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If you just go to the beach so your kid can build sandcastles and eat sandwiches (full of sand), there’s a teachable moment you’re missing. Tide pools that pop up along Atlantic and Pacific coastlines are teeming with tiny life forms — all of which your tiny life form can explore.
“They’re a fantastic way to introduce kids to the ocean,” says Eric Sanford, professor of marine biology at the UC Davis’ Bodega Marine Laboratory, who was exploring tide pools long before he got grant money to do it. “I think for many of us who are marine biologists, that’s how we first got inspired to study marine life — those experiences as kids just playing in the ocean.” Best part: Free admission.
Where To Find Your Community Pool
“For those few hours [while the tide is out], it’s a chance to see marine life in a way that’s very accessible and would otherwise not be possible to see unless you dove in the water with scuba gear,” says Sanford. When these depressions at the ocean’s edge fill up with seawater during high tide, they leave behind critters as the tide goes out. This creates perfect conditions for mollusks, crustaceans, and other phylum (and subphylum) to chill in.
Depending on where you are, you can encounter big or small pools. For example, in the Mid-Atlantic, they form on sand beaches in depressions between the waterline and dunes. On the West Coast (and also in the Northeast) you should look in rocky bluffs that front the ocean. If you’re in Iowa — sorry.
Know Your Tidal Zones
Not to start another hip hop war, but Sanford says the biggest difference between East Coast and West Coast are the levels of biodiversity you’re likely to encounter:
- On the West Coast you’ll find hermit crabs, sea urchins, starfish, sea snails, sea slugs, small fish, and maybe even tiny octopi — who will not be referred to as “octopussies.”
- On the East Coast you’ll find crabs and snails, but also sand dollars (not redeemable) and different small fish. Sadly not as much of a bio boon as their Western cousins.
If your Atlantic-coast kid wants to know why they’re getting short changed on a few species, tell them that their side is millions of years younger than the Pacific. According to Sanford, back during the old Pangaea days the water surrounding it became the Pacific Ocean when the continents were going their separate ways (but promised to keep in touch). That means the Pacific had a big head start in developing a complex ecosystem which now includes several Kardashians.
Tides, How Do Those Work?
“A lot of the most interesting tide pool animals are things that are either small or camouflaged that might blend in really well with the environment,” says Sanford. “When you first look into a pool, a lot of tide pool animals might not be moving at first.
Instead of writing off this pool as being dead anyway, have your kid sit quietly for a few minutes and stare. A lot of the animals that may have been initially startled or hiding will slowly come out their shell. In a literal way.
Know Before You Go
Understanding how tides work (Short answer: The moon. Slightly longer answer: It’s the moon’s gravity that pulls the Earth’s oceans toward it) will help plan when to hit the beach:
“The greatest abundance and diversity of life is found lowest on the shore. Those are the places that are revealed only during the lowest tides of the month,” says Sanford. And those lowest tides (aka spring tides — which have nothing to do with the season) occur every 2 weeks. This is when either the new moon or full moon are aligned with the Earth and sun, creating a strong gravitational pull. Once you have that date, check the tide tables of the shoreline nearest you to find out what time the tide will be out. To the dune buggies!
Touch, But Don’t Take
Take precautions, like wearing water shoes on slippery rocks and glancing out the corner of your eye for rogue waves. But most of all, teach your kids to be gentle with the organisms and leave them in their homes. He says it’s fine to pick up a hermit crab or a sea snail to study it, but then put it back in the pool. “Resist the temptation to bring these animals home,” says Sanford. Did you learn nothing from Finding Nemo?