Tideland life is balancing act

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 weekends when parents and young kids come with buckets to take critters home," said Deception Pass State Park Ranger Rick Blank about 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. Blank has seen two large sea stars this year.

He 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.

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