Lovely when low: The peerless tidepools of Tongue Point
Seattle Times staff reporter
JOYCE, Clallam County — On a cloudy summer morning, a gray whale and her calf cruise around the small bay to the west of Tongue Point, spouting every few minutes, just a few dozen yards offshore. Two instructors with the Olympic Park Institute are at the Tongue Point tide pools with three families on the last day of a weeklong field course.
Instructor Jason Winters, nimble on the slick black basalt, scampers to where the waters of the Strait lap against the edge of the rocks. He tosses out a plastic bottle with a fine-mesh net attached to its mouth. As he pulls the bottle in, the net sweeps up a sample of the microscopic creatures that serve as food to the larger residents of the tide pools.
Winters then lays out a line of "magic scopes," simple field microscopes that use a candycane of optical fibers to bend sunlight into a backlight for the sample tray.
"This is the front line of the food chain," he says, explaining a bit about the biology of the daphnia, copepods and rotifers in the microscopes.
After a quick study of the swarms of micro-life under the scopes, and exclamations of "Oooh!" and "What are we looking at here again?" the group heads for the pools.
Tongue Point thrusts into the Strait of Juan de Fuca like a volcanic football field, carpeted in mussels. That geography, along with a zoo-like superabundance of wildlife, gives Tongue Point an air of childhood fantasy and makes it one of the Pacific Northwest's premier spots for getting an up-close look at tide-pool life.
Feylin Cook, 7, of Everett, visiting with her parents and best friend, recommends Tongue Point for "tons and tons of hermit crabs" and other good stuff.
Layers of life
Even if you haven't been to a tide pool since a grade-school field trip, it's easy to spot 20 different animal species. Tongue Point is in a county park, Salt Creek Recreation Area, so you won't find the elaborate interpretive displays that you get in a national park. But that homeyness is part of Tongue Point's charm. It's a nice place, but it doesn't make a big deal about itself.
The Olympic Park Institute's field course, which the nonprofit, Port Angeles-based organization offers periodically, helps with interpretation of the natural history here.
As the group descends on the pools, the second instructor, who goes by the single name of Storm, urges patience. "Tide pools are a good lesson in waiting. Sit 15 minutes and you'll just see more and more stuff."
It's true. Squatting next to a pool, your eye moves first to the almost unnaturally bright colors of purple and mint-green sea urchins, blood-red sea stars, and the traffic-cone-orange sponges, shaped like cauliflower. Then you notice a thimble-sized hermit crab scrambling around a squishy sea anemone as a sculpin (a small black fish) darts from shadow to shadow.
And then you realize that what you thought was a rock is really a sea cucumber, a brownish pickle-shaped creature with a broccoli-like head of tentacles, attached with its sucker-feet to a sturdy chiton, which is in turn stuck to the rock and protected by an armadillo-like layered shell.
"There are so many colors here, just life on top of life," says Jason Novak, an environmental educator from Santa Cruz, Calif., who tags along with the group, as he spots a hermit crab venturing out of its shell in search of an upgrade.
Over in the rocks up against the bluff, Emily Sheeley, 5, from the Portland area, finds a swarm of two-inch-diameter shore crabs among the granite cobbles. They look disconcertingly like muscular spiders. Her mother, Nancy Sheeley, is a little nervous about being in sandals.
Heading out to the tip of Tongue Point, the group crunches over the mats of blue mussels that cover the black rock. Gray, half-dollar-sized limpets are sealed to the rocks, holding in a few drops of water to get them through the day until the tide comes in again.
Limpets and mussels both live in the upper tidal zones that are covered only at high tide. Mussels send out iron-rich "byssal threads," one of nature's miraculously strong materials, that allow them to hold on to rocks despite their daily buffeting by waves — and by the sneakers of visitors.
"It's OK to step on them — only the dead ones are going to break off," Storm says.
Ancient Greek and Egyptian royalty wore cloaks woven from byssal threads, the silk of the sea.
Mussel harvesters have picked clean many public beaches on the Olympic Peninsula. Tongue Point has been designated a county marine sanctuary since 1989, and from the looks of it, visitors have respected the sanctuary's "look but don't touch" policy.
"The life out here is just so much more abundant than in California," Novak says. "Things aren't nearly so beaten down."
Out at the tip of the point, the floppy bassoons of bull kelp swirl on three sides. At the lowest tides, this is the place to spot an octopus, or a sea star as big as a pizza, Storm says.
More than its abundance distinguishes Tongue Point. It is also the easternmost Pacific Coast-style tide pool in the Strait of Juan de Fuca. That makes it the place closest to Seattle where you'll find coastal tide-pool life, rather than the characteristically inland species that live in tide pools of Puget Sound.
The preserve's sprawl also adds to its allure for nature-lovers. On this morning, 20 people are scattered across the tide-pool zone. But the point is spacious enough, and the waves are loud enough, that it doesn't feel crowded. Several couples sit on some high rocks, watching the gray whales in the inlet to the west.
And speaking of those rocks, there's an educational bonus here: Visitors who come to see marine life also get a good look at local geology. Like nearly all of the Olympic Peninsula, Tongue Point is made up of volcanic rock from the ancient Pacific sea floor. Over the past 35 million years, as the Juan de Fuca Plate has been forced beneath the North American plate, that seafloor has wrinkled and lifted, like a shovel scraping mud off a sidewalk, to form the Olympic Mountains.
The black rock that makes up Tongue Point is craggy and usually slick with sea spray, but sharp edges have been smoothed away by the waves. The speckled granite boulders on the beach, of clearly different origin, were dropped off from Canada by the glaciers that scraped out the Strait of Juan de Fuca and Puget Sound during the Ice Age.
Tongue Point tips
Tongue Point is so big and solid that it's hard to believe that high tide can cover it up, but it does. The waves come right up to the base of the bluff, and only the highest rocks on the point poke above the water. Even at high water, the stairs down to the pools make a nice spot to sit and look at Vancouver Island, 10 miles across the Strait, and watch container ships throbbing in from China.
But to make sure you can actually get down to the tide pools, have a look at a tide chart before you come. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration publishes tide tables for the entire year at www.co-ops.nos.noaa.gov/tides04. (Click on the map for Washington state, then "Strait of Juan de Fuca and Admiralty Inlet" and click on "predictions" for Crescent Bay.) Lower numbers mean lower tides, and negative numbers, "minus tides," are the lowest. There are minus tides today through Tuesday and Sept. 20-25.
Tidepooling is best done on a sunny day, particularly if you want to take pictures of the creatures in the pools. Cloudy skies reflect off the surface of the pools, making it a bit harder to see things underwater. But the main thing is to go when the water is low. Tongue Point is moderately crowded in the summer but nearly deserted in fall, winter and spring.
If you visit in the off-season, you may run into Dee Bohonis of Joyce, who says she comes out here every day for her mental health. "Today I've seen three sea otters, multiple bald eagles and two gray whales," she says.
"I love to come here in winter when it's stormy and the seas are rough — it pushes things up against the shore and your clothes get all wet. Most of the year, I'm the only one out here."
Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company