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The Best Places to Go Tide Pooling in the Bay Area

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Red sea urchin on a rock at tide pools in Crystal Cove, California. (aaronnystrom/iStock)

If you love discovering the Bay Area’s beautiful coastline, then tide pooling — exploring the tiny basins of seawater and marine life that stud the shore — is one of the most enjoyable things to do out in nature.

Sea stars, mussels, barnacles, seaweed, urchins, hermit crabs and nudibranchs are just a few examples of the many inhabitants hanging out in Bay Area tide pools. The best way to see tide pools — these little pockets of seawater in the ocean’s intertidal zones where the ocean meets the land — is during low tide. This is when some of the most fascinating marine wildlife becomes visible to those who pay close attention.

Keep reading for what to know about tide pooling in the Bay Area.

Intertidal zones are home to ‘the most beautiful organisms’

The intertidal zone, where the ocean meets the land, is an extreme ecosystem that experiences drastic changes. Organisms living in these places are exposed to air during low tides and submerged in seawater during high tides.

So, marine life living in the intertidal zone are usually hardy and tough, which is great for them given how regularly they’re exposed to rough weather conditions, said Allison Gong, marine biologist and biology teacher at Cabrillo College in Aptos. “They are also some of the most beautiful and extraordinary organisms we have on the planet,” she added.

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While seeing marine creatures out in the wild is a rewarding experience on its own, tide pooling is also a great way to learn about our local environment. “It’s a way to understand the connection between global phenomena like climate change and atmospheric rivers and how they impact the environment,” said Sarah Cohen, professor of biology at San Francisco State University.

Before going out tide pooling, remember to always be respectful of the ocean and its inhabitants. When you go tide pooling, you are actually temporarily invading these creatures’ homes, Gong said. “The marine animals did not evolve to have people stepping on them or prying them off of rocks,” Gong said. “Visiting the tide pools is a privilege. We need to be nice visitors.”

How to start tide pooling

Tides occur during the rise and fall of the ocean’s waters, caused by the gravitational pull of the moon and the sun on Earth. “It’s a beautiful cycle,” Cohen said.

Because you want to go tide pooling at the right time — low tide — Cohen said you should plan to be at your desired location an hour before the low tide arrives. This will ensure that you have enough time to get your bearings, plan your visit and enjoy the tide pools before the sea fills back in.

The Moon and Earth exert a gravitational pull on each other. On Earth, the Moon’s gravitational pull causes the oceans to bulge out on both the side closest to the Moon and the side farthest from the Moon. These bulges create high tides. The low points are where low tides occur. (NASA/Vi Nguyen)

For an optimal experience, look for low tides between -1.0 feet and -1.4 feet on tide charts like Saltwater Tides or NOAA Tide Predictions. And remember, as the days get shorter during the year, the low tides occur later in the day. For example, you’ll find that in the summer, low tides are much earlier than in the winter. So “if you are not an early riser, I recommend making it out to the tide pools in November to April,” said Alison Young, co-director of the Center for Biodiversity and Community Science at the California Academy of Sciences.

How to stay safe while tide pooling

Image of a tide pool on California coast filled with vibrant green sea anemone. (Nicholas Klein/iStock)

The coast is a beautiful place, but the ocean can always be dangerous — even on a calm day.

Don’t forget to check with the National Weather Service’s Bay Area office for swells, surf warnings, and beach flooding warnings before heading out for your tide pool adventure. For safety reasons, it’s also best to avoid tide pooling during storms and high winds and never keep your back to the ocean.

Marine biologist Gong recommended bringing a friend when you’re out tide pooling, especially if it’s your first time. “It’s also more fun to share your discoveries with other people,” she said.

Along the coast, you can find organisms attached to rocks or living in the pools that they form. These rocks along Bay Area’’s tide pools can be wet and slick from the surging waves and algae growth, so appropriate footwear like rubber boots with treads can help you from slipping and falling, Young said.

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How to keep wildlife safe when tide pooling

While it might be highly tempting to touch the marine creatures, you should always be careful not to harm them. The organisms inhabiting these tide pools are delicate and vulnerable; even a gentle touch or wrong step, however well-intentioned, could disrupt their ecosystem.

Sea stars and sea urchins, for example, have a very thin layer of skin over their entire bodies, including their spines. “When you put your hands all over them, you’re kind of smothering them,” SFSU’s Cohen said. They can’t breathe because they breathe through that skin. What’s more, oils and moisturizers that might be on your hands could irritate them, she said.

A yellow star fish is seen inside a tide pool against rocks covered in seaweed.
Close-up of starfish in Pacific Coast tide pool. Taken at Santa Cruz, California. (GomezDavid/iStock)

Not only are sea stars delicate creatures, but they have also experienced a massive die-off in 2013 due to “sea star wasting syndrome” (SSWS). “Sea stars on our coast have suffered a very large disease event, the largest ever documented in the marine realm,” Cohen said. Some sea star populations are decimated or even locally extinct — which is why it’s especially important to be careful around this particular species, Cohen said. Even if you see a location that seems to have a lot of sea stars, know that their former populations were much greater — and they have an important role in marine ecosystems.

The general advice is to admire from afar, take pictures, upload them on the iNaturalist app, and learn more about the species you see in the intertidal. By adding data on iNaturalist, you’re helping scientists and marine biologists to get a snapshot of coastal biodiversity year over year to see how species are moving with warmer waters up the coast, Young said.

Another rule of thumb when tide pooling is not to take anything home with you, especially if they are still alive.

The best places to go tide pooling in or near the Bay Area

During low tides, you can enjoy tide pooling anywhere along the rocky areas of the Bay Area coast. Be sure to check the location’s website for the latest information on weather and beach conditions before heading out. To be with others and learn about the intertidal zone in the summer, you can join a BioBlitz organized by the California Academy of Sciences.

Here are some of the more popular tide pooling destinations in and near the Bay Area:

San Francisco

North Bay

East Bay

Peninsula

Others near the Bay Area

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