Know your beach—this week from the beach

#7 in a series of guest blog posts by Seattle Aquarium beach naturalists Bobby Arispe and Jen Strongin.

The author checking out Graceful Cancer Crabs with the kids
The author checking out Graceful Cancer Crabs with the kids


Wouldn't you like to have a day on the beach with Seattle Aquarium beach naturalists giving you and a few of your closest friends an intimate tour of life in the intertidal zone? Although you can come visit us any time we are out working on our local beaches, we move from group to group, answering questions, making sure we spend time with all of our visitors.

But this year, at the annual Seattle Aquarium Splash! auction, one lucky family bid on and won a special, private tour at Constellation Beach in West Seattle. They got to invite a few friends and have my fellow beach captain, Barbara Owens, and me all to themselves!

We spent two glorious hours together, exploring during the low tide. The highlights of our day were seeing all the different species of anemones and getting to gently feel each one; finding several species of crabs in different habitats and getting to observe them skittering about through the seaweed and rocks; checking out tube worms; using magnifying glasses to look at a teeny, tiny sea urchin up close; and, of course, laying claim to a sand bar island.  :)

Painted anemone row at Constellation Beach
Painted anemone row at Constellation Beach


These painted anemones are like our old friends at Constellation Beach. Did you know that they can live for up to 80 years?! We visit them year after year and always stop to say hello.

Barbara and the kids searching the field guide
Barbara and the kids searching the field guide


The large, rocky breakwater at the south end of Constellation Beach is a treasure trove of amazing intertidal life. Barbara and the kids were consulting their field guide, looking to identify one of the many chitons they saw. It turned out to be a very large Hind's chiton. These animals can grow up to 4" in length.

Hind's chiton

We got to see one of my favorite crabs, a purple shore crab, as we continued to explore in and around the rocks. They are a common species but I think they are pretty spectacular with their deep purple carapaces and fancy, polka-dotted front claws.

purple shore crab

The next time you visit the beach, if you’re in a sandy area, squat down and look across the sand. You might notice what looks like hundreds of small, transparent tubes sticking up. These are actually the homes of an animal called a bamboo tubeworm. Inside the tube is a segmented worm. The worm scrunches down in the tube to hide during the low tide and emerges once it’s covered back up with water.

bamboo tubeworm

Moving over to the smaller rocky, breakwater at Constellation Beach, we saw more beautiful chitons, a mama crab with a clutch of eggs under her belly and the teeniest sea urchin ever. The kids pulled out their magnifying glasses to get a closer look and I, of course, pulled out my camera.  :)


Before saying goodbye, we found one last intertidal gem—a huge, healthy, gorgeous purple sea star, basking in the sea lettuce as the tide was coming back in.

purple sea star

Thank you so much to the wonderful families who came out with us! We appreciate your generous donation to the Seattle Aquarium and we hope to see you on the beach again soon.

One of the greatest joys of being a beach naturalist is getting to share our curiosity and appreciation of all the natural beauty on the beach with so many people. There is nothing quite like seeing that "aha" moment happen for someone as they learn something new. My favorite encounter at the beach last week was a wonderful family visiting from Texas. They were all excellent beach stewards, especially the grandmother who was carrying a plastic bag with her to clean up trash from the beach. She was picking up what she thought were chunks of rubber but as it turned out, they were moon snail egg collars! We had a great conversation about moon snails—everything from how they lay their eggs to how they drill holes in clams with their radulas. Her eyes sparkled with that "aha" moment and it made my day!

Beach etiquette tip of the week: Carry a small garbage bag to pick up trash.

Here are some more of the highlights of my time on the beach this week from Constellation Beach and Saltwater State Park:

red rock crab

We happened upon this HUGE red rock crab enjoying a clam for lunch. You might notice that this crab is missing its two larger front claws as well as couple of other smaller ones here and there. In spite of its disability, this crab was making it work! It may have had some gulls to thank for cracking that clam open...


Crabs were the highlight of our day at Constellation for sure. I saw several male crabs, both red rock and Dungeness, moving in and out of the protective beds of eelgrass, carrying females around. I am certainly glad human mating rituals are not the same as our crustacean friends! Females release pheromones that signal to the males they are almost ready to molt. When the male and female connect, he embraces her and carries her around for several days or more, until she sheds her old shell (exoskeleton). Once she has molted and her outer shell is soft, the male can transfer his sperm. In a very gentlemanly fashion, he carries her around for another several days, until her new shell hardens, to ensure she’s safe from predators (and possibly other suitors!).

clam worm

The beach at Saltwater State Park is loaded with all sorts of beautiful shells. I’ve learned that if you look under the empty ones, there’s always something interesting to see! This week I enjoyed watching periwinkle snails moving along an obstacle course made of barnacles; limpets navigating a terrain with tiny orange-striped green anemones; a mossy chiton taking a rest; and this lovely and colorful polychaete worm.

I can't believe our beach season is almost over! Our last low tide series will be July 31-August 3. Come out and join us—we look forward to exploring with you.


JenAbout Jen:

Jen writes:

"I ventured westward from Albany, NY and fell madly in love with our city from the moment I arrived. It was 21 years ago this August when Seattle first charmed me with its lush, forested parks, beautiful beaches, and water and mountain views (when the skies are clear enough) all around.

I spent the first half of my 21 years here immersed in Seattle's wonderful coffee culture. My husband and I owned and operated Victrola Coffee on Capitol Hill until 2008. We sold our business that year to spend more time with our newborn son and I have been a stay-at-home, homeschooling mama and budding photographer and naturalist ever since! It started with me taking my young son to the beach, gazing into tide pools and wanting to know more about what we were looking at. Soon, I was going to the beach by myself, every low tide I could, and following the Seattle Aquarium beach naturalists around asking questions. :)

I signed up to be an interpretive volunteer at the Seattle Aquarium in 2013, became a beach naturalist volunteer in 2014, and this will be my first year as an official member of the Seattle Aquarium staff as a beach captain. My favorite place to be is on the beach, with my camera, sharing my love and knowledge of our intertidal dwellers with the hope that I will inspire others to love and protect the Salish Sea and the ocean beyond."

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