Exploring the underwater world

Heather Murtagh/Daily Journal Twenty-one-month-old Emma explores a pool of water at the Fitzgerald Marine Reserve in Moss Beach on Friday.

"There’s an octopus over here,” 8-year-old Edward yelled to fellow beachgoers, many of whom he did not know.

The announcement quickly brought together strangers to observe the marine life hiding against a rock before 8 a.m. Friday.

A little girl wondered aloud why an octopus would be so far from the ocean.

That’s the way the tide pools work. At low tide, wonders otherwise covered become visible for children of all ages to explore. Access to these ocean jewels is close — a simple drive to Moss Beach on the coast brings with it a view of an otherwise underwater world at the Fitzgerald Marine Reserve, which can be accessed for free.

Edward, who lives in Palo Alto, had only been to the tide pools once before. But this time he was sharing the coastal treasure with his grandmother, who had never visited.

Aside from the color-changing octopus, there were star fish, crabs, sea urchins and mussels among other life forms. Wear warm clothes (the coast is known to be chilly) and shoes that can get wet.

Be sure to look down while traveling across the rocks, which are often slippery but contain a habitat that should be left in place. During the early morning hours Friday, the tide was low, allowing access to much of the rock bed.

For Gabrielle Petersen’s 7-year-old daughter, it was seeing the harbor seals in the distance which made the trip worthwhile. The family, who is visiting from Taiwan, visited previously at high tide getting a closer view of the seals.

During low tide, harbor seals can be seen in the distance. They travel to land during high tide, offering a closer view of the mammals. It is recommended to stay 300 feet away from these creatures. Cones are normally placed along the beach marking this safety zone. While it does offer a wonderful view, it does block portions of the three-mile beach stretch.

Seeing the beach at both high and low tide piqued Petersen’s daughter’s interest. She was able to appreciate the ebb and flow of the water while discussing the ocean’s role. Interestingly, the Petersens were taken aback by the cleanliness of the Pacific Ocean, noting how dirty oceans are in Taiwan.

Native Americans first visited the Moss Beach shoreline and bluffs. The area has drawn many people, particularly after 1908, when the Ocean Shore Railroad was extended to the area. As early as 1911, college zoology classes began visiting the site. As popularity grew, resources were depleted leading San Mateo County to propose the state acquire the land as a state reserve, which the governor approved in 1969. On Aug. 5, the property was designated the James V. Fitzgerald Marine Reserve.

Parking is available near the park, which also has trails along the bluffs open for walking. Views from above the shoreline offer a different perspective of the Pacific Ocean. Picnic tables and rest rooms are available near the parking.

To get to the tide pools, take Highway 1 to California Street in Moss Beach and turn west. The Fitzgerald Marine Reserve is at the end of the street. For more information visit www.fitzgeraldreserve.org. Check for low tide before heading out by visiting www.mobilegeographics.com:81/locations/2365.html. Reservations are required for groups of 10 or more and can be made by calling 363-4021.

Heather Murtagh can be reached by e-mail: heather@smdailyjournal.com or by phone: (650) 344-5200 ext. 105.

Info box

Tide pool etiquette

• Watch your step! Walk carefully around the tide pools for your own safety and to spare the marine life underfoot. Avoid stepping on beds of barnacles, anemones, mussels and other tide pool life.

• Do not remove shells, vegetation, rocks or marine life. Shells and rocks are a natural part of the intertidal zone, and serve as future homes for critters such as hermit crabs.

• Should you move them, replace rocks and shells to their original position. Marine life growing on the bottom of the rocks will die when exposed to the sun and air.

• Do not pull sea stars, mussels, limpets and other tide pool life off rocks. Gulls will flip them over and tear out their stomachs or soft bodies before the animals have a chance to re-grip.

• Do not place marine life in containers for a closer look, even for a few minutes. This is often how animals are inadvertently moved from one inter-tidal zone to another, and they usually don’t survive.

• Dogs are not allowed.

• Do not play loud radios or amplified music near or around the tide pools.

• Do not disturb marine mammals, such as harbor seals in their rookery. Many seek this habitat as a refuge for birthing and raising their young. Stay at least 300 feet from any marine mammal.

Source: San Mateo County Department of Parks

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