With waves crashing just a few yards away, Natalie Lane, 7, places one small foot on a jagged rock, begins to lose her balance and reaches out to grab her mother's hand. Together mother and daughter crouch beside the small pool of seawater trapped between the wave-splashed rocks and uncovered by low tide.
Under the watchful eye of naturalist Pam Johnson, a dozen others--children and adults--adopt similar poses as they explore the tide pools in the rocky reefs at Dana Point.
Johnson, head naturalist for Orange County's Department of Education, has been leading these weekend tide-pool walks, offered through the Dana Point Youth and Group Facility, for the past year.
In simple terms, a tide pool is any rocky area along the coast where water is captured by the change of tides. Johnson, an Orange County native who has spent a good deal of time at the tide pools, is eager to share her knowledge of the area, but even more eager to teach visitors how to protect the rich and varied plant and animal life found along the coast.
"I like to lead these walks to show people the correct way to enjoy these tide pools without destroying them," Johnson says as she picks her way, sure-footed and at ease, along the rocky shore. "You should take nothing from the tide-pool areas. Collecting is not allowed. These areas are protected and it is against the law (to take anything). If everyone took things, the tide pools would be stripped and destroyed."
Learning how to enjoy the pools without destroying them is becoming important as the number of visitors grows each year, Johnson says.
Carelessness and deliberate killing or collecting can virtually eliminate intertidal animals, depriving future generations of the chance to see the complex world of organisms that exists in the rocky reefs along the Pacific.
"When I was a kid, we used to see starfish all the time," Johnson says. "Now, you never see them. They have disappeared."
Members of Johnson's group during its weekend outing are sophisticated tide-poolers, who ask before they touch. Jeff Bain, 13, has been on these walks before with knowledgeable guides. He can identify most of the common tide-pool inhabitants. And he knows that if he picks up a rock to look beneath it, he should put it back exactly as it was before. Otherwise, the organisms attached to the underside of the rock will die.
When he finds a giant limpet creeping along the surface of a rock, he does not disturb it but watches with fascination, calling Johnson over to see the mollusk disappear into a crevice.
"This is a good day," Johnson says excitedly. "We're really seeing a lot of different things."
The younger children, such as 3-year-old Evan Valentini and 4-year-old Emily Reis, are allowed to pet a large sea hare, a snail-like mollusk without a shell, as Johnson holds the slimy creature in her hand.
"Sea hares can live up to 12 hours out of the water," says Johnson, who is careful to keep the creature wet. Afterward, she carefully returns it to the water as the children watch.
If you are planning a tide-pool walk, Pam Johnson offers these tips:
Tide-pooling is better in the winter because of greater tidal changes.
Excursions should be planned during low tides. Check the tide charts for a 2.0 or lower tide.
Do not venture out when the surf is up. "I know people who have gotten smashed by the waves and injured," Johnson says. "Large waves can wash you off slippery rocks."
Wear a pair of old tennis shoes for sure footing. Do not go barefoot.
If you are exploring an area at low tide, be sure that the incoming tide is not going to flood your way back to shore, stranding you in the surf line.
The Dana Point Youth and Group Facility will offer another guided tide-pool walk from 12:30 to 2:30 p.m. Oct. 22. Information is available by calling (714) 661-7122.
The Orange County Marine Institute in Dana Point will also offer tide-pool excursions Oct. 22 and 23. Call (714) 496-2274 for information.