#1 in a series of guest blog posts by Seattle Aquarium beach naturalists Bobby Arispe and Jen Strongin.
Blue skies, warm temperatures and some of the lowest tides of the year made last week an especially great time to be at our local Seattle beaches. During the late spring and throughout the summer, when the sun, moon and earth are aligned, we get to enjoy exploring the beach during minus tides. These extra-low, low tides occur twice a month, during the new and full moons. We have minus tides during the winter too, but they occur at night when not everyone is as inclined to bundle up and brave the cold, wet wintery weather (we still do anyway, and it is amazing but we will tell you more about that later in the season)! It is a really special time on the beach when the minus tides are in full swing because they give us the opportunity to observe some unique, beautiful and amazing animals that are normally under the water and out of sight.
You would not believe what we saw out there this past week—a 17-inch long California sea cucumber, a humpback whale breaching off Golden Gardens beach, bald eagles, moon snails laying eggs, flatfish, sea pens, huge Dungeness crabs, shrimp, sea stars and…lots of octopuses!
It is not uncommon to see an octopus now and then on our local beaches, but during this past low-tide series we observed record numbers. A grand total of seven were reported from a single day at Lincoln Park beach in West Seattle! While Lincoln Park was the beach where we saw the most octopuses, they were also observed by our team of naturalists at South Alki, Richmond Beach and Saltwater State Park.
We have two common species of octopus in Puget Sound: the giant Pacific octopus (GPO) and the Pacific red octopus. It can be difficult to determine which species you are looking at when they are out of the water at low tide. Size can be a clue—if the animal is larger than 1.5 pounds (using your eyeballs to guestimate that weight!) it could be a GPO. If the animal is 1.5 pounds or smaller and you are able to see three small flaps of skin (papillae) under the eyes that look like eyelashes, you might be looking at a Pacific red. The safest bet is just to exclaim, “Octopus!” excitedly like we do when we see one in the wild.
If you do encounter an octopus on the beach, make sure to give it the space it needs. These intelligent, curious animals are not normally aggressive toward people but will deliver a painful, venomous bite with their sharp beak if handled when they are feeling stressed out. Being out of water during low tide can be very stressful for many of our intertidal dwellers so we do our best to be respectful guests while visiting their homes on the beach.
Next up—nudibranchs! These beautiful, and often tiny, invertebrates are worth kneeling down and taking a closer look for among kelp, rocks and even on the underside of moon snail egg collars. Besides being beautiful to look at, nudibranchs have some pretty awesome powers—like being able to ingest and store the stinging cells of their prey to use for their own defense! Seen on our beaches this week were several species and their egg masses including opalescent nudibranchs, barnacle-eating dorids, sea lemons, shaggy mouse nudibranchs and leopard dorids.
Invertebrates rule on our beaches but we also have plenty of beautiful fish that we get to observe at low tide like tide pool sculpins, gunnels (those fish that look like eels!) and plainfin midshipmen to name a few.
We observed a number of midshipmen on several of our beaches this week. These amazing fish can actually spend quite a long time out of the water during low tide by breathing through their skin! If you see one hiding under a rock, not to worry, it can stay right where it is. That is its home and it may be a proud papa, guarding eggs. Beach etiquette tip of the week—leave things where you find them. Excited about your discovery? Bring a naturalist/teacher to the creature.
Our next low-tide series starts Sunday, June 19 and ends Wednesday, June 22. Come join us on our local beaches and we will help you observe the intertidal zone with the eyes of a curious naturalist!
"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."