Adventures with ocean creatures can be as accessible as the nearest tide pool

September 18, 1994|By Eileen Ogintz | Eileen Ogintz,Los Angeles Times Syndicate

"Look, there's a starfish," Reggie said excitedly, pointing to a spot near a slippery rock.

"I found the first crab," Matt said triumphantly.

The kids gently touched sticky sea anemones, making them close up. They splashed a barnacle, watching it open. They found snails and chitons clinging to the rocks.

The adventure was all the more exciting because they were making these discoveries for themselves, not in an aquarium -- although those are plenty of fun -- but in natural tide pools at a nearly deserted Oregon beach.

"Tide pools are made for kids. They flock to them like video arcades," says Paul Erickson, a New England Aquarium biologist who developed a series of educational television programs on tide pools and beachcombing that have been used in schools across the country. (Teachers can call the New England Aquarium for information about the programs at [617] 973-5200.)

For those who live along the coasts, tide pooling can be a great antidote for the summer-is-over blues. It's also a great way to get the kids excited about science. "Science is about looking at the world and making connections," explains Gary Widdison, a former California science teacher who now produces interactive science videos for the Los Angeles schools.

"If kids can experience science for themselves, those are the lessons they retain," he says.

For the uninitiated, tide pools are rocky pockets along the ocean that hold water when the tide goes out. Some are small, others large. Entire marine communities live in these tide pools -- sponges, snails, sea slugs, jellyfish, mussels and even octopuses. At low tide the pools teem with sea life in an array of colors, shapes and sizes: purple sea urchins, red starfish, green anemones.

"Tide pools are a world-class wilderness adventure in microcosm," says Mr. Erickson, who has explored them from the South Pacific to the Atlantic Coast. "You don't have to go to Alaska or Costa Rica. It's amazing what you'll find right here."

Tide pools exist anywhere there's a rocky ocean coast: at Maine's Acadia National Park or Washington state's Olympic National Park; at Cabrillo Beach in San Pedro, Calif., near Los Angeles, at Carpinteria State Beach just south of Santa Barbara and at Asilomar Beach in Santa Cruz. In Oregon, those who are physically challenged or families with young children will be able to enjoy a new wheelchair- and stroller-accessible tide pool area at Yaquina Head Outstanding Natural Area, which opens later this month. The best tide pools we found in Oregon were just south of Newport at Seal Rock State Park.

Fall and early winter are great times to explore tide pools, according to authorities. "The crowds are gone," says the New England Aquarium's Mr. Erickson.

Even better, this is one family outing that doesn't cost any money nor does it require more than an afternoon. Just be sure to wear sneakers or water shoes, bring extra clothes (the kids are likely to get wet) and a first-aid kit (rocks and barnacles can be sharp). Check the tides (low tide is the best), grab a tide-pool guidebook for the region and head to the beach.

Mr. Erickson says that many marine scientists were first hooked on the ocean by exploring tide pools as kids. He suggests reading a book before you go. One that's recommended is part of the Eyewitness series, "The Seashore" by Steve Parker (Knopf, $12.95).

Before you go, visit an aquarium so everyone will more readily recognize what they're seeing. Both the New England Aquarium in Boston and the Oregon Coast Aquarium in Newport, for example, have state-of-the-art tide pool exhibits and touch pools. California's Cabrillo Marine Aquarium in San Pedro and the Sea Center at Stearns Wharf in Santa Barbara also have large touch pools. It's possible to head nearby to the beach from any of these aquariums and find wonderfully rich tide pools.

But don't be deterred if there's not a tide pool around. Any sandy beach can prove to be fertile "exploring" territory, Mr. Erickson says, pointing to his own childhood explorations along the Long Island and New Jersey coasts, which ultimately steered him toward his career. "We stuck our heads underwater with a snorkel and we were there for two weeks," looking at tiny fish, crabs and seaweed, he says.

"Tide pooling also is a way to teach children respect for living creatures," continues Mr. Erickson. "They won't find cuddly things here but strange creatures that they might have trouble believing are alive."

Because tide pools are full of living creatures, it's important to teach kids some etiquette as well as some safety rules before heading out.

Rocks are slippery, and huge waves can sneak up. "If it's a rough day, don't go near the water," urges Mr. Erickson. Leave before the tide comes in.

And don't let the kids take any of the marine life home. The creatures will just die if they do.

Video producer Gary Widdison uses the one-finger rule with his five kids: only touch a sea creature with one finger. Never rip a snail or other animal from the rocks. Be gentle, he advises, and teach the kids to leave everything the way they found it.

Even with all the do's and don'ts, a family can't help but have a great time. "Discovering together," Mr. Widdison says, "is very exciting."

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