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Low tides bring Big fish risks
Crunching barnacles underfoot, Jeanie McElwain looked a little like a ballet dancer leading a troupe of mimes Sunday morning.
The tide was out at Double Bluff beach -- way out -- and she was taking about 40 people into territory that hadn't been in the open air for almost two decades. Members of the group wobbled as they stepped from rock to rock, catching their balance with every footfall while trying to avoid crushing barnacles and slipping on algae. They had to be careful where they walked, because at their feet were starfish, anemones, moon snails, sculpin, gunnels, red rock crabs and sea cucumbers. Giants in a world unused to human beings, everyone on this tour of seldom-seen marine life was at the same time a tourist and a destroyer.
But in the interest of teaching people about the sea life around them, McElwain believes the incursion into this usually forbidden territory was worth it.
"You're going to see things today that you won't see again for another 16 or 17 years," she told her group.
One of several Island County WSU Beach Watchers leading the tour, McElwain was showing off an undersea world that normally lies within just a few feet of the surface of the waters of Puget Sound. The second lowest tides to come to Washington in 18 years, at minus 3.7 feet, revealed enough beach to allow weekend recreators to walk more than a half mile out into the sound in some places.
In all, Beach Watchers tours of the exposed tidelands attracted 75 people between Saturday and Sunday, about 65 more than they had expected. Freeland attorney Ken O'Mhaun showed up for the two-hour guided walk at the insistence of his daughter, Heather.
"She saw it in the paper," he said as he walked over the wide sand flats Sunday.
The hit of the morning tour was a moon snail. Beach Watcher volunteer Eugene Thrasher found the snail at the water's edge. Removing the snail's distinctive open-topped housing, he picked the soccer-ball sized animal up by the palm-sized shell that sits atop its body. As he held it, the snail began to expel water from its body in a torrent, eventually pushing enough out to fit in that small shell.
Even though the group was larger, and thereby more destructive, than she had wanted, McElwain said the limited losses of marine creatures to the tourists was worth it. As she spotted sea creatures, she constantly reminded her group to avoid touching sea creatures. A prohibition against taking anything from the shoreline was understood, though it was unspoken.
The education was particularly important, since the low tides will reach their 18-year peak on July 12 and 13, when the tides hit minus-4. McElwain said she hopes the day at Double Bluff will convince a few people to stay away from sensitive portions of the tidelands, or to at least walk carefully on rocks and sand when curiosity gets the better of them.
The Beachwatchers will lead more tours on those low tide days next month.
By SUSAN MADOR
The season's lowest tide receded around Whidbey Island this week, giving islanders the chance to observe undersea life without getting their faces wet.
Saturday, Sunday and Monday were the lowest tides of the year, providing people ample time to enjoy beach life and, in some cases -- unfortunately -- destroy it.
"Our main problems are weekend when parents and young kids come with buckets to take critters home," said Deception Pass State Park Ranger Rick of the park's Rosario Beach.
Blank has a jar filled with marine life that was killed May 15 and 16, 1995, another low-tide period. On those days, more than 1,200 school children ripped across beaches and through tidepools at the park. A green sea urchin and several mangled crabs, eels and small fish float in the kill jar along with bits of blue mussel shells and fragments of seaweeds.
Blue mussels and sea lettuce are crucial to marine life -- if one is destroyed, 350 other species of plants and animals could be decimated.
"It was terrible," Blank said. "This six-rayed star was left on a picnic table to dry in the sun, black chitins and limpets were pried off rocks."
The losses were ill afforded by the beach. In 1990, said Blank, tide pools were covered with clusters of mussels. He could count 20 large sea stars in every tide pool. Today, blue mussels are at a four-year low point. Blank has seen two large sea stars this year.
Blank said the environment may never return to pre-May 1995 conditions, but he is encouraged by all the work that has been done to educate park visitors.
"Today, teachers with lesson plans bringing school groups are our best guests," Blank said.
Blank is grateful to Washington State University Island County Beach Watchers, who volunteer their time at the beach.
"They've been out every low tide weekend to help people understand how to respect this particular environment."
The 2003 class of Beach Watchers has selected Double Bluff and Deception Pass state parks for special attention since this year and next will have the lowest low tides in an 18-year cycle. Volunteers will be at each park this weekend.
"Beaches are treasures we want to be able to pass along to others," Beach Watcher Mary Jo Adams said. "We want people to have fun while understanding what special places beaches are."
The Beach Watchers recommend that low-tide visitors to the beach walk slowly and avoid plants or animals. Clammers should fill in holes after digging for clams. For those who must look under rocks, the group recommends turning rocks over cautiously and returning them to their original positions.