A tide pool near the mouth of the North River.

If you’re like me, when you go to the beach — whether to walk, to swim, or just to sit in the sun — you don’t look very closely at the things around you. Beaches demand a big-picture-style viewing. You might admire the sunrise or sunset, or gaze out over the sand and the water at the horizon, but you probably don’t take the time to study the finer features of the seashore: the mud, the rocks, the seaweed. Unless, of course, you’re looking for treasures.

A few weeks ago, I went along on a tide pool exploration at the mouth of the North River, just off Fourth Cliff in Humarock. We hiked out to the ocean side of the cliff, where the beach is composed primarily of smooth, rounded rocks. After a few words of orientation, were set free in the tide pools, the little puddles of sea water that collect along the shore at low tide. Don, our leader, encouraged us to look more carefully than we otherwise might. “Turn over rocks and dig in the mud,” he said. “Look under the seaweed.”

It was low tide, and although there was plenty to see within a few feet of shore, I wanted to begin as far out as possible, in the places that would soon be flooded by the incoming tide. I stepped carefully from rock to barnacle-encrusted rock, making my way toward a moss-covered boulder about a hundred feet in the distance. Don had warned us about barnacle scrapes — more painful than the worst of paper cuts — so I focused primarily on maintaining my footing. My destination set, I paid no mind to the rocks and shells crunching under my feet.

When I reached the tide pool that I wanted to explore, I was disappointed. I had expected to see something much more diverse than a collection of brown seaweed, snail shells, and mud. I scanned my surroundings, noting that everything seemed rather ordinary. The only feature that held my attention was the waves, another fifty feet in front of me, crashing over a rather picturesque scattering of boulders.

I found a relatively barnacle-free rock, and sat down as comfortably as I could to watch the surf. Illuminated by the strong summer sun, the water seemed to change colors before my eyes — deep blue becoming emerald and then lighter green as each wave rolled toward me, crashing frothy and white.

After watching the waves for a while, I glanced once again at the tide pool at my feet. Still nothing remarkable. But as I turned back toward the surf, out of the corner of my eye I saw something move. I bent down a little closer to the water, looking more carefully now. Those little gray snail shells — periwinkles, actually — were moving! All of them!

I bent even closer to the water and just watched what I soon regarded as a most lively underwater world. The periwinkles moved along the bottom of the tide pool, slowly but deliberately. Occasionally a green crab, sea worm, or marine macro invertebrate (a bug that likes sea water) would pass through. After lifting a few rocks, I even found a star fish.

I poked around in the water for quite some time, watching how the creatures interacted, occasionally prodding them with my fingers to see how they’d respond.

After a while, I turned my attention to the boulder that had made this tide pool appealing in the first place. It was a fairly large rock — close to four feet high, almost entirely covered with different varieties of seaweed. At first I hesitated, not knowing into what I was about to sink my hands. I lifted one moist, green-gray layer, only to find another just like it underneath. Finally I took a deep breath and just plunged both hands in as far as I could, parting the soft, stringy mass like curtains.

I was amazed to see what was underneath. On that rock alone there were at least twenty starfish in varying sizes, plus crabs, periwinkles, and a whole colony of mussels — not to mention all sorts of unidentifiable slimies and crawlies. Some of the creatures had burrowed into the crevices of the rock, while others seemed to be living among the strands of seaweed. Still others seemed just to be passing through, searching for food.

The tide was coming in quickly, and soon I had to move closer to shore. I turned back toward the beach and began my careful walk from rock to rock, marveling at the fact that every single one of the tide pools I passed contained this same sort of life.

How often do we look at something without really seeing it? How often do we scan the big picture, failing to see the details that comprise it? Not just with the landscape, but with people we meet, problems we encounter, situations we find ourselves in: we rarely have time for more than a casual glance or a hastened judgment.

What can we learn from looking more carefully? What do we stand to gain from taking the time to see the beauty in what first appeared ordinary, the vitality in what first appeared lifeless? What value is there in looking beneath the surface? Perhaps more than we’ll ever know. . .

Life is short and unpredictable. You never know what’s around the next bend. Why not pick up a rock or two and see if you can spot a starfish?

by Kezia Bacon
North and South Rivers Watershed Association
September 1997