One of my favorite things about living on the Central Coast is the accessibility to and beauty of our beaches. I love being able to easily drive from any part of San Luis Obispo County to the beach to take a walk, watch for wildlife, or one of my favorite coastal activities, exploring the tide pools.
As an Orange County native, I grew up going to beaches that were nothing like those of our beautiful, pristine Central Coast–they were filled with people, had chaotic parking lots, and frankly, were quite dirty. “Going to the beach” was never really exciting to me; there was a time when I had told people that if I never went to the beach ever again, I’d be totally fine.
That all changed upon moving to the Central Coast and visiting the beaches here. “Going to the beach” was now exciting–an adventure waiting to happen. And for me, the adventure is often visiting the tide pools.
Gazing into the tide pools is like peering into another world. This shallow, rocky area of the ocean, the intertidal zone, is home to a myriad of organisms. From kelp to algae, mollusks to crustaceans, fish to anemones, there is always something new and exciting to see. Montaña de Oro State Park and Shell Beach are home to my favorite tide pools, and each time I visit I feel a mix of appreciation and wonder. I spend hours at these places and take my own time to research their intertidal residents. These tide pools invite all who wander through to learn their secrets, and all it takes is paying attention.
The key to exploring the tide pools is to watch where you step. A simple rule, but important. Many of the tide pool creatures are small and can blend into the rocky landscape. Allow yourself to take your time traveling through; you will not only be helping protect the tide pool residents, but you’ll probably see more too. And of course, follow nature’s golden rule of respect: do not harm any living creatures or or remove them from their homes.
A resource I always have ready is my phone so that I can take pictures and use the app iNaturalist. This app has been a game changer for me, and I highly recommend utilizing it during any outdoor experience, not just tide pooling. iNaturalist uses photo recognition and GPS to determine the best guess of what an organism is–and all you have to do is upload a picture! It’s been a great educational resource for me and has allowed me to properly identify all the organisms you’ll see below. It’s kind of like a pocket field guide, except it’s made up of your own findings!
So, you’re here at the tide pools, ready for an exciting adventure. Take a look at the rocks and shallow waters that surround you. Get on your hands and knees if you have to. Take it all in. What do you see?
At first glance, you may notice several black or brown tegulas, or turban snails, sitting in the shallow pools. Some of these may be empty or motionless, but if you watch long enough, some might start moving ever so slightly. The swirly shells that once held sea snails now house hermit crabs, as nature never lets anything go to waste!
Look closely at the rocks, and you may even see a chiton. The first time I saw a chiton, I thought it was a piece of metal welded to a rock, like a lone remnant of a past structure. The gray ones can have a metallic, shiny look to them, and they are so tightly pressed onto the rocks that it looks like they are sealed on. This would make sense, as chitons are marine mollusks that cling with their adhesive foot to rocks. Once I discovered this first one, I found them everywhere. Mossy chitons, gumboot chitons…many were there; it just took a bit more time to find them. They can be identified by their eight exterior shell plates that help them cling to rocks and roll into a protective ball if they are dislodged.
You may notice several sea anemones of every size and color, both in the sand and on the rocks. Anemones are marine, predatory animals that are related to corals and jellyfish. Their tentacles are used for both defense and for capturing prey. Some anemones might have their long tentacles exposed, flowing with the slight pull of the tide. Others that are a bit further from the protection of the water, maybe during a low tide, have their tentacles tucked away, revealing their usually hidden pebble-covered column. Their iridescent green, yellow, pink, and purple colors and radial symmetry remind me of a kaleidoscope. Here along the Central Coast you may find sunburst anemones, aggregating anemones, giant green anemones, or even moonglow anemones. Whether they are packed in groups or solitary, all are hypnotizingly interesting.
What always feels like a special treat is when I find a sea star. Something about spotting these uniquely-shaped creatures is so exciting. I’ve seen sea stars in purples, oranges, and reds, but even with their bright colors, they can still be hard to spot. Most of the ones I have come across are far beyond where my feet can take me, but bright enough to see from a distance, especially with the help of my camera’s zoom. And thanks to iNaturalist, I can finally tell the difference between a handful of species of sea stars.
Tide pool exploration is just eye-opening for me. It makes me realize there’s so much more to the world than what we see. In just a small area of rocks and water, there’s a whole ecosystem that thrives in the intertidal zone’s harsh yet unique conditions. I feel like a gentle giant as I politely make my way through, peering down at the world below me. The tide pools have instilled in me such an appreciation for our beaches, ocean, and all that lives within, and I am always itching to go explore more.