is not surprisingly mostly orange with rows of brown tube feet and plumes that resemble the branches of a plant.
Neither one is going to grow in your greenhouse, as the name might suggest, since these cucumbers are echinoderms, not plants.
Here and there I discovered green and red painted anemones, often attached to rocks, displaying their rings of banded tentacles or, more often in a timorous state, revealing only their round column into which their tentacles have retreated. On the other side of the rock, facing toward the water, I found the occasional mossy chiton, a cleverly camouflaged little oval-shaped mollusk of two or three inches. Stranded on the beach and in the water, small shore crab along with kelp, rock, and dungeness crab were in evidence.
Clams were everywhere and I dodged their spurting attempts to shower me as I moved along an open area. Soon a brightly colored shape drew my attention among hundreds of mussels found clinging to the surf-swept rocks. It was a lone red urchin, about six inches in diameter, awaiting the tide change, flaunting its sharp, scary spines. The poor, inauspicious little feller had gotten stranded on a rocky shelf. No problem - I wasn't going to mess with it!
The most exciting find of the day was a splendid, seven inch long octopus, found in a recumbent position on a wide blade of kelp about five feet from the water. It showed no signs of evolving into a land animal anytime soon, so I quickly returned it to its native environment, hoping it was strong enough to survive. It was! As soon as the small octopus was submerged, it shot forward about five feet to the shelter of some floating seaweed and stopped there to rest and regroup. Hopefully it will stay in deeper waters from now on!
Carla Petersen is a remote-living freelance artist and writer. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org