Four tips on how to be a great intertidal ecologist

For some, there exists a misconception that all marine biologists scuba dive in the tropics and chase dolphins into the sunset. Case in point: I did a brief Google image search of “marine biologist” and there were the top few hits:

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Screenshot of “marine biologist” from Google Image search


Coral reefs are undoubtedly beautiful and a globally important habitat type. However some fail to realize how much more there is to ocean biodiversity, and best of all, that we really don’t need to venture further than our coastal back yards to see some fascinating creatures co-existing. Last week our intertidal walk at Aguillar Beach saw representatives across nine invertebrate phyla, including porcelain crabs, Idotea isopods, four species of anemone, bryozoans, polychaete worms, and several species of shrimp.

While visiting the beach can be fun for everyone, with these four pointers you can increase your chances of seeing cool things and be great intertidal ecologist:



  1. Tide tables are your best friend.

If you’re interested in studying intertidal or subtidal organisms, planning field days according to the tides is necessary to ensure that you’ll be able to see as much as possible. Each ~12.5 hour tidal cycle has two low tides and two high tides. The best time to see things is just before the lowest tide because this is when most of the shoreline is exposed. This allows the opportunity to see habitat zonation patterns to the greatest extent possible as opposed to only the ones living in the high intertidal zone (which might be limited to two species of algae and some mussels and barnacles).

2. Be adventurous (while keeping safety a priority)

Sometimes we have to brave rough conditions to see the most interesting things- this can mean sacrificing sleep to visit the intertidal zone at a midnight low tide in below freezing temperatures, or trekking across slippery seaweeds and sharp barnacles while being chased by an incoming tide. Last week at Brady’s Beach we eagerly joined Chris who travelled to the more exposed side of the sea stacks to check out the Gooseneck barnacles and California mussels. This is prime habitat for these two species- the high wave action and spray means that salty water makes it higher up the rocks, and therefore the mussels are able to exist out of the reach of hungry sea stars. I think we might have made the poor field trip staff at Bamfield a little nervous by our hanging out at that spot because the tide was coming in fast and rough, but it was well worth it.


Figure 1. Chris telling Kephra, Keila, and Emily tales of gooseneck barnacles, California mussels, and Nucella snails at the highly exposed sea stacks. Note everyone has their PFD zipped up (safety first). Photo by Sharon Kay.

  1. Look around! Be curious!

I’ve gained tons of new knowledge, theory, and practical skills over my years as a biology undergrad. But the most valuable thing I’ve learned by far (and best of all, one you don’t need a bachelor’s degree to learn!) is how to be sensitive to my surroundings and notice little details. Whether you’re at a remote marine research station or walking across campus, there are small critters to be found if you look super closely, and interesting patterns everywhere that likely can be explained by biology. While dredging in Trevor Channel to sample for benthic invertebrates, I happened to look inside a butter clam shell with a bunch of crap inside, and noticed this tiny brittle star. Critters that small are easy to miss if you’re not looking carefully!


A brittle star (Class Ophiuroidea) smaller than my pinky

While walking in the intertidal zone, turn over rocks, peek inside tidepools, and keep your face as close as it can possibly get to the ground without detracting from your ability to see or your nose hitting the rocks, whichever comes first (see Figure 2). Inevitably, you will start to notice patterns- some organisms live higher up, some lower down. Some grow on top of others. Some don’t seem to like the light, others love it. Make a note of what you notice!



Figure 2. Optimal distance for spotting interesting animals in the intertidal zone



  1.  Ask lots of questions

This tip is the natural follow-up to tip #3. After looking around and noticing interesting patterns, the next step is to ask why so you as the intertidal ecologist can find the answer. That’s how science works!


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