The shell collector skillfully maneuvers his way across the beach, wades through waves, and sifts through sand to locate mollusks, identifying them by feel. A visit to an ophthalmologist at age 12 is fortuitous. The doctor introduces the blind boy to the beach. “Overnight, the world became shells, conchology, the phylum Mollusca,” the singular lifelong obsession of the main character in Anthony Doerr’s far-fetched but fascinating short story. I’m more of a serial subject obsessor–wildflowers, beavers, nudibranchs. It was with a general sense of longing for any sea creature I hadn’t yet seen that I planned our family vacation for the week that boasts the lowest daytime tides of the year. During a dozen years of living on Whidbey, then Fidalgo island, I had only begun to pay close attention to tides during the last half. Jonathan White’s Tides: The Science and the Spirit of the Ocean provides in-depth explanations about the subject, including one of the most interesting to me, rotary tides or amphidromes (Pp 153-154), “an amphidrome has a center hub where…there is little or no tide. The arms or spokes rotate, with the highest tides in each amphidrome occurring farthest from the center hub…these circling arms are indeed waves traveling at 450 miles per hour.” Sea creature seekers like me must, at a minimum, be aware of tide heights.
A year ago, I first learned of a prospective place to view unfamiliar sea life: Salt Creek Recreational Area in Clallam County. Poor planning brought me there at a relatively high tide during a record low tide week, but it was obvious that if the water were to recede a few more feet, I’d be in tidepool paradise. According to the Salt Creek Recreation Area site, “The 196-acre Park includes upland forests, rocky bluffs, rocky tide pools, sand beach, Salt Creek access, campsites, and panoramic views of the Strait of Juan de Fuca, Crescent Bay, and Vancouver Island, British Columbia…Many colleges and schools from all over the United States visit the Park to study and observe the marine life.¶ The area was purchased from the Federal General Services Administration after being surplused at the end of World War II. The site was used during World War II as a harbor defense military base called Camp Hayden. The remnants…are preserved on the site – two concrete bunkers which housed 16″ cannons and several smaller bunkers.”
This June, I arrived at Salt Creek half an hour before the lowest daytime tide of the year. Along the northeast side, a young family picked their way over an expanse of slippery, barnacled boulders. The mom exclaimed “starfish,” at regular intervals, which sent the rest of the family scrambling in her direction to view and photograph each one, then return to his or her own search, “Marine scientists have undertaken the difficult task of replacing the beloved starfish’s common name with sea star because, well, the starfish is not a fish. It’s an echinoderm, closely related to sea urchins and sand dollars.” Long strands of shiny, slick seaweed in shades of brown and green obscured the tidepools. It didn’t take long to tire of the danger of carefully pulling aside seaweed while trying to avoid a fall. Twenty minutes later, I returned to safety and headed west to Tongue Point where I joined about twenty sea creature seekers, many in thick-soled tennis shoes and plastic sandals, traversing a carpet of mussels that covered much of the area.
The primary finds: sea urchins in dark purple (Strongylocentrotus purpuratus, edible, and featured in Saveur magazine), green, and bright red. Washington State sea urchin harvesting laws allow a daily limit of 18 each of red and purple species and 36 of the green; however, no harvest of any form of marine life is allowed at Tongue Point. Several species of anemones, crabs, coral, tidepool sculpins and enough species of mollusks to keep the shell collector busy for weeks rounded out the list of stuff to see. My family’s arrival signaled the end to my too short trip to the park. I continued west towards the fully exposed sea stack that had been partially submerged on my last visit. Small brown Kelp crabs and even smaller, darker shore crabs scurried for cover, making temporary tracks that the incoming tide would erase within the hour. Near the sea stack, a Sunflower star hid from beachgoers in a small, dark alcove between boulders. Two hours after I arrive, I left reluctantly, vowing to return, alone, and spend an entire day at my new favorite place.
The next morning, I drove an hour north from Pacific Beach to the Kalaloch Beach 4 parking lot, which a fellow Salt Creek visitor had insisted was an equally excellent tidepooling place.
Nowhere is it more apparent than here that the conspicuous “Tsunami Evacuation Route” signs that dot roadways along the west coast are an important part of city safety plans. The Northwest Association of Networked Ocean Observing Systems (NANOOS) provides up to date tsunami evacuation information to residents of the Washington and Oregon coast. Earlier this year, the state Department of Natural Resources released new Tsunami Inundation Hazard Maps for Southwest Washington that show for a worst-case scenario model (2,500-year event from a 9.0 magnitude quake) cities can expect water inundation levels up to 67 feet in Ocean Shores. Colossal waves were the furthest thing from my mind as I walked towards, over and around rock outcroppings smoothed by wave action. Barnacles, anemones, sea stars and spheres of tubeworm colonies dotted surfaces oriented in every direction. I tracked the tide as I walked along the water side, determined to avoid becoming trapped. Just when I was ready to give up on seeing anything unusual, I encountered a yellow Sea Lemon nudibranch (Anisodoris nobilis) of the same species I’d seen recently at Bowman Bay. Unobscured by seaweed, a higher percentage of sea life is visible at Kalaloch than at Salt Creek; however, Salt Creek boasts more variety. With equal time at each beach, I conclude: Salt Creek wins the tidepool due, in spite of a higher level of falling danger.