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A Stalked Jelly attached to Eel Grass at Palmer's Point. | Photo courtesy of Julie and Mike Kelly

A Guide to Exploring Humboldt’s Tide Pools

How to keep yourself, and the environment you're exploring, safe

As the tides of Humboldt County creep up and down our beaches, the ocean takes turns covering and uncovering a small area of coast. This region is called the intertidal zone. It spends some of its time underwater, but it’s exposed to us land-dwellers for exploration when the tides recede far enough. Pools trapped in between rocks stay put as the rest of the ocean leaves them behind. These pools offer a small look at what we’re usually missing beneath the waves.

There’s some fascinating sea life to find if you know where to look. Classics of ocean exploration like anemones, barnacles, mussels, and sea stars cover the rocks. Sea slugs, scientifically termed ‘Nudibranches,’ are the graceful and colorful pop stars of the tide pools. They slowly dance through fronds of kelp. It can be difficult to suppress the urge to punt the odd football-like gumboot chiton across the tide pools. There are fish so well matched to the bottom of the pools that it often takes movement to spot one.

The best part is that none of the wide variety of animals you’re likely to come across in the tide pools are capable of hurting you. A crab might give you a bit of a pinch if you pick it up. Sharp barnacles on rocks could scrape you up if you fall. The purple urchins that dot the lower intertidal are often blunt-spined and harmless to a shoed explorer. Watch your step, but more for their sake than for yours. Marine mammals like seals and otters sometimes hang out on rocks near tide pools. Approaching marine mammals or interacting with them is illegal, but more for their protection than yours. So long as you don’t eat any of the brightly colored nudibranchs, you’re safe from everything except poor decision making.

Keeping three points of contact when climbing over slippery rocks will lessen the chance of dramatic falls into cold pools of water. Avoid rock climbing in favor of staying as low as possible to the ground. This prevents falls from being worse than they could be. Stepping on kelp is a one-way-ticket to slipping face-first onto a rock covered in sharp barnacles. Waterproof boots, warm clothing, and a camera that won’t be ruined if you drop it in a tide pool are all good equipment.

So, with all that in mind, when and where can you go? Luffenholtz Beach and Palmer’s Point are two of the best locations near HSU. Both require climbing up and down stairs set into a cliff. Conditions should be just right for the ideal trip. Small waves, an early low tide, and a low chance of rain are your best bet.

There are usually two low tides and two high tides in one day. You should go early enough for the tide pools to still be cold. The first low tide of the day is the best for seeing cool critters. The closer to dawn, the better. Low tides of 0.3 feet or lower are good bets. Any morning tides into the negatives are worth planning for. Plan your trip to center around the low tide. If you arrive 30 minutes before the low tide and leave 30 minutes after, you’ll get to appreciate all the lowest parts of the tide. You can download a local annual prediction tide table from the NOAA tides and currents website.

But an early low tide with good weather does not necessarily guarantee a safe outing. Wave size and frequency are important too. The smaller the better, and waves above more than a few feet are enough of a reason to call the trip off. Exposed sites like Luffenholtz require greater caution with wave height. Ideal conditions being somewhere under three feet. Palmer’s point is a bit more sheltered, but waves over five feet are still dangerous. While you’re picking up the tide charts, NOAA also has marine weather forecasts so you can check conditions before you go.

Now that you’re prepared for the tide pools, make sure the tide pools are ready for you. Each pool is like a little community of critters. Don’t be a Godzilla to the intertidal Tokyo. Never turn over rocks and try to keep your boots from treading too much into the ocean’s domain. Critters in the tide pools have evolved the best disguises to fool predators for eons. You never know what you’re stepping on.

Instead of stepping in a tide pool, just sit down by one and stare at it. Keep an eye on the ocean and be mindful that the tides will move in eventually. What looks like an empty pool will soon reveal itself to be two nudibranchs, three juvenile rockfish, a kelp crab, and a gumboot chiton you’ll have to resist the urge to pick up and hail mary into the ocean.

All photos taken at Palmer’s Point and courtesy of Julie and Mike Kelly.

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