By Matt Villano, on June 28, 2013

Tidepools near San Francisco

At low tide throughout the summer, a whole new world of wonder is revealed in the rocky coastline on beaches south of San FranciscoIt is a world of chartreuse and fuchsia sea stars, skittish hermit crabs, and prickly sea urchins; a world in which any given seaweed-covered crevasse might reveal tiny fish called sculpins or giant slug-like critters known as sea cucumbers. In short, it is a great place for you and your children to discover marine life you rarely (if ever) get to see. It also is a fun and educational spin on a typical California trip to the beach.


Some people – we Villanos included – call this activity “tidepooling,” because it revolves around exploring the tiny “pools” left in the rocks at low tide. Though we engage in this activity at ebb tides year-round, the best time to do it is between June and September, when the low tides are the lowest that they get all year long.


Tidepools ahead! Photos courtesy of San Mateo County Visitors Bureau

Our favorite spot: The James V. Fitzgerald Marine Reserve in Moss Beach, about a 30-minute drive south of San FranciscoHere, a rocky outcropping stretches out from the bluffs into the ocean, revealing a treasure-trove of critters in the nooks and crannies uncovered when the waters recede. On most visits, my wife and I put the girls in rain boots (some of the pools can be deep) and proceed along the rocks from north to south.


We spend the majority of each excursion looking down, peering into pools for signs of life. The most common critters are mussels, urchins, anemones, and sea stars — you can see these guys just about everywhere. Other specimens – sculpins (which are tiny fish), shrimp, and chitons (which are tiny helmet-shaped mollusks) – are rarer, and therefore much more exciting to see. If you’re especially lucky, you’ll even spot California Sea Lions, which usually sun themselves on the very edge of the rocks (unless humans get too close).

Viewfinder Tip: You’re looking down for most of the time while tidepooling, so be sure to put sunscreen on your neck.


On the lowest of low tides, the California State Parks Department and local nonprofits send rangers and docents out along the coastline to serve as naturalists and help visitors find and identify certain animals. Over the years, these (mostly volunteer) educators have been invaluable in teaching us about tide pool life.


They also have inspired our older daughter to go out and buy a field guide that she studies at home (seriously; we like to call her our “Little Linnaeus”).


Fitzgerald Marine Reserve isn’t the only place to go tidepooling in Northern California; over the years, we’ve had great tidepooling trips at other beaches around the San Francisco Bay Area, too. To the north, MacKerricher State Park near Mendocino and Salt Point State Park near Jenner have delivered some stellar sea star sightings. To the south, Pigeon Point Light Station State Historic Park outside Half Moon Bay and Natural Bridges State Beach near Santa Cruz have also yielded memorable days.


No matter where we go to explore tidepools, the cardinal rule is the same: Look but don’t touch. Think of this credo as a tidepool-oriented spin on “Leave No Trace.” And remember, you don’t have to interact with these wacky worlds of wonder to appreciate them.


What are your favorite offbeat ways to spend a day at the beach?