Last June, I roamed the shores of Puget Sound during a super low tide. I spent my time on the harbor side of West Seattle, facing downtown. The scene was memorable and photogenic, with blue sky and white clouds, reflections in pools of water.
This year I decided not to try to repeat those images and instead chose to experience the lowest tide around the bend to the south, where people go to look for marine life and volunteer beach naturalists are present to identify creatures.
I guess it’s the moon phase and summer tilt of the earth that produces these low tides. Lucky for us, that’s a better time to explore near the water’s edge than winter!
During these super low tides, I’d say the tide goes out at least twice as far as it usually does, if not more. This is when Mother Nature reveals the hidden world that exists beneath the sea, and hordes of people young and old come out to witness the spectacle.
I went down for a -3.4 ft. tide, and saw some exciting creatures. For the first time, I found a small fish, a gunnel.
Gunnels are long and narrow, similar to eels. This one was a saddleback gunnel, Pholis ornate, about four inches long, though they can get to about 11 inches long.
I learned that they are found close to shore areas, on mud bottoms among eelgrass and seaweed, and that they feed on small mollusks and crustaceans. The pattern on its skin made me think of a snake.
I searched for and found several chitons clinging to rocks, though their lovely shell shapes and patterns were completely obscured by coats of seaweed. A stunning find was a “gumboot” chiton, Cryptochitonstelleri, which reminded me of shelf fungi I see growing on logs.
If it grew above ground, you’d easily mistake it for fungus. Someone had spotted it way under a rock and asked a volunteer what it was. It was huge, as far as any chitons I have seen. In fact, it is the largest chiton in the world, reaching up to 13 inches in length. It has a reddish leathery exterior that covers its shell plates, unlike smaller chitons. How lucky was I to see it!
There were plenty of anemones, with the large bright reddish ones screaming for attention. They come in many shapes and sizes.
If you were going to make a horror film with sea creatures, anemones would surely be the stars. Remember the movie, The Blob? Exactly. With their slime-like glistening amorphous bodies, they stick to rocks and seem to ooze down to the ground.
The larger ones take on these stretchy shapes, while the smaller species are circular masses that can be easily overlooked among the wet sand.
Stars and Cucumbers
Also looking soft and squishy were the many bright orange sea cucumbers. They are not large, but easy to spot.
Another orange creature was the delicate looking blood star, Henricia leviuscula, with its narrow rays. It was much smaller than the beefy brown mottled sea star, Evasterias troschelli. This guy eats clams, shells, snails, chitons, barnacles and sea squirts.
Nudibranchs are among the most colorful of undersea creatures. Although the magnificent Opalescent sea slug can be found in Puget Sound, on this day, all we saw were bland beige ones of the genus Doris. They were like big flat worms.
There are many kinds of sea weed along the shore, and one visitor even sampled one!
With all the commercial tanker traffic, ferries and other vessels, I’m not sure I’d eat anything from that particular body of water.
Always my favorite, a moon snail clung inside its beautiful shell. These gastropods have been called “voracious predators” of clams.
The snail envelopes the clam with its big foot and then drills a hole in the clam shell. Through the hole, it slowly sucks out the clam.
Oh, what goes on in the undersea world!