Drive about thirty minutes south from San Francisco along Highway 1 and you will come to the town of Moss Beach. When you get there, look for a small sign on the right that says "Marine Life Refuge". At the end of the road you will find Fitzgerald Marine Reserve, a place where you can leave city life behind and experience an ephemeral world that is only available to humans when the gravitational pull of the moon and sun create a low tide.
I first ventured out onto the rocky algae covered reef of the FMR in 2004. At the time, I had made a life changing decision to give up a career in biology and venture into the field of natural history filmmaking. Excluding the countless hours I had spent watching nature shows on TV, I had no formal film production training. What I did have was a new video camera, a wool cap, and a child-like fascination with exploring nature. Over the next year, I spent every available daylight low tide at the reserve figuring out how to capture the feeling of coming face-to-face with a hermit crab.
Filming in a marine environment presents a host of special challenges. Electronics and saltwater are not friends, but I had decided to make a film entirely within one foot above and below the water line. To do so I would have to get creative. For the majority of the underwater shots, I used a homemade aquascope made out of a black plastic tube that I cut to fit on the end of my camera’s lens. I glued a piece of clear Plexiglas on the other end, which allowed me to film in inches of water without the glare produced by the sun reflecting off the surface. Later I stepped up to a "splash bag", which is basically a glorified Ziploc bag with a clear lens on one end. The splash bag seals the camera inside and has the added advantage of protecting the camera when you slip on a spot of slick algae and slide down some jagged rocks into the ocean.
The second most useful piece of equipment I acquired for the film was a close-up filter, which is basically a magnifying glass that screws onto the lens. This allowed me to get the detailed shots of the tide pool inhabitants. I like the idea of filming animals from their own perspective, which in this case meant sitting or lying on the rocks to get the camera at the same level as the subject. This sounds easy enough, but when sitting on cold wet rocks, it doesn’t take long before the shivers start to make your hands (and thus your camera) shake.
One of the concerns with filming very small creatures on the rocky shore is the potential to forget where you are and have the tide sneak back in, trapping you far out on a rock. More dangerous is the potential of a rogue wave coming without warning and sweeping an unaware visitor out to sea. This leads to the adage "Don’t turn your back to the sea." Keep that in mind when you make your own trip to Fitzgerald Marine Reserve.
The animals that live in the intertidal zone have adapted well to the demanding lifestyle of competing for space and resources in a rugged and fluctuating environment that is relentlessly pounded by the Pacific surf and surge. What they have not adapted to is having people step on them. When I am out on the rocks filming or introducing a friend to the reserve I always abide by the rules for tide pool etiquette:
• No collecting! The reserve was formed to protect the intertidal inhabitants and even a short time in your pail will be detrimental to them.
• Watch where you step and be careful with the intertidal creatures. Don’t love the tide pools to death by inadvertently stepping on their residents.
• Keep your distance from the Harbor seals that haul out on the rocks to rest or sun themselves. It is illegal to harass the seals no matter how cute they are.
• Dress the part. Wear layers, a hat, and some old tennis shoes. The rocks and barnacles are too sharp to comfortably walk barefoot. I find surfing booties to be ideal on the slick rocks.
• Keep an eye on the waves so you don’t have to take an unplanned swim.
• Have fun. Bring the family, friends, and anyone else who might be suffering from Nature Deficit Disorder. We have the power to protect what we love, and we only love that which we know.
Lastly, if you venture out to the pools but you don’t immediately see any wildlife don’t just move on. Many of the creatures are shy and skittish, and will hide at first sign of your footsteps and shadows. Just relax and wait for a couple minutes. You will soon see that the pools are teaming with a dazzling quantity of colorful snails, sculpins, anemones, and hermit crabs.