All Photos by Garrick Ramirez
Not all of Santa Cruz’s colorful characters are found at the Boardwalk. Explore Santa Cruz County shores, and you’ll delight in rocky tide pools teeming with unique sea creatures that wouldn’t be out of place in a Dr. Suess book. Tide pooling is a great way to experience the wondrous marine life in Monterey Bay, no scuba tanks required! With something new to discover every visit, the following seaside spots will keep you happy as a clam.
RIDE INTO THE INTERTIDAL ZONE
Tide pools are found in what’s referred to as the intertidal zone, the portion of the seashore that is exposed during low tide and submerged at high tide. It’s here that you’ll discover a diverse community of marine animals that, unlike their human counterparts, aren’t relaxing at the shore with the latest mystery novel. Despite their calm appearance, tide pools are an extreme habitat in which to live. Intertidal dwellers must withstand hot sun, chilly waters, high salinity (from salt deposits left behind from dried up waters), and the surf’s relentless pounding.
DISCOVER COOL MARINE CREATURES
So who are the hearty creatures that call tide pools home? Simple colorful organisms that are able to thrive in rough conditions. The sheer diversity of these intertidal invertebrates is what makes tidepooling so much fun. Here are some of the creatures you’re likely to spot:
- Clusters of mussels, barnacles, and limpets
- Spiky, purple sea urchins
- Alien-like green anemones
- Scurrying rock crabs
- Bashful hermit crabs
- Colorful starfish
When the tide is at its absolute lowest—roughly every two weeks on the full or new moon in Santa Cruz—you can venture further into the lower intertidal zone where you might spy elusive creatures such as otherworldly nudibranchs and octopuses. Plus, invertebrates aren’t the only creatures you’ll find inhabiting tide pools. Look for fish such as the tidepool sculpin, opaleye, and, what would make the best band name ever: the juvenile monkeyface pricklebacks!
MAPS TO THE (SEA) STARS
Some of the best tide pools in Santa Cruz County are found along the rocky shores that stretch from Lighthouse Point to Davenport. It’s here that you’ll find craggy slabs of ancient mudstone rock that fill with hundreds of tide pools.
Natural Bridges State Beach
This Westside gem isn’t short on visual spectacles including thousands of migrating monarch butterflies and the beach’s namesake, monumental rock “bridge” (which is now an arch following the collapse of land that once extended to shore). On the beach’s western flank, you’ll find a series of tide pools carved into a rocky slab overlooking the beach.
West Cliff Drive
If you’ve ever strolled this seaside promenade, you know how dazzling the views are from the blufftop path. Yet, dip down closer to the water via any number of spur trails, and you’ll likely discover rocky terraces that fill with tidepools (and the hungry shorebirds who love them).
While tide pools adorn much of the North County coast, the pools at Davenport Landing are the most accessible. Rather than scramble down uneven seaside cliffs, you can park in a lot and immediately stroll out to the intertidal pools. To reach the tide pools, head to the left as you walk toward the shore. After scrambling over a small outflow stream from the adjacent abalone farm, you’ll reach a large mussel-covered reef brimming with hermit crabs, snails, and starfish.
East Cliff Drive Beaches
Not regularly exposed, the tide pools that line East Cliff Drive in Pleasure Point are a surprising find during a very low tide. Because these pools occupy a lower intertidal zone, it’s not unusual to enjoy coveted sightings of sea stars and octopuses. To access the pools, use the staircases at 36th Avenue and 38th Avenue.
Santa Maria Beach
Tucked away in a residential, waterfront strip of Live Oak, this wide sandy beach features a large rocky marine shelf pocked with hundreds of tide pools of varying sizes.
INDOOR TIDE POOLS
Seasoned tide poolers know that the early bird gets the echinodermata (the fancy scientific word for sea stars). The best tide pooling is done at low tide which only happens twice a day, usually in the early morning and once again in the evening. If you’ve missed your window, you can find touch pools as well as a wealth of resources at the following marine centers.
Seymour Marine Discovery Center
Part of an active marine research lab operated by UCSC, this seaside center is an exceptional resource that’s open to the public. In addition to interpretive displays, the center features numerous glass tanks filled with creatures from the Monterey Bay swimming in water drawn directly from the shore below. A touch pool encourages visitors both big and small to experience tide pool creatures such as sea stars, anemones, and spiky sea urchins. Don’t miss the adjacent swell shark pool. It’s probably the only spot in Santa Cruz County where you can (safely) touch a shark!
Santa Cruz Natural History Museum
Steps from Seabright State Beach, this charming museum is easy to spot thanks to a life-size model of a grey whale resting on its front lawn. Inside, a new touch pool introduces guests to local intertidal plants and animals. An adjacent exhibit displays shells from local beaches to help beachcombers identify findings from their own trips.
Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary Exploration Center
This state-of-the-art marine center near the Santa Cruz Wharf features interactive, multimedia exhibits that take you on a virtual trip to the underwater world of the Monterey Bay. After you’ve spotted all the creatures in a model tide pool and digital tide pooling game, guide a remote-controlled camera through a recreated underwater canyon.
CARE & SAFETY
While exploring local tide pools, remember to exercise common sense and respect for your surroundings.
- Rocks can be deceptively slippery and jagged, so it’s best to wear sport sandals, surf booties, or an old pair of tennies that you don’t mind getting wet.
- Never turn your back on the ocean. Sleeper waves are a real phenomenon, and can catch you off-guard at any time. Always be aware when the tide is rising or receding.
- We know how irresistible it might be to touch an anemone or pluck a hermit crab from its waters, but disrupting tide pool life harms its inhabitants. Even if you think you’re saving a creature that appears to be stranded out of water, it’s best to leave it be. The tide will eventually return and re-submerge the creature. It’s important to note that most tide pool inhabitants are in a specific place for a reason.
- Have fun and be safe exploring our coastline!