Winter isn't the most inviting time to dunk your feet in the ocean, but if you don't mind the nippy air, it's the best time to explore tide pools along the coast.
For ideal viewing, you need exceptionally low tides. In the summer these often occur in the middle of the night. But in the winter they usually happen during the day, and the lowest tides of the new year are coming up this month.
This weekend is a prime time for getting a glimpse of the sea creatures that inhabit the intertidal zone, those rocky nooks along the shore that are exposed at these low tides.
On Saturday low tide occurs at 4:23 p.m., and on Sunday it's 4:52 p.m. But the lowest of all the low tides this year will be at 3:12 p.m. Jan. 19 and 3:53 p.m. Jan. 20. If you go out an hour earlier or later, you'll still see some good stuff. Even if you just drive by, you'll get a good view.
"It's spectacular," said Susan Williams, a marine biologist who leads tide-pool outings for the city of Ventura. "It seems like you could walk all the way to Anacapa Island."
This is a good time for clamming, too, but first be sure to pick up a state fishing license and brush up on the regulations and limits.
For tide-pool exploration, Ventura County's coastline isn't the best because the beaches are so sandy. Tide pools need rocks to form. But there are a few excellent spots, including Faria County Park, off Pacific Coast Highway between Ventura and La Conchita, and around the mouth of the Ventura River.
If you're willing to drive a bit farther, Carpinteria State Beach has a superb spot, a reef located down the coast from the park entrance. And just over the county line in Los Angeles is Leo Carrillo State Beach, where so many people have flocked to the tide pools that rangers will be posted on the beach this winter during exceptionally low tides.
In Carpinteria, rangers at the state beach offer hourlong tide-pool programs. The next one is at 3:30 p.m. Saturday, with another at 3 p.m. Jan. 20. The programs are free, but the state beach charges $5 for parking.
You'll slosh around in the shallow water and scramble over rocks looking for critters like sea anemones, those mushy balls with flowing green tentacles that glom onto rocks for survival.
You might see sea stars (the scientifically correct name for starfish) of varying colors, from brick red to purple. Mussels, barnacles and crabs are plentiful, but you might also get lucky and see an octopus.
"They're a very hearty lot," said Linda Tornello, a ranger at Carpinteria State Beach. They go through amazing feats of survival daily with the coming and going of the tides. They withstand the crashing waves and the absence of water when the tide is out. Some cling to the rocks with the help of suction cups on their bodies, and others can close up to keep from drying out.
If you go on one of these outings, you'll learn the nifty little characteristics of tide-pool dwellers, such as the sea star's disgusting yet amazing ability to upchuck its stomach at dinner time. The piddock clam can bore tiny holes into rock; the trap-door snail can disappear through a built-in trap door into its shell.
The Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History also offers two-hour family tide-pool outings at Carpinteria State Beach. The next one is at 2:30 p.m. Feb. 3, with another at 2 p.m. Feb. 17. The cost is $12 for museum members and $14 for non-members.
In Ventura, marine biologist Williams leads 90-minute outings at Emma Wood Group Camp near the mouth of the Ventura River. They begin at 2:30 p.m. Feb. 3 and 17, and at 1 p.m. March 16 and April 13. The cost is $4 per person with children under 5 free.
At Leo Carrillo State Beach, there are no organized programs, but rangers are on hand to provide information, and the visitors center features tide-pool exhibits and charts. Look for the trailer painted with whales and other sea animals; it's open 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays.
"This time of year is a very popular time to go," said ranger Jennifer Hudson. "We get over a million visitors to the tide pools a year."
In fact, the high numbers have rangers worried about the impact on the tide pools. "They're becoming more damaged each year as people walk through them," Hudson said. So this year rangers may install portable touch tanks on the beach for people to handle the sea life. They will also advise visitors to explore the tide pools gently.
"Everywhere you put your foot down, you're stepping on something living," Hudson said. "Sea anemones get squashed and people crush barnacles."
If you go on any of the tide-pool outings, or if you go exploring on your own, you should follow some general rules of etiquette. Watch your step--don't crush one of these creatures. Don't pick them up or turn over rocks. Also, resist the temptation to take anything home. It's illegal in state parks, and these critters wouldn't survive it anyway.