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What's on the beach?

Grasping slimy critters while standing in ankle-deep mud may not be everyone's dream activity.

But it is for Island County's beach monitors.

These volunteers, who work through the Island County Beach Watchers program, can be seen in small groups kneeling on Whidbey Island's beaches intently counting butter clams, red ribbon worms and limpets. They peer at the same tiny section of beach each year, sometimes on a quarterly basis, to count the kinds and numbers of species they find.

Though they are only volunteers, these beach monitors are scientific about what they do. During a look at the beach, volunteers place 1-meter-square templates divided into fourths on the sand to figure the percentage of plant and animal life on the entire beach.

"Consistency is important," said Bill Blair, who with five other volunteers this week monitored Columbia Beach just north of the ferry dock and Possession Beach last week. "We need to do the same section of beach each year,"

How he finds that section of beach is a little less scientific than the actual survey, but it works.

"A rope is run from my boat cleat on Columbia Beach to the low tide mark lining up with the domed building in Everett," Blair said.

Once the line is set, volunteers begin the painstaking work of inspecting a 10-foot-wide swath of the beach from the high to the low tide line using the template.

On one day last week, volunteers didn't just find life on the beach. Along with crab and sea stars, they found a golf ball and toilet paper. Those will not be in their report.

"We don't inventory litter," Blair said.

A total of 40 Island County beaches, including 32 on Whidbey, are monitored regularly by Beach Watchers. The volunteers monitor the sand, rock sizes, animal life and vegetation as it exists in 10-by-10-foot sections from a consistent measuring point to the low tide line.

What the volunteers see tells a lot about what the beach is like now and how it will look in the future. Jim Shelvar, a Beach Watcher monitor, spends his monitoring time examining the sand. For example, the sand on Columbia Beach is moving toward the north, creating a low dune.

"Some beaches are eroding while others are expanding," Shelvar said.

The monitors have seen a good deal of movement over the years. Fifteen or 20 years from now, Shelvar said, the monitors' reports will show a complete picture of the health of Whidbey's beaches.

In the event of a natural or manmade disaster, such as an oil spill, the reports will be used as a baseline for the health of the county's beaches.

In May the Langley seawall beach below the Dog House Restaurant was inventoried by volunteers Phyllis Kind, Julie Buktenica, Barbara Graham, Yvonne Palka, Gloria Wahlin and Frances Wood. The group found 25 species of seaweeds and critters on the beach.

"In the three years of assessment, this beach appears healthy for this type of Puget Sound habitat," Buktenica said.

The Langley site is the only one to be monitored along Saratoga Passage between Whidbey Shores and Sandy Point.

A book containing all beach reports since 1990 is available to the public at the Admiralty Head Lighthouse.

Beach Watchers was founded in 1990 and is an all volunteer program coordinated by the Washington State University Cooperative Extension program. Volunteers must take 100 hours of training and donate at least 50 hours a year in service.

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