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Out With Kids: See fascinating creatures at extreme low tides

Small fish can be seen among the eelgrass at extreme low tides.
Small fish can be seen among the eelgrass at extreme low tides. The Bellingham Herald

Midday extreme low tides this weekend, coupled with a forecast of sunny skies and temperatures in the 80s, make for a perfect day examining the plants and animals that live on the outer fringes of the intertidal zone — species that might not always be seen at an average low tide.

As measured at Bellingham Bay, low tide is minus 2.2 feet at 11:58 a.m. Thursday, July 2; minus 2.3 feet at 12:40 p.m. Friday, July 3; minus 2 feet at 1:24 p.m. Saturday, July 4; and minus 1.4 feet at 2:09 p.m. Sunday, July 5. Low tides at areas other than Bellingham Bay will have similar ebb times and heights. Online, consult protides.com or use a smartphone app such as Rise.

Casey Cook, director of the Marine Life Center, likes several Whatcom County beaches for tide pool exploration, including the rocky shores of Larrabee State Park, Marine Park in Fairhaven, and Birch Bay State Park. Each area provides a unique experience because of its geography and the marine species present, Cook said.

“Larrabee and Teddy Bear Cove (a county park to the north), those beaches are popular with families,” Cook said. “It’s rocky but not so rocky that little ones can’t explore.”

It’s perfect for finding sea cucumbers, barnacles, snails, large crabs and little fish, such as aquarium-size sculpins, she said.

“When you flip over rocks, remember to put them gently back,” Cook said. “You don’t want to destroy their habitat.”

Cook said parents of small children should be aware of a swimming advisory because of high bacteria levels at shoreline areas inside Larrabee State Park, including popular Wildcat Cove.

“I recommend that everyone check the beach before taking a toddler or someone who is going to play in the water and then put their hands in their mouth,” she said.

Water quality information is available online at ecy.wa.gov/programs/eap/beach/index.html.

Birch Bay in northwest Whatcom County lacks classic tide pools, but its broad basin invites waders to explore hundreds of feet offshore at low tide.

“It’s a very shallow and sandy mudflat for a long way out,” Cook said. “You’ll find lots of molts, (empty crab shells). It’s hard to find the actual crab, because they are hiding. But it’s a sign that they are there.”

Sculpins and other small fish, such as sand dabs and flounder, can be found among the eelgrass, along with cockles and clams, she said.

“It’s best to tread lightly, but that’s where you find the fish,” Cook said. “(Eelgrass is) a fragile ecosystem, but they’re coming back; they’re very important” for food and for cover from predators.

Another favorite of Cook’s is Marine Park in Fairhaven, home to a colony of live sand dollars and stunning examples of live barnacles. Several people have seen small red octopus in the area, she said.

“They get no bigger than a softball,” she said, adding that most examples found locally are more the size of a golfball. “For those, you want to look inside things ... bottles, crevices.”

She advises tide pool explorers in warm weather to wear recreational water shoes or water socks.

“I like to be barefoot, but the rocks can be difficult, and there are barnacles everywhere,” she said.

Reach Robert Mittendorf at 360-756-2805 or robert.mittendorf@bellinghamherald.com.

Online

Find Robert Mittendorf’s Out With the Kids column online at BellinghamHerald.com/out-with-kids.

Marine Life Center

The small nature center features tide pool exhibits, a touch tank, and aquariums highlighting the marine life of the Salish Sea. It’s in the Port of Bellingham complex at 1801 Roeder Ave.

Summer hours are 10 a.m .to 6 p.m., but the center will be open until the fireworks start on Saturday, July 4.

Information: 360- 671-2431 or marinelifecenter.org.

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