A predicted minus 2.6 foot low tide, as low as local tides go, drew me to a different beach this summer in early July. It was Libbey Beach County Park, located just north of Fort Ebey State Park, accessed by following Libbey Road to the west for about 1.5 miles from Highway 20. I had not visited the beach in years, but I hoped that I might see something new.
While beach combing at Libbey Beach several years ago before work on the bulkhead had been completed, I saw countless species of seaweed floating in the shallow water. Carefully flipping over rocks (and replacing them just as carefully afterwards), I came upon shore crab after shore crab and photographed a pair of them. This is still my favorite of the many shots I’ve taken of these tiny crabs.
During this summer’s visit, I parked along the grassy area just up from the beach, grabbed my camera and headed towards the shore.
Anyone who has spent time at Fort Ebey or Ebey’s Reserve will be familiar with the conspicuous yellow-green bluff that runs along the west side of the island. For the most part, it’s topped with a darker green that includes plants and trees (and in some places, houses).
As I walked towards the water, I noticed a few families with small children playing in the sand. Closer to the shore line, the beach becomes really rocky. I’d been used to easy beach combing at Penn Cove, which become clayey near the water; however, at Libbey Beach, round (glacial) rocks larger than your hand make beach combing difficult. I was glad to be wearing my minimalist trail running shoes (slightly thicker soled than swim shoes), but still found walking around challenging, primarily due to the slippery seaweed (most of which is actually algae) that was everywhere. According to encyclopedia.com, “The cell walls of algae are generally made of cellulose and can also contain pectin, which gives algae its slimy feel.”
I almost stepped on a burrowing anemone, which I’ve seen in abundance at Ala Spit. Just as at Joseph Whidbey State Park and Ebey’s Reserve, which both lie along the same side of the island, Libbey Beach’s low tide exposed dozens of species of seaweed. More even than I’d seen the last time I was there. Of course, this reminded me of an excellent documentary I watched earlier this year called Mission Blue, which “chronicles the life, loves and calling of ocean champion Sylvia Earle.” According to National Geographic, “She completed a Ph.D. in 1966, publishing her dissertation Phaeophyta of the Eastern Gulf of Mexico in 1969. For this project she collected over 20,000 samples of algae.” In Mission Blue, she shows some of the thousands of species of algae she collected that are now housed in a museum.
I found a different (than the burrowing) larger species of anemone as well (which can also be found at West Beach and the Rosario Tide Pools), the Painted anemone,but the biggest surprise was the prevalence of a specific type of sea star species:
Henricia leviuscula or Pacific Blood Star. I’ve seen these sea stars at Cornet Bay, but never in such large numbers. According to the Rosario Beach Marine Laboratory site, the geographical range for this species is the Aleutian Islands, Alaska to Baja, California; Mexico and Japan, and “Feeds mainly on sponges, or on particulates which stick to mucus on the body surface and are passed to the mouth.” I was curious about the apparent discoloration on the central part of some of the sea stars. This same site has the answer to what I suspected (wrongly) might be a disease, “A saddle-like marking of lilac blotches between the rays is a common color variant. This may also be a separate species from H. leviuscula.” Cool!
With so much seaweed floating around and closely spaced round rocks (covered with barnacles and slippery stuff), it was difficult to see. I was able to photograph a few species of algae (brown, green and red). I wandered along the water’s edge towards the south for half an hour or so in order to take full advantage of the low tide.
Some rocks were spotted with what was possibly encrusting coraline algae. Of course, barnacles coated many of the rocks, which made walking along them even more challenging.
Eventually, I’d had enough of making my way across slipper, barnacle-encrusted rocks, so returned by way of the beach.
In recent years, the bulkhead has been restored. As I exited the beach area, I ran into a local gal who was collecting rocks to landscape her yard. We talked about the tides. She mentioned that “about 3:00 pm (I thought, huh? Like, every day…but kept my probably-understands-the-tides-a-bit-better-than-her mouth shut.) the tide comes in” and showed me how high the water rises, so high that it would cover the entire beach (though I suspect she means in the winter).
Before I left, I took a couple of photos of some little kids, undeterred by the absence of sand at that location, playing in the water.
Although there are better places to beach comb on Whidbey Island (I prefer Penn Cove, Cornet Bay and the rocks at West Beach in Deception Pass State Park during a very low tide), Libbey Beach boasts sea stars, anemones and lots of species of sea weed at low tide; a nice sandy section near the upper beach which is great for picnicking and sand-castle making; and a grassy area (complete with picnic tables and a rest room). The Whidbey Camano Land Trust site provides even more reasons to visit,
“Libbey Beach Park is a great place to picnic, walk, explore the diverse nearshore environment and observe a wide variety of shorebirds. And now, with the Land Trust’s purchase of 1,200 feet of private tidelands donated to Island County as an addition to the Libbey Beach County Park, community members will have even more to enjoy.
Nearshore birds seen along the beach include Harlequin Ducks that feed just offshore, Black Oystercatchers feeding on the rocks at low tides, and Double-crested Cormorants, Common and Red-Throated Loons, Horned and Western Grebes, Surf Scoters, gulls and more.”
During my visit, I didn’t notice any of these birds, but I’ll be back to see what I might find another time.