Subscribe
A constellation of sea stars are visible on a rock during low tide at Pinnacle Beach near Bodega Bay on Tuesday, May 18, 2021. (Christopher Chung/ The Press Democrat)

What makes Sonoma Coast’s tide pools an educational, biological bounty

Consider it nature’s ultimate treasure hunt — a fun, free, family-friendly way to spend time outside on the Sonoma Coast.

If you prefer, you can call tide pooling a crash course in marine biology field work, without the Ph.D.

The activity revolves around the tiny pools of water left behind in the rocks when the ocean recedes during low tide. And with some of the lowest tides of the year coming up over the next few weeks, now is the perfect time to get out and explore.

You don’t need much to do tide pooling right — sunscreen and hard-soled footwear are about the only essentials. The rewards, however, can be spectacular. Ochre, purple and fuchsia sea stars! Sea anemones! Hermit crabs! Sea snails! Gooseneck barnacles! Colorful nudibranchs! On a particularly good day, you might spot an octopus, a sea lion or a feeding whale.

A sea star sits in shallow water during low tide at Pinnacle Beach near Bodega Bay on Tuesday, May 18, 2021.  (Christopher Chung/ The Press Democrat)
A sea star sits in shallow water during low tide at Pinnacle Beach near Bodega Bay on Tuesday, May 18, 2021. (Christopher Chung/ The Press Democrat)

Kristina Stanton, park program supervisor for Sonoma County Regional Parks, said tide pooling offers a window to another world.

“We have such great diversity of life here in Sonoma County,” said Stanton, who is based out of the Parks office in the Sebastopol Community & Cultural Center. “Perhaps nowhere is that more evident than when you’re peering down into a tide pool.”

All about the where

The most important part of any tide pool excursion is also the most obvious: Where to go.

Lucky for us, the Sonoma Coast is loaded with beaches and coves that reveal another world when the tide goes out.

Perhaps the best spot: Pinnacle beach, a tiny sliver of beach just south of Bodega Bay. The beach is accessible by the Pinnacle Gulch Coastal Access Trail, a 1-mile trail that begins in a residential neighborhood near the golf course. The reward for the hike: A half-mile stretch of beach that is essentially one giant tide pool during the lowest of low tides.

Even if the beach is crowded (there are about a dozen spots in the parking lot at the trailhead), sea stars outnumber humans by a magnitude of about 15 to 1. In recent weeks, a marine mammal-obsessed reporter and his daughters have spotted humpback whales feeding on schooling fish just offshore.

A sea anemone is exposed in a tide pool during low tide at Pinnacle Beach near Bodega Bay on Tuesday, May 18, 2021.  (Christopher Chung/ The Press Democrat)
A sea anemone is exposed in a tide pool during low tide at Pinnacle Beach near Bodega Bay on Tuesday, May 18, 2021. (Christopher Chung/ The Press Democrat)

Another epic spot: Salt Point State Park, which has an entire section of rocky shoreline that is exposed during low tides.

This is where Healdsburg resident Chris Herrod has taken his two teenage sons to go tide pooling.

During a 2020 visit, Herrod and his boys scrambled across some of the rocks south of Horseshoe Bay Cove to find tide pools with crabs, urchins, anemones and scores of sea stars in a variety of different sizes and colors.

“Salt Point is full of miracles, and the boys were very grateful for the trip out there,” Herrod said. “We will undoubtedly return again and again.”

A grouping of sea anemones attached to a large rock are exposed during low tide at Pinnacle Beach near Bodega Bay on Tuesday, May 18, 2021.  (Christopher Chung/ The Press Democrat)
A grouping of sea anemones attached to a large rock are exposed during low tide at Pinnacle Beach near Bodega Bay on Tuesday, May 18, 2021. (Christopher Chung/ The Press Democrat)

Additional options for local tide pooling include Miwok Beach (which is accessible from North Salmon Creek) and Schoolhouse Beach. Shell Beach has good tide pools as well, though Stanton said that beach tends to get overcrowded since it is so easily accessible.

When to go

Generally speaking, you can go tide pooling during just about any low tide.

The best tides, however, are the lowest of the low tides in any given month. At this time of year, those are known as “negative” tides, and the tide level is negative or minus relative to the mean sea level for a particular region.

In the next few weeks, negative tides are extreme; there will be negative tides around Bodega Bay in the early morning hours on May 26-29.

In June and July, the negative tides are even more dramatic.

A low tide exposes tide pools along Pinnacle Beach near Bodega Bay on Tuesday, May 18, 2021.  (Christopher Chung/ The Press Democrat)
A low tide exposes tide pools along Pinnacle Beach near Bodega Bay on Tuesday, May 18, 2021. (Christopher Chung/ The Press Democrat)

The best way to prepare for low tides is to check a tide chart; these are available online for free, and most marine services stores sell localized versions for cheap. Tide charts look like mountain ranges — when you look for the low tides, the deepest valleys are the ones that generally yield the best tide pooling.

Stanton advises that tide poolers arrive at their desired location about an hour before low tide for the region, since the tide will be ebbing anyway. She said the best tide pooling usually lasts until about an hour after the designated low tide, at which point the tide begins to flow.

“You usually have a good two or even three hours of good tide pooling if you time it right,” she said. “It’s important to keep track of time so you don’t get caught on the beach with tide coming in.”

What to look for

The Sonoma Coast is home to a panoply of different species — especially when the tide recedes.

The most common species at low tide include those mentioned previously: sea stars, barnacles, hermit crabs and anemones. Chitons are prevalent too — those are snail-like creatures that live under shells that look like rounded huts.

Eric Sanford, a professor of evolution and ecology at UC Davis, said lucky tide poolers may also find sculpins, which are tiny fish.

A sea anemone sits among mussels in a tide pool on Pinnacle Beach near Bodega Bay on Tuesday, May 18, 2021.  (Christopher Chung/ The Press Democrat)
A sea anemone sits among mussels in a tide pool on Pinnacle Beach near Bodega Bay on Tuesday, May 18, 2021. (Christopher Chung/ The Press Democrat)

“When the tide recedes for a few hours, visitors to tide pools have a special opportunity to learn about some of the rich marine life that makes its home along the Sonoma Coast,” said Sanford, who works out of the Bodega Marine Laboratory north of Bodega Head. “We are fortunate to have some good tide pooling locations nearby.”

Stanton recounted her favorite day in a local tide pool — she couldn’t remember where she was but said she’ll never forget seeing a sunflower star in the wild.

These sea stars are yellow in color and often have up to 24 or 30 “rays” or tentacles.

When she spotted the creature, it was moving over an eelgrass-covered rock and seemed to glide across the landscape like an ocean-born ghost. Though most sea stars move slowly, this one practically motored, undoubtedly due to all its limbs.

“It came out of the depths of the tide pool, moved amazingly quickly across this eelgrass bed and then disappeared,” she recounted. “In the world of sea stars, it was as if it was running. It was special because it was remarkable, but also because it’s very rare. You could go tide pooling 20 times and never see one. That’s what makes (tide pooling) so fun. You literally never know what you’re going to find.”

Tide pooling dos and don’ts

When you go tide pooling, there are a few things to keep in mind.

First — and this one is important — don’t ever turn your back on the ocean. Even though tide pooling happens at low tide, there is always the possibility of rogue or sneaker waves that can create dangerous situations and lead to drowning, so you need to stay vigilant.

Second, while it’s perfectly acceptable to appreciate and marvel at creatures and critters in their respective pools, it’s not a good idea to pick them up and remove them from their natural habitats. Sanford said the animals are adapted to live in specific tide pool habitats and most will not survive if they are moved.

A sea star sits on the sand during low tide at Pinnacle Beach near Bodega Bay on Tuesday, May 18, 2021.  (Christopher Chung/ The Press Democrat)
A sea star sits on the sand during low tide at Pinnacle Beach near Bodega Bay on Tuesday, May 18, 2021. (Christopher Chung/ The Press Democrat)

“During the pandemic, there has been increased visitation and pressure on coastal areas in Sonoma County and throughout the state,” he said. “Enjoy looking at the tide pool animals in their natural habitats, but please do not move or otherwise disturb these animals.”

Finally, if you’re packing a lunch with you on your tide pool excursion, be sure to pack out your garbage.

Stanton said it’s important all parks visitors remember the concept of “leave no trace” to preserve and protect our natural environment for the future.

“The coast is a resource for all of us,” she said. “It’s important we all do our part to take care of it.”

Editor’s note: This article has been updated to correct the location of Pinnacle beach.

UPDATED: Please read and follow our commenting policy:

  • This is a family newspaper, please use a kind and respectful tone.
  • No profanity, hate speech or personal attacks. No off-topic remarks.
  • No disinformation about current events.
  • We will remove any comments — or commenters — that do not follow this commenting policy.
Send a letter to the editor

Our Network

The Press Democrat
Sonoma Index-Tribune
Petaluma Argus Courier
North Bay Business Journal
Sonoma Magazine
Bite Club Eats
La Prensa Sonoma
Sonoma County Gazette