Best Whatcom County beaches to explore during lowest tides

Students from a Mount Vernon elementary school investigate marine life during the lowest daytime low tide of the year at Larrabee State Park in 2011.
Students from a Mount Vernon elementary school investigate marine life during the lowest daytime low tide of the year at Larrabee State Park in 2011. The Bellingham Herald

A pair of organized low-tide walks mark the lowest daytime ebb tides of the year this weekend.

Charts at protides.com for Bellingham Bay show a minus 2.2 foot low at 11:07 a.m. Saturday, June 4, and a minus 2.6 foot low at 11:22 a.m. Sunday, June 5.

At 9 a.m. Saturday is a free Low-tide Critter Search to examine marine life at Birch Bay State Park, guided by Katharine Sells and other beach naturalists. Meet at the BP Heron Center inside the park south of Blaine. Parking in state parks usually requires a $10 day-use pass or $30 seasonal Discover Pass, but it’s free on Saturday, June 4, and Saturday, June 11. Info: fobbsp.org.

From 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Sunday volunteer naturalists with the nonprofit education group Wild Whatcom lead a Family Field Outing at Marine Park in Fairhaven. Requested donation is $12 for ages 18 and older; $8 for ages 4-14; and free for 3 and younger. Info: Holly@wildwhatcom.org.

Other places to explore

Beach explorers also can opt to investigate various local waterfront parks on their own, said Casey Cook, director of the Marine Life Center.

Minus tides occur several times during the spring and summer months. If you have a smartphone or tablet, look in the app store for Rise, a tide chart that also has sun and moon forecasts. You can customize it for your favorite coastal sites. Online, consult protides.com for tide information.

For the best experience, arrive about an hour before the predicted low tide. Remember to dress for the weather and bring an extra outer layer, because it can be cooler on the water. Bring water and snacks and consider bringing clean shoes and socks for the drive home.

For help identifying the creatures you see, go to the Marine Life Center in the Port of Bellingham complex at 1801 Roeder Ave. The center has small aquariums, a large tide pool tank and a small touch tank that feature creatures of the Salish Sea. It’s free and open daily at 10 a.m., closing at 6 p.m. in the summer months (shorter hours in other seasons). For more information, go online to marinelifecenter.org or call 360-671-2431.

Cook likes several Whatcom County beaches for tide pool exploration, including the rocky shores of Larrabee State Park south of Bellingham, Marine Park in Fairhaven, Point Whitehorn west of Ferndale, and Birch Bay State Park. Each area provides a unique experience because of its geography and the marine species that are present, Cook said.

Entrance to state parks requires a $30 seasonal Discover Pass or a $10 day-use fee. Marine Park, Point Whitehorn and other county parks are free.

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

Those are 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 (the animals’) habitat.”

Cook said parents of small children should be aware of occasional swimming advisories 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 flat 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 moon snails and 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 golf ball. “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. For places with rocks or deep mud, rubber rain boots are ideal.

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

Outside Whatcom County

On Whidbey Island, the rugged shoreline at Rosario Beach in Deception Pass State Park offers excellent tide pooling. For a park map and to download pages for a Tidepool Discovery Hunt, go to deceptionpassfoundation.org/around-the-park/rosario.

In coastal Skagit County, the Breazeale Interpretive Center at the Padilla Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve — a free nature center with aquariums and displays focusing on the natural history of the Salish Sea — offers several free Beach Seine and Mud Flat Safaris to study intertidal life.

For Beach Seines, participants and naturalists drag a net through the intertidal zone to trap fish and other creatures that they examine before releasing. Mud Flat Safaris are guided tours of the expansive eelgrass meadows exposed at extreme low tides. Mud Flat Safaris require advance registration. No registration is required for Beach Seines.

Of course, you can always take your own mudflat safari at any local beach. For your feet, wear old lace-up shoes that can get wet, or snug-fitting rubber boots that won’t pull of as you slog through the muck. It’s handy to bring a change of clothes and a separate set of shoes for the drive.

Robert Mittendorf: 360-715-2805, @bhamMitty

Padilla Bay events

Mud Flat Safaris

Wear old shoes that tie or snug boots. All ages welcome. The programs begin at the Padilla Bay interpretive center and end at Bay View State Park. Call the interpretive center at 360-428-1558 to register.

10 a.m.-noon Saturday, July 2

10 a.m.-noon Tuesday, July 19

10 a.m.-noon Wednesday, Aug. 3

10 a.m.-noon Tuesday, Aug. 16

Beach Seines

Meet on the beach at Bay View State Park and watch naturalists pull a fish net through the water. No registration necessary.

12:30 p.m. Friday, July 15

12:30 p.m. Saturday, July 30

11 a.m. Saturday, Aug. 13

1 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 30