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Tide Pooling on San Juan Island

San Juan Island tide-pooling
Ochre Sea Star. Photo courtesy of Brttany Bowles

Tide Pools can be a place of endless fascination and entertainment, for young and old alike. When the sea recedes on the rocks near the shore, it leaves little puddles of water, often home to delicate creatures that survive in both wet and dry conditions. They may hide under rocks or seaweed to protect themselves from the sun before the tide comes back in again, or camouflage themselves to blend in with their surroundings to avoid predators. so you need to look closely to find them.

Local Marine Naturalist Brittany Bowles has some tips on getting the most from your tide pooling excursion:

“My favorite place to go tide pooling on the island is at Cattle Point. The Cattle Point Interpretive Center was refinished a few years ago and now has some great informational plaques about tide pools, and creatures that can be found in the intertidal zone. Deadman’s Bay at Lime Kiln State Park can be good for tide pooling as well.

There really isn’t a ‘season’ for tide pooling, it just depends on the tide, so it’s an activity that can be enjoyed year round. The most important aspect of tide pooling is having a good low tide. There are lots of free apps or websites to help you check out what the tide is like since it changes daily; the lower the tide the better.

Alabaster Nudibranch - Brittany Bowles
Alabaster Nudibranch. Photo courtesy of Brittany Bowles

The best advice I can give to someone who wants to go tide pooling is to arrive one hour before the “low tide” to give yourself enough time to explore the tide pools. Also, as tempting as it is to get totally absorbed in the first tide pool you stumble upon, you should really start exploring at the water’s edge because that is the area that will be re-covered with water as the tide comes in first, and it is often where the coolest animals live, there will be time for the tide pools further from shore later.

San Juan Island tide-pooling.
Leopard Nudibranch, also called San Diego or Ringed Dorid. Photo courtesy of Brittany Bowles.

You will find different animals in each tide zone, but starfish are usually favorites. Ochre Sea Stars, also known as the Purple Sea Star, are common in the Pacific Northwest. A smaller, but equally cool species of sea star is the Blood Star. If you’re lucky, you can sometimes even find Sea Cucumbers and Nudibranchs in the lowest tidal zone.  Nudibranchs, my personal favorite, are basically seagoing slugs, and they come in brilliant colors and designs ( There are many species that live here in the Pacific Northwest. “Nudi” is derived from “nude,” and “branch” is Latin for “lung” (think bronchitis); so Nudibranch means “naked lung” because the feathery antennas of the nudibranch are actually his exposed gills.

There are also plenty of crabs, small fish, anemones, barnacles and muscles to check out as well. Don’t be afraid to lift up a few rocks and see what’s hiding underneath. But please heed this note of caution: it is VERY important to put all animals back exactly where you found them and remember to be gentle! These little critters can be very sensitive.

Be sure to wash your hands before and after handling tide pool organisms; chemicals found in lotion can kill small critters.

The book “Whelks to Whales” has a complete ID guide of all animals you might encounter in the Northwest, large and small. The Whale Museum also sells laminated ID guides of the most commonly encountered intertidal organisms, which are handy to have with you when tide pooling.

San Juan Island tide-pooling
Decorator Crab. Photo Courtesy of Brittany Bowles

One last tip: Wear rubber boots if you have them, and if you don’t, try to wear good soled shoes that can withstand getting wet and will help keep you from slipping on the rocks.”

Brittany Bowles, Marine Naturalist, has lived on San Juan Island for two and a half years. She works as a naturalist aboard San Juan Excursions in the summer months, and also works at The Whale Museum year round. She studied Marine Biology at Oregon State University and became a certified Marine Naturalist in 2011. She is also a board member of the Salish Sea Association of Marine Naturalists (S.S.A.M.N.) and has volunteered for Soundwatch, an on-the-water boater education program designed to protect our endangered Resident Orcas. You can reach Brittany at

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