Park Ranger Pat Hackney reached into the indoor tide pool at the Channel Islands National Park Visitor Center and pulled out a round, bumpy sea cucumber.
"Want to touch it?" he asked one of the kids surrounding him by the tide pool.
"Yuck," was her answer.
That's not surprising, given the disgusting manners of the sea cucumber. It has the unusual ability to upchuck its intestines to distract its enemies. Then it simply regrows them.
That's but one curious fact about the marine life in the artificial tide pool at the Ventura Harbor. Hackney held up a strand of kelp and showed that it grows at the astonishing rate of 18 inches a day. Then he picked up a Wavy Top Turban Snail and pointed to its "trap door" that enables it to crawl inside its shell to be safe from enemies.
The tide pool--also home to abalone, scallops, anemones, starfish, crabs and coral--is an example of the sea life that can be found in the Santa Barbara Channel. The little pools are what is left behind when the tide goes out.
This indoor pool is a gathering spot for children and parents on Saturday and Sunday at 3:30 p.m. when Hackney or other rangers feed the pool dwellers. Not that the inhabitants need the handout of mussels. They get what they need from the kelp. The morsels of mussel are an added treat and give the 20 or so onlookers a chance to see and hear more about the fish.
Hackney dropped a mussel tidbit near a crab and in less than a second it was gone. Another crab hauled away a shell with a morsel on it. Hackney fed a little piece of kelp to an abalone.
He said tide pools are not easy to find around Ventura. But they are prevalent around the Channel Islands or at Carpinteria State Beach and farther north along the coast.
The visitor center at the end of Spinnaker Drive has a lot to offer for free. On Saturdays and Sundays at 2 p.m., one of the rangers gives a 30- to 40-minute program in the center's auditorium on topics related to the Channel Islands.
On a recent Saturday, Ranger David Ethell talked about the endangered California Brown Pelican that breeds on West Anacapa Island, the only breeding spot for the birds in the Western United States.
The birds live almost entirely on anchovies. They dive-bomb for fish from heights of 30 to 50 feet.
"They put their wings behind them, open their beaks and go for it," said Ethell, standing next to a stuffed pelican.
Pelican numbers dwindled to a precious few during the 1960s because the chemical DDT got into the food chain, Ethell said. Because of it, their egg shells were too thin and would break when the 35-pound birds sat on them. DDT was banned in 1972, and the bird population increased.
The rangers present other programs on such topics as whales and the Chumash Indians. In "Pinnapeds on Parade," they dress a child from the audience in a life preserver, put fins on his hands and feet to simulate flippers and cover him with fake fur to show how the seals and sea lions adapt to marine life.
In the Chumash program, a ranger talks about how the Indians lived off the sea and how they traveled across the Santa Barbara Channel in their canoes made of driftwood logs.
The center includes a museum of sorts that illustrates how the Indians survived. Children can pretend they are grinding grain like the Indians did using sand, a rock mortar and pestle.
Children can handle caliche, sand castings of once live plants. They can see an example of a caliche ghost forest, similar to the eerie outcroppings on the islands. They can see a stuffed island fox and find out what other plants and animals can be found on the islands. The center also sells books, maps and posters.
For a better view of the islands and Ventura, visitors can climb up to the center's observation deck to use the telescopes. They can also see a 25-minute film about the islands.
* WHERE AND WHEN: The Channel Islands National Park Visitor Center, located at the Ventura Harbor at the end of Spinnaker Drive, is open daily from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. For information, call 644-8262.