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The Seven Seas : Southern California and beaches. Like Mom and apple pie, right? Well, sometimes they're not all Beach boys and babes, as we discovered during visits to seven waterfronts. (Consider the oceanless beach in San Bernardino County.) Sometimes they're havens for stars and starfish, the fishing set or bodyboarders. Or they can be a place where a longtime Angeleno hasn't take a dip for many years. : A Beach-Blanket Version of 'Godot' : Corona del Mar


I came here to find a starfish, that craggy, rough-to-the-touch emblem of the lure of the deep and the childlike wonder of distant seas.

Instead, I found Martha and a pair of poodles in matching camouflage fatigues. My first question was not, why on Earth would a couple of poodles require camouflage gear, but why would they wear jungle green instead of the more appropriate sand color popularized in Desert Storm?

"The poodles like wearing them," Martha explained.

Surely, this is a beach in need of a DMZ--a line of demarcation to separate its elements: tide-pool investigators and cave dwellers, Boogie-boarding Valhalla dropouts and G-stringed sunbathers.

Look up from Little Corona--the smaller of the Corona beaches--and you will see the leering arches of Grand Floridian houses, the kind I'll always associate with that movie producer in "The Godfather"--the one who wakes up with a horse head.

Look ahead and there are tide pools in moonlike craters and sun-drenched surf lilting against a rocky shore. A sign on the beach's edge warns children not to play in an adjacent stream because of contaminated water.


The starfish search began, appropriately, in a tide pool full of children. Gerado Ruiz, 9, and sister Sally, 7, of Anaheim insisted that I don a headdress of kelp before they agreed to an interview. I acquiesced and was pleased to learn later that wearing kelp is something of a Corona del Mar tradition. At least, that's what I was told.

I came for starfish but instead, like Coleridge's ancient mariner, found that "slimy things did crawl with legs upon the slimy sea."

In other words, crabs. Gerado burst into laughter as a large one skittered around my sneaker and plopped into the water. "I thought I saw my grandfather's dentures," he said.

Gerado and Sally hadn't seen any starfish in their three trips to the beach this summer. "But we've gone into the caves," he said, pointing excitedly to the high cliff walls to the left. "You can go in there when the tide is low and there's all kinds of stuff in there."

"Was it scary?" I asked.

They nodded.


"Things that could survive a nuclear war" is how Dianne Petengale described the tide-pool assortment at our feet. Petengale, 28, just married to husband Rob, is an accountant in Newport Beach who studied marine biology in college.

Starfish could probably survive a nuclear war too. Let's face it: Nothing in those pools resides in the nosebleed section of the food chain. But I understood what she meant. We're touchy-feely and wistful about starfish in a way that we're not about most other denizens of the deep.

I stumbled across something that looked like a combination cauliflower and tree moss--which, all things considered, is not an appetizing mixture. The slightest touch and the sensitive creature recoiled into itself. It was a sea anemone. A young boy warned me that a man who stuck his finger in one got "squirted" and became numb.

"I grew up around here," Petengale told her husband. "I have this book from when I was little called 'A Child's Book of Discovery' and in there is a photo of me with my grandmother, and I'm pulling a giant starfish from one of these pools. They were just everywhere. It's really hard for tide pools to remain pristine so close to a city like Los Angeles."


With the tide rising, my search was fast becoming a beach-blanket version of "Waiting for Godot." I decided to make a last-ditch effort.

I searched in dark, crooked corners beneath rocks, believing starfish to be afraid of the light. I leaped across formidable chasms--made more so by carrying a pencil and note pad, not to mention my 6-foot, 4-inch frame--to reach faraway pools, believing starfish to be shy of people. Finally, forlorn and starfishless, I sat down to watch the tide roll in.

The boy appeared again, the same one who cautioned me about the anemones. Twelve-year-old Jesse Gurule, who lives in Norwalk carried what looked like a miniature purple squooshball--only it moved on its own from side to side. A sea urchin.

I asked Jesse whether the ocean wowed him. "I like looking at all the different things," he said. "Sometimes, I think about going way deep and seeing the sharks and all these different fish--green and yellow and purple."

I tried to conjure what the ocean was like when I was little--the sandbars and jetties and boardwalks of the Atlantic City shore, the sea seemingly endless and the beach like the surface of some alien planet. I reached for the same Alice-in-Wonderland feeling that comes from returning to grade school after 10 or 20 years and seeing the once imposing world reduced to Lilliputian size.

Rising ever higher, the tide would soon be impenetrable.

And then, seemingly on cue, I saw it. Like some cartoon gremlin, it danced on the periphery of vision, careening on the crest of an incoming wave. I stood up on an outer rock, sea spray whipping me from all directions, and got in place to reach for the starfish.

Not to be denied after all those long hours, I leaned forward and, helplessly, lost my balance, plunging--note pad and all--into the water. The starfish--if that's indeed what it was--had vanished and a small audience that had assembled on the beach started to cheer.

Where are those poodles when you need them?

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