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Low tide, take it easy

WSU/Island County Beach Watchers Mary Jo Adams and Gene Thatcher investigate a tidepool under a boulder on Libbey Beach. They found crabs, anemones and sponges as well as red, green and brown seaweed.  - Susan Mador
WSU/Island County Beach Watchers Mary Jo Adams and Gene Thatcher investigate a tidepool under a boulder on Libbey Beach. They found crabs, anemones and sponges as well as red, green and brown seaweed.
— image credit: Susan Mador

The season’s lowest tide recedes around Whidbey Island this week, giving people the chance to observe undersea life without getting their faces wet. Negative tides start this morning.

Saturday, Sunday and Monday are lowest tides of the year, providing people ample time to enjoy beach life, not destroy it.

We’re blessed to have access to so many different beaches in this area,” Park Ranger Rick Blank said. “Each is special habitat for special organisms.”

“Our main problems are weekend when parents and young kids come with buckets to take critters home,” Blank said last week at Rosario Beach in Deception Pass State Park.

Blank maintains a jar filled with marine life that was killed May 15 and 16, 1995. During those very low tides, more than 1,200 school children ripped across beaches and through tidepools.

“It was terrible,” Blank said. “This six-rayed star was left on a picnic table to dry in the sun, black chitins and limpets were pried off rocks.” A green sea urchin and several mangled crabs, eels and small fish float in the kill jar along with bits of blue mussel shells and fragments of seaweeds.

Blue mussels and sea lettuce are crucial to marine life — if one is destroyed, 350 other species of plants and animals could be decimated.

Blank said in 1990, he could look over tide pools covered with clusters of mussels and count 20 large sea stars in every tide pool. Today, blue mussels are at a four-year low point. Blank’s seen two large sea stars this year:

Both were lost to unprepared school groups who pried the marine invertebrates off the rocks.

Blank said the environment may never return to pre-May 1995 conditions, but he is encouraged by all the work that has been done to educate park visitors.

“Today, teachers with lesson plans bringing school groups are our best guests,” Blank said.

Blank is grateful to Washington State University Island County Beach Watchers.

“They’ve been out every low tide weekend to help people understand how to respect this particular environment.”

The 2003 class of Beach Watchers has selected Double Bluff and Deception Pass state parks for special attention since this year and next will have the lowest low tides in an 18-year cycle. Volunteers will be at each park this weekend.

“Beaches are treasures we want to be able to pass along to others,” Beach Watcher Mary Jo Adams said. “We want people to have fun while understanding what special places beaches are.”

Adams and other Beach Watchers had come to scout Libbey Beach at low tide Saturday. At this popular local beach, cobbles and boulders create havens for marine critters. At low tides, rocks shade invertebrates from predators as well as from drying sun and wind.

Under each rock, against each boulder, intertidal plants creatures may thrive: crabs, barnacles, mussels, anemones, sea weeds, algae, sponge, periwinkle.

“At first a rock may only have barnacles but if you look closer, you see an amazing diversity on and around the rocks,” Adams said.

Saturday, several family groups from Everett had been scrambling around, upending rocks and damaging some creatures. Jan Holmes discovered a large anemone detached from a boulder.

“Maybe it will re-attach but who knows,” Holmes said. “It’s so easy to enjoy the beach.”

“And so easy for nothing to be left,” Gene Thatcher added.

Low tide lowdown

Walk slowly. Do not walk on plants or animals. Fill in holes after digging for clams. Turn rocks over cautiously and return them carefully to original positions. Learn, look and kneel quietly by tide pools.

Beach reading

Beach Watchers’ Web site contains lots of information on local beaches, marine life and beach etiquette. There are also lists recommended reading and guidebooks for every age level to make the most of a day at a Whidbey beach. Go to www.beachwaters.wsu.edu.

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