A Seattle Aquarium naturalist shares what's what while tide pooling on Alki Beach.

Pop quiz: What's damp, muddy, and perfectly Pacific Northwest? Not just our mud rooms—there's also the tide pools that dot the beaches at low tide. Wandering between slick piles of seaweed and barnacle-covered boulders, a mini saltwater safari is a perfect summertime activity. We even have a name for it: tide pooling.

Our region's rich shoreline results from the particular brew of cold water that rises from the deeps of the Salish Sea in a process called upwelling. It hauls what Seattle Aquarium's Jen Strongin calls "a rich soup of plankton and phytoplankton" to our beaches. Where there's microscopic nutrients, well, the larger and more visible life will follow. Couple that with pothole-sized shallow pools and crystal-clear saltwater for a veritable viewing gallery of marine life.

"Life is beneath where you walk, everywhere on the beach," says Strongin, field program lead for the aquarium. She helps coordinate more than 200 volunteers and 25 beach naturalist staff who stroll Seattle beaches at certain low tides to help interpret what's in the tide pools. The army of animal lovers starts their summer shifts in May, and while  the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration provides tide predictions, the scheduled naturalist dates are a good key to the best low tides of the season.

On display is a buffet of sea life, some of which look more like cartoon creations than real organisms. There are sea urchins and sea cucumbers, anemone and cockle clams—all invertebrate animals. Sea stars (what we used to call starfish) splay five or more arms in different directions and can regrow an appendage if injured. A keen eye helps; moon snails form round sculptures of wet sand as a safe place to lay their eggs, and Taylor's sea hares—a kind of sea slug—nearly blend into eel grass, but can be spotted by the intricate stripe pattern on their backs.

Looking for a Taylor's sea hare? Don't expect a rabbit.

Image: Heather Young

Aquarium naturalists answer "what the heck is that?" questions while sharing best practices for beach wildlife viewing. Foremost are the rules for touching; wet a finger with seawater first, and use only a single digit to feel the cool creatures. "As gently as you'd touch your eyelashes," says Strongin. Off limits for any pokes at all: fish (whose slimy protector exterior can be rubbed off by foreign feels) and marine mammals. 

And speaking of mammals, seal pups are rare but not unheard of on local beaches and should be given a very wide berth (like 150 feet). Mother seals will leave pups on shore while they feed, but won't return for baby if humans are too close. Beachgoers can report dead, injured, or possibly stranded sea mammals to NOAA Fisheries' Stranding Network. No experts in sight? Strongin also answers emails (find the address here) with photos of unidentified shoreline objects, and Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife has an online guide to tide pooling.

Some sea life is small enough for a dollhouse.

Image: Heather Young

The Seattle Aquarium's naturalist program is mostly concerned with what's alive, but some folks visit Washington beaches for what's not. Sea glass hunters look for pieces of glass—like from bottles—that are weathered by water and sand into smooth rock-sized objects. Other searchers wave detectors over the sand, hoping to find discarded coins or jewelry (though some public lands limit metal detector use). The jackpot of beach combing are Japanese glass floats, balls used by far-off fishing vessels that bob their way to American shores. Though authentic finds are now rare, some were released on purpose in Westport in 2020.

Strongin notes that tide pool explorations are most popular in the summer, but of course the beach is occupied year round. Winter even has some dramatically low tides, but they're at night when slipping on a slick rock becomes much more likely. The idea here is to look at tide pools, not end up in one.

Beaches for Tide Pools

Olympic Sculpture Park Pocket Beach

Strongin calls the art-adjacent beach an incredible trove of wildlife, just feet from Seattle's urban core.

Constellation Park/Richey Viewpoint

The south end of Alki Beach in West Seattle, past the lighthouse, boasts an artistic wall of tiles that illustrate the biodiversity of the area's intertidal zone.

Tongue Point and its many tide pools sit within Salt Creek Recreation Area on the Olympic Peninsula.

Image: Jane Sherman

Tongue Point Marine Reserve

West of Port Angeles, a marine life sanctuary on the Strait of Juan de Fuca has endless rocky pools, enough to justify the long day trip.

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