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Pools of Wonder

Low tides this weekend will reveal variety of ocean critters at area beaches.


Winter might seem like an unlikely time to hang out at the beach, but it's ideal for exploring tide pools, searching out the critters that make their homes among the rocks along the coast.

Low tide is the best time to prowl these rocky spots, and the lowest of the low tides during daylight hours occurs in the winter when the water recedes far enough to expose a vast expanse of beach.

You can explore tide pools on your own, or you can sign up for an outing led by experts who can tell you about the incredible animals that survive in the intertidal zone, those rocky spots that are exposed during low tide.

Marine biologist Susan Williams leads family tide-pool programs for Ventura's recreation department at Emma Wood Group Camp, at the west edge of Ventura at the end of Main Street.

She's leading one Saturday from 2:30 to 4 p.m., when the tide is exceptionally low. Adults and kids 5 years and older are welcome. The cost is $4. Others are scheduled April 5 and May 3, 1 to 2:30 p.m.

"You never know what you're going to find," said Williams, who has been leading programs for the city seven years. Sea anemones, those mushy balls with flowing green tentacles, are a good bet, along with crabs, barnacles, maybe sea stars and even an octopus, if you get lucky.

The octopuses that hunker around the tide pools generally have a fist-sized head, but they can be twice that big, according to Williams. And, if you spot one, don't pick it up. "They can bite big time," she said.

In fact, Williams and other marine experts are touchy about people even touching these animals. They'd rather you didn't pick them up, and they'll advise you to watch where you step when you clamber over the rocks.

"People go into the tide pools and they don't realize all that stuff is alive," Williams said. "It gets trampled because people don't know what they're stepping on."

Even without the foot traffic, tide pool inhabitants endure amazing feats of survival daily with the coming and going of the tides. They withstand crashing waves and the absence of water when the tide is out. Some glom onto rocks with little suction cup-like gizmos on their bodies, and others can close themselves up to keep from drying out.

On the beach, hardly anything escapes Williams' eye--the so-called "Swiss cheese rocks," covered with craters drilled by tiny clams, or the black turban snail with its "trap door" for protection, or the claw from a long-dead red rock crab.

Those who go on her outings must walk about half a mile through the campground, under the railroad tracks, and out onto the cobblestone-littered beach which is just up the coast from the Ventura River.

Ventura County's sandy coastline isn't the best for tide-pool exploration. For that you need rocks to form little pools of water. But another good spot is Faria Beach, off Pacific Coast Highway between Ventura and La Conchita.

Just below the Ventura County and Los Angeles County lines, Leo Carrillo State Park has tide pools that draw scads of visitors. At the visitors center--a trailer brightly painted with whales and other sea creatures--you'll find tide-pool exhibits and charts. It's open 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays.

Rangers from California State Parks and the National Park Service are offering a tide-pool program at Leo Carrillo State Park on April 20 from 1 to 3 p.m. It's free, but there is a $6 fee for day-use parking.

This weekend is prime tide-pool viewing time, if you want to explore on your own. On Saturday at Leo Carrillo, low tide is at 2:54 p.m., and Sunday it's at 3:30 p.m. Farther up the coast in Ventura County, low tide Saturday is at 3:20 p.m., and 3:58 p.m. Sunday.

Carpinteria State Beach has outstanding tide pools on a rocky reef just down the coast from the park entrance. Rangers there offer tide-pool programs. This weekend there are free outings scheduled at 3 p.m. Saturday and 3:30 p.m. Sunday. With exceptionally low tides the first weekend in April, the rangers also have programs scheduled at 1 p.m. April 4 and 1:30 p.m. April 5.

For the best tide-pool times throughout the rest of the winter, pick up a tide table at a sporting goods store, surf shop or tackle store. It's a little booklet that lists the times for the two peak low tides each day and the height of tide. Look for the minus tides, shown in red. These are the lowest and yield the best tide-pool activity.

Although summer might offer the best weather for sloshing around in the water and scrambling over rocks, the lowest of the low tides during those months generally occur at night.

If you decide to do a little tide-pool exploring over the next few months, here are some tips: Expect to get wet, so bring spare clothes. Wear old sneakers or water shoes; don't go barefoot. Keep an eye on the waves, especially if you're out there when the tide is coming in. Resist the temptation to take these critters home--it's illegal in state parks, and they wouldn't survive long anyway.


For information or to register for Ventura's family tide-pool exploration outings, led by Susan Williams, call (805) 658-4726. Pre-registration required.

Leo Carrillo State Beach, call (818) 880-0350.

Carpinteria State Beach, call (805) 684-2811.

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