It's Saturday in Marina del Rey's Ballona Lagoon. The tide is low. Coastal fog is just beginning to lift. Great blue herons and snowy egrets are busily hunting breakfast along the lagoon's shore. Small shore birds probe the sand banks and mud flats. A hermit crab rummages through shells looking for a new, larger home. Flying overhead, a brown pelican watches as a bulla snail deposits her spaghetti-like eggs among the lagoon's sargassum, and a green anemone, in search of prey, unfolds seductively like a flower.
Relaxing, exciting, educational, controversial, rare. All these words describe Ballona Lagoon. Never heard of it? Don't feel bad. It's one of Los Angeles' best-kept secrets.
Ballona Lagoon is a rich tidal wetland that flows between Washington Street and the entrance to the Marina del Rey channel. It feeds the Venice canal system. Don't confuse Ballona Lagoon with Ballona Creek or the Ballona Wetlands, both of which lie south of the Marina del Rey channel in Playa del Rey.
A Rich Ecosystem
Although the lagoon is still, and may even appear stagnant in spots, marine experts say 95% of its water is changed daily through fresh inflow through the tidal gates at the lagoon's south end. Due to the daily flushing, pollutants cannot build up, and the oxygenated water supports a rich, easy-to-view ecosystem of marine life. The nearby Marina del Rey marina, by contrast, undergoes a complete change of water only once a week, according to marine biologists, so plant and animal life there is greatly diminished.
To get to Ballona Lagoon, follow the San Diego Freeway (Interstate 405) to the Venice Boulevard/Washington Boulevard exit. Take Washington Boulevard (it laters becomes Washington Street) west toward the ocean. Turn left on Via Marina and follow it for about a mile. It will take you to the lagoon's south end.
There is a public parking lot off of Via Marina just as you pass Via Dolce. There is also metered parking along Via Marina as it skirts the south end of the lagoon, plus some unmetered street parking close by.
In order to see everything the lagoon has to offer, you'll have to get your feet wet, so take an old pair of tennis shoes (those broken seashells can be sharp).
It might be handy to pack a good reference book on marine life. It's always nice to be able to explain to children why and what a particular animal is doing. It might also be handy to have a book on wildflowers and tidal wetland birds.
If you take a net and bucket, remember that marine animals have delicate life systems and will die if left out of their environment. Look at them, then gently put them back where you found them.
The best time to observe marine life is low tide. Check The Times weather section for current information.
The Best Starting Point
The south end of Ballona Lagoon, by the tidal gates at the Marina del Rey entrance channel, is the best place to start. Follow the sandy shoreline north along the east side of the lagoon. Most of the marine life species that live in the lagoon can be found in the first hundred yards here.
On the dry rocks that border the tidal gate are several species of mollusks. Chitons are about an inch long, three-eighths of an inch wide and look like marine fossil specimens. Limpets are slightly larger and resemble a half shell lying flat. These two creatures may look dead but, if you watch closely as you touch their shells, they pull down and tighten their grip on the rocks.
Among the rocks, different species of shore crabs scurry about, scavenging bits of food. Acorn barnacles and volcano barnacles can also be found on the rocks' dry surfaces. These ancient creatures both look like small volcanoes. If you splash water on them and watch the hole at the top, you may see some movement within.
Closer to the waterline you will see the four-inch-long black California mussel, growing in clusters. Also attached to the rocks close to the waterline, you may find some dirt-colored, "brain-looking" shapes about two inches in diameter. These are tunicates that have closed in order to preserve moisture. Tunicates are filter feeders (they suck water in, filter out food particles, then expel the water). If you look along the rocks in the water you will find some tunicates feeding. They have their small mouths open and look like Venetian urns.
Alongside the tunicates in the water, active volcano barnacles fish the currents for plankton with their sticky, feathery pink tongues.
Colonies of Sponges
Colonies of pink and yellow sponges grow where they find a suitable foothold in the lagoon and inside the large tidal-gate pipes at low tide. Along with sponges, you may see some brilliant orange or yellow jelly-like masses of colonial ascidian (marine animals that live in colonies), and from time to time, globular sulfur-colored tunicates.