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Nighttime low tide walk an otherworldly experience

Keeley OConnell examines a tide pool sculpin during a nighttime walk at Larrabee State Park in February 2007.
Keeley OConnell examines a tide pool sculpin during a nighttime walk at Larrabee State Park in February 2007. The Bellingham Herald

After a hiatus of a few years, a pair of local naturalists are offering a guided tide-pool walk during an extreme low tide next month — an event that occurs at night in winter.

Scouring the shallows during an extreme low tide can be an otherworldly experience. Tide pool exploration is even more fascinating at night, said Holly Roger of Wild Whatcom, a local nonprofit dedicated to outdoors education.

“(The darkness) focuses your vision so intently on what’s in front of you,” Roger said. “The nice thing about nighttime is the animals don’t necessarily hide. Whatever you find hiding in the day, you find not hiding at night.”

Roger is offering the guided walk with Doug Stark, a water resources educator with the city of Bellingham. It’s from 10-11 p.m. Friday, Dec. 11, at Marine Park in Fairhaven. Cost is $12 for adults and $8 for children ages 4-17. Roger said the trip will be limited to 40-50 people and it has proven popular in the past. Email holly@wildwhatcom.org to register.

Low tide will be -1.3 feet at 11:01 p.m. and there will be a new moon.

With an ebb that low at Marine Park, the sand flats and a cluster of live sand dollars should be exposed, along with near-shore rocks that harbor mussels, live barnacles, crabs and sea stars.

The nice thing about nighttime is the animals don’t necessarily hide. Whatever you find hiding in the day, you find not hiding at night.

Holly Roger, Wild Whatcom

“Don’t let the cold and rain stop you, you’re going to get wet anyway,” Roger said. “Our last one, it was pouring and we had a great time.”

Creatures that participants might see include brittle stars, more sea stars than usual, more crabs than usual, and maybe an octopus.

“It’ll be interesting to see the sand dollars at night,” she said. “There’s broad, flat sand — we might see a moon snail. Moons snails are beautiful.”

Stark said that they’ll have several naturalists along to assist with identification and to show participants the best places to look.

“Typically, I do a little bit of introduction and how to look around while having as little an impact as possible,” Stark said. “Once we get out in the tide flats, people can look around for things. We’ll have volunteers to help discuss and identify what they find. What we find every time is a bit of a mystery. It’s an adventure.”

Stark and Roger warn participants that it will be cold, possibly rainy, and they are certain to get wet wading in the intertidal zone. They recommend dressing in layers “like a duck,” with a waterproof outer layer and wool or fleece inner layers. Hats and gloves are essential: Roger suggests gardening gloves and Stark favors a fingerless glove.

What we find every time is a bit of a mystery. It’s an adventure.

Doug Stark, city of Bellingham naturalist

“It’s amazingly cold, even more than we’re used to,” Stark said. “I don’t want to scare people, but to really enjoy the experience, dress as comfortably and as warmly as you can. I wear what I would wear if I had to stand around and watch people sledding at Mt. Baker.”

Both Stark and Roger suggest wearing tall rubber boots to keep your feet dry, coupled with warm socks.

It’s helpful to have dry clothing in your car, especially dry socks and shoes, and a plastic bag to hold wet and muddy clothing.

Bright lighting is essential for nighttime tide pooling. A headlamp is particularly handy, along with a backup light and extra batteries. Roger also recommends bringing a hand magnifier and Stark suggests a camera, and he reminds people to watch where they point their flash at night, because it can blind others.

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