When we were young, our mom used to wake us up early when the tide was low. We rolled out of our bunk beds to pull on our boots, grab butter knives from the kitchen and buckets from the greenhouse, and run toward the beach. Over slippery ribbons of kelp, we made our way toward Stonewall Reef, stopping to peer into tide pools alive with the colorful homes of hermit crabs, anemones, and sea stars. We investigated the homes of tiny invertebrates and watched small fish swim in the puddles left behind by the receding tide. An amazing array of marine animals live within the inter-tidal zone between the water’s edge and the high tide line, some edible and delicious. We filled our buckets with butter clams and blue mussels to carry home for chowder. We ate sea lettuce—a delicate emerald green seaweed with a salty crunch—straight from the shore. Sea urchins nestled between large rocks and we split them with our butter knives to eat the rich uni inside. Bidarkis, a delicacy and important subsistence food source to people of the Aleutian Islands, were one of our favorite low-tide treasures. These black chitons suction to the bottom of rocks with their long orange foot, and are a salty, chewy snack. Octopus lived under the rocks on Stonewall Reef too, identifiable by the small piles of bones and shells left outside their watery caves and occasionally a beautiful red-orange tentacle curled lazily in the kelp. We loved to watch their long tentacles change colors and feel their suctions stick to our fingertips. A few times a year we brought an octopus home with us and enjoyed its tough, chewy succulence in a salad or fried into patties with celery, onions, bread crumbs, and spices.
Tide-pooling is a great way to learn about marine animals in your area. It’s surprising how many beautiful colors, graceful movements, and interesting interactions you will witness by simply wandering down to the beach at low tide. To find a good tide pool, look for rocky beaches with large boulders small animals could live beneath, and areas where water collects in pools once the tide goes out. These places provide the best protection for invertebrates and small fish. If you want to identify the creature you find, bring an illustrated field guide and a magnifying glass to examine the marine life closely. Make sure you check a tide table before you go to hit the beach at the right time; you can pick up a tide book at most sporting goods stores. Before you go, brush up on tide-pooling etiquette:
- Step on bare rock whenever possible, rather than on living organisms like barnacles or periwinkles.
- Turn over small rocks gently and avoid moving large ones. A quick turnover could crush species alongside the rock or those attempting to hide as their home is uncovered.
- Wet your hands with seawater before touching or holding anything living in a tidepool.
- Always replace rocks and seaweed for cover once you finish exploring, and do so carefully.
- Note that you need a permit to remove any sea life from the beach. If you would like to harvest seaweed or shellfish such as clams, crabs, snails, chitons, or octopus, you are required to obtain a license from your state.
See pages 106-108 in our book, The Salmon Sisters: Feasting, Fishing and Living in Alaska for more information about tide-pooling and low-tide harvesting. We hope you enjoy getting outside, exploring and harvesting on the shore!