I’ve spent many weekends this spring and summer on various PNW beaches, reveling in the wonders of ocean and shore. One of my goals for 2018 has been to do no research, look nothing up, to just steep myself in the wonder of the mysterious unknown. For a recovering Type-A Personality and lifelong research freak this is a particularly daunting task. Such purposeful ignorance is a temporary addition to my mindfulness practice, a way to regain the wonder of a child who has not yet learned to categorize, name and pigeon-hole the world around me. The spiritual teacher, Eckhart Tolle, speaks of our “…incessant naming and labeling… (which) blocks true connection and experience with life.”
Though it has taken time and dedication to relearn this childlike state of being, I have found it to be wonderful, restorative, a cure to much that ails me.
I was a little concerned that exploring low tide with experts who knew their stuff might violate my vow of temporary ignorance and thereby reduce my wonder at what I experienced. I should not have worried. Despite being steeped the who, what, where and how of all we encountered the WSU volunteers where as filled with wonder and joy as any child. I learned the names of many things (most of which I promptly forgot) plus the habitats and behaviors of a variety of plants and animals. I know a little more but most importantly I learned some new ways of seeing the ocean from the vantage point of our dedicated Beach Watchers eyes.
The sheer variety of different forms animals take is astounding: clear, squishy blobs; firm, colorful balls; feathery, leaf-like bodies; hard outer casings and bodies that crumble at the slightest touch. Some are permanently affixed to rocks and shells while others float freely wherever tides and currents take them. Those with the power to move may only creep aimlessly with no goal other than nearly imperceptible movement. Others are fully mobile, and often blindingly quick.
We found two types of sea squirts, and guess what? They really do squirt! Kids and adults alike burst into laughter as a gentle squeeze turned these blob-like animals into living squirt guns.
Below, a sea sponge in bright orange. Sponges are actually groups, or colonies, of tiny animals that mass together.
These are all animals as well. The orange circle at the top is a sea anemone which has withdrawn into itself. The other two are different types of colony animals, thousands of individuals forming structures unique to their species.
One of the most unique finds of the day was an old bottle filled with sea life. Not only were barnacles and other sea life permanent fixtures in the tiny ecosystem, but a crab had grown up inside the bottle until he was too large to escape. The constant eb and flow of sea water and the life it contains had sustained him in his glass prison.
Moon snail egg masses look like rubber debris on the beach. A friend of mine ran across a woman who had her arms filled with masses. When asked what she was doing the woman explained she was clearing the plastic garbage from the beach. She was shocked to find out it was not plastic she held but the eggs of a large marine snail. Volunteer Bernie Busch explained how moon snails incorporate sand into their jelly-like egg mass to give it enough substance and durability to withstand the pounding of waves.
My favorite finds of the day were nudibranch’s, beautiful sea slugs with frilly, exposed gills like flower petals. Nancy Engan was particularly knowledgeable about these creatures, explaining how they eat sea anemones and even incorporate the anemones stingers into their own frill as defense against predators. The little beings where surprisingly opinionated and feisty, the frosted nudibranchs showing displeasure when the opalescent was added to its container.
This Fried Egg jellyfish probably elicited the most attention from beachgoers. Brightly colored and quite large at over a foot across not counting its tentacles, this undulating creature caused quite a stir. Excited children were warned to stay back lest they receive a painful sting. While the jelly is capable of a certain amount of self-propulsion, its undulating movement was no match for the waves driving it toward shore.
The beach was so fascinating we almost failed to notice a magnificent kingfisher who had been surveying his watery kingdom from a perch high above the beach. While I’m familiar with these mighty birds along Canadian rivers I had no idea they also patrolled coastal salt waters.
I so enjoyed my day with the dedicated WSU Beach Watchers. Their knowledge of our ocean ecosystem combined with genuine wonder and love of its many inhabitants enhanced the experience of everyone they encountered. Edmonds beach is a true treasure of beauty and biodiversity at our feet – thanks to Bernie, Anne and the other volunteer WSU Beach Watchers who helped me to see it so much more clearly.
If You Go …
Here are some links to programs that offer public guided walks with beach naturalists during low tides. See you at the beach!