Some of Anacortes’s most valuable treasures aren’t found on Commercial Avenue or in the Anacortes Museum. Rather, look to the island’s perimeter to discover natural wonders hiding under rocks, buried in sand, and clinging to kelp in fascinating yet fragile ecosystems called a tide pool. It’s here you’ll find essential links in the interdependent food web on which all life depends—including our own.
Imagine this: microscopic algae in the water are eaten by small forage fish, which, in turn, are food for salmon. Who eats the salmon? We do! And so do bears, who then leave salmon scraps—as well as bear skat—in the woods. These wastes fertilize trees and plants that provide humans and animals with more food as well as with materials for shelter and warmth. You get the picture.
Tide pools are found along rocky shores where, when the tide goes out, pools of saltwater are left in depressions in the sand and rocks. The best Anacortes tide pools are at Sunset and West beaches in Washington Park (on Oakes Ave., just beyond the ferry landing) and at the southern end of Rosario Beach in Deception Pass Park (Discover Pass required). In town, look for marine life clinging to dock pilings and rocks at city waterfront parks, marinas, and along the Tommy Thompson Trail.
To identify tide pool life, it helps to know the tide pool ecosystem has five different zones, and that individual plants, animals, and microorganisms have adapted to survive within the conditions in particular zones: wet-dry, dark-light, warm-cold, more or less saline (salty), whether favorable to reproduction, and degree of safety from predators.
From highest and driest to lowest and wettest, these zones (and some of the creatures in them) are
- splash zone, which may receive only sprays of water during high tides (barnacles, lichens, periwinkle);
- upper intertidal zone, covered with water only during high tide (barnacles, periwinkles, hermit crabs, limpets;
- mid intertidal zone, covered and uncovered twice a day, as the tide comes in and goes out (anemones, barnacles, hermit crabs, mussels, whelks);
- lower intertidal zone, out of water only during low tides (all mid intertidal group creatures, plus eelgrass, sea cucumbers, sea stars, sea urchin);
- subtidal zone, always under water (all lower intertidal species, plus fish, squid, whales, etc).
So, while intertidal creatures have adapted to many conditions, they haven’t adapted to human impacts. Being a good tide-pooler means following good beach etiquette:
- At Rosario Beach, stay on the designated trail marked by secured ropes. (This once stellar ecosystem is only now recovering from being destroyed in 1995, when the footsteps, curiosity, and thoughtless actions of some 1,200 students and individuals trampled the tide pool on a day with an exceptionally low tide.) Elsewhere, walk only on large, bare rocks—many creatures use rocks for cover and can be crushed.
- Do not pick up or remove anything from a tide pool.
- Return any disturbed or lifted rocks to their original position.
- Avoid stepping on seaweed and plants.
- Don’t collect, disturb, or destroy tide pool organism; it’s not only poor etiquette, it’s against the law.
Now, armed with this knowledge and your own curiosity, gather your family, your picnic, a guide book, and maybe a magnifying glass, and go search for some of the most interesting treasures in Anacortes!
Then, before heading home, take the time to share discoveries and stories over a cup of chowder at Bob’s Chowder Bar, a steaming bowl of mussels at Adrift, or some sweet Dungeness crab at Anthony’s. It’ll be a day to remember.