Winter Observations at Fitzgerald Marine Reserve
A storm surge has scoured sand off the beach as is custom here in winter months, exposing a mud-stone tidal reef to ephemeral sunlight and curious creatures exploring new cracks and crevices. The steep, eroding cliffs merge fluidly with the reef at a right angle now that their sandy barrier has been carried offshore by energetic tidal currents. The tidepools stretch hundreds of feet out into the white-capped Pacific during low tide—though in technical terms the tide is at -1.8 feet today, or 1.8 feet below average low tide. This is one of the lowest tides of the year. The high overcast and lack of strong wind creates crystal-clear visibility and encourages more organisms to come out from hiding. These creatures are all adapted to shield against desiccation, wave action, wind and rain, so the tidepools are visibly ebullient under the right conditions.
Each tidepool is like a microscopic universe, teeming with complexity, color, competition and courage. Hermit crabs in algae-covered turban snail shells battle over a great blue heron's decaying leftovers, a giant green sea anemone lures a red rock crab into its mouth with slow-motion, mesmerizing tentacles, and a neon blue and orange nudibranch feasts on a small aggregating anemone, digesting its stinging cells and passing them onto its own back—a poached defense but one that will prove vital in future encounters. The exposed rocks around the pools are host to goose-neck barnacles and California mussels, prehistoric looking chitons and all forms of algae and sea grass. A green-lined shore crab darts away from me into a safer slit and a purple ochre star slowly creeps towards a bed of mussels using its internal hydraulic system—hundreds of tiny "tube-feet" powered by inhaled sea water. Because of my trained tidepool eye, I even catch a glimpse of a slimy pinkish tentacle stealthily retreating into a dark abyss—the elusive red octopus has evaded me once again.
The next morning, I arrive for my shift at 7:15am and walk down to the same beach. It's high tide now, and newly deposited sand all the way to the foot of the bluffs looks like fresh snow. What was teeming and exposed is now invisible to me, tucked away under layers of sand or swaying under the high tide waters. Harbor seals rest peacefully on the other end of the beach, playfully wiggling their sausage-shaped bodies into the soft new sand, perpetually smiling.
(Inspired by John Steinbeck's Cannery Row.)