Friday, October 5, 2012

Invisible Worlds: Tide Pools

How cool is this Sea Slug?  Nudibranch from
I began both my teaching career and my married life on the central coast of California, which was a big change for this Montana girl. We lived on Vandenberg Air Force Base and (enthusiastically, of course!) began learning all about this new and different world.  While substituting at the local schools that spring, the principal at the school on base asked me to accompany the fifth grade classes on their field trip to Seal Beach. (I was grateful for the advance notice, because one dresses differently for a trip to the rocky beach than to impress potential employers!)  One of the science units taught every year in fifth grade was Ocean Life, specifically the creatures living in tide pools, and the field trip was the outcome of hours of instruction. 
Vandenberg AFB's Seal Beach, sometime in 1987.

My husband and I had been out to Seal Beach before, scanning for gray whales off the coast and watching the seal colony living there, but, unbeknownst to us, a whole world was waiting to be explored right under our feet.  

Why, yes, there ARE seals at Seal Beach!  And much, much more!
 Tide pools form on rocky beaches at low tide.  Water is left behind in crevices and holes, and an entire ecosystem inhabits these little ponds.  Constantly pushed and pulled by waves, creatures either cling tight to the rocks (starfish, sea anemones), swim, hide in holes (octopi), or glue themselves to leaves (sea slugs.)  Exploring a tide pool safely requires instruction (I would never have put my finger into a sea anemone and let it gently suck had someone I trusted not told me it was okay!) and these kids had been taught well.  They knew how to pick up a starfish, how to gently turn over rocks and what they might find, and how to carefully share their finds with others before retuning them to their homes.  It was a wonderful day for this coastal novice!

I returned home that evening and enthusiastically described our day to my husband.  Within days, the Audubon Field Guide to North American Seashore Creatures had made its way into our library, and excursions were made back out to Seal Beach, but we never had as much luck finding exotic sea life.  In fact, I’m not sure Andy really believed me when I would point to a picture in the field guide and say, “We saw this out here!” (The nudibranch above is a great example, although the photograph is borrowed.)

Our original, battered copy of the Tide Pool Field Guide.  (Note:  We haven't lived near an ocean since 1991.  Why do I still have this?  I just love reference books, especially field guides!)

The next fall, I was hired in a nearby district in a very small town called Orcutt.  New to the school, I told the fifth grade teachers that we should investigate the possibility of their kids taking their classes on their “Tide Pool Field Trip” to the pristine beaches on base.  “I live there,” I said, “and my husband works there, and I went on this same field trip last spring with the fifth graders at the base school when I was subbing.  It was fabulous!  We can make this work!”  (Whew, aren’t new, enthusiastic teachers exhausting?)  In previous years, this school had made their trips to beaches near Nipomo and Morro Bay, both tourist locations, crowded, with well-worn tide pools.  Because military installations are not open to the public, Vandenberg’s beaches are much more pristine and natural (in fact, this phenomenon exists on many military installations across the country.  Here in Oklahoma, for instance, Tinker Air Force Base is home to one of the few known populations of horned lizards.) The teachers agreed that if I could get permission and set up the trip, they would try taking their classes to Seal Beach.  A bonus for my husband and I – because we were the “sponsors” of the group, we “had” to be with them the whole time they were on base. 

What a day!  We saw such fabulous creatures, and learned how to find them in the future.  A trip to Seal Beach at low tide became one of our favorite activities for guests, especially those from landlocked states.  (Unfortunately, I'm finding that I didn't document our discoveries with photographs, except for the starfish above.)

Don’t have access to Vandenberg AFB?  You can find tide pools in many other locations.  Check this out! lets you put in a search term and a location.  Users add reviews, and results pop up in a map.  Try “tide pools” in the beach town nearest you and see what locations and suggestions come up.  Check out a field guide at your library.  Then go and explore!  

Screen shot of my Yelp search for "tide pools" near "Lompoc, CA."  Notice the big section of coastline running north/south between the markers?  That's where Vandenberg's private and pristine beaches are located.  Paradise.

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