Among the more otherworldly creatures that beachcombers might see along the Pacific Coast in summer is the aptly named sunflower star — a large and brilliant yellow-orange starfish with 24 — count ’em, 24 — arms.
“It makes them very mobile, they’re the fastest sea star,” says Doug Stark, stormwater education and monitoring assistant for the City of Bellingham. Stark often leads guided tide-pool walks for Wild Whatcom, which offers environmental education programs for children. “Finding them in the summertime is a real treat.”
Sunflower stars usually are seen only during the lowest tides of the year — which occur during daytime from May to August in 2016. They inhabit the deeper intertidal zones and won’t be found clinging to the underside of rocks at low tide, as other sea stars do, because their bodies are softer and susceptible to drying out.
But their softer skin makes them fast and sure hunters, Stark says.
“That’s the key to being able to move around and engulf prey. They can swallow a crab whole,” he says, though clams are a more favored meal.
“They like these ‘pocket beaches’ when they can find a lot of life,” Stark says. “If they feel the bubbles from a (clam’s) siphon, they have a way of burrowing into the sand — if it’s not too deep — they can wiggle into the sand and engulf that clam.”
Best places to see sunflowers stars locally are Lily Point at Point Roberts and at Wildcat Cove near the boat launch in Larrabee State Park. They favor the sand and eelgrass found in the area, Stark says.
Summer low tides
The summer months often see extremely low “minus” tides in daytime. Best time to go tide-pooling is about an hour before the projected low tide.
▪ Use tides.net/washington and search for the area you’d like to explore and then find days when the tides are extremely low.
▪ If you have a smartphone, try a free app called Rise to follow the tides.
▪ The Breazeale Interpretive Center in the coastal Skagit County village of Bay View offers summer low tide events. Find a schedule online at padillabay.gov.