The Snail Pace

A black oystercatcher swallows the soft part of a snail it has extracted from its shell at Yaquina Head Outstanding Natural Area in Newport, Oregon

Life is precarious in tide pools. Mussels and barnacles that live too low on the rock surface are within reach of predatory starfish. Those too high are at risk of drying out while they wait for the rising tide. And in this case, the high spots also had just enough purchase for a black oystercatcher to walk along their perimeter, feeding as it went. But its target on this day was not the mussels and barnacles but the snails that feed on the algae on their shells, here it is about to swallow the soft part of a snail it has extracted from its shell.

The oppressive summer heat might be the biggest obstacle I had to overcome to be willing to move to the desert, but not far behind was saying goodbye to the coast (and in California, the nearby wetlands). I was rather taken with tide pools and the coast in general on visits to the redwoods in California and the rain forests in Washington and decided to make a concerted effort to visit the coast more often, which is why I was at the Oregon coast on this day in early October. A few weeks later I’d find out my team was getting laid off and thus started the process that would take me from the Northwest.

I changed the lock screen on my phone to this picture of a harbor seal as soon as moving to Arizona became a possibility, before it even became a strong possibility, to force myself to think repeatedly about whether I could really give up the coast. I decided I wasn’t ready to say goodbye to the coast, and never would be, but I was ready to say hello to the desert. And to the desert I go.

Things Are Not Always As They Appear

A western gull holds a dead red rock crab in its beak on Cobble Beach at Yaquina Head Outstanding Natural Area in Newport, Oregon

It might look like this western gull has just caught a red rock crab but the crab was long dead. No flesh yet remained, yet the shell and legs were still held together by a thin material. Usually the dead crabs are scattered in pieces around the beach so I was surprised to see the crab of a piece, and perhaps the gull was too, as it quickly dropped it when it realized there was nothing left to eat.

Legs Crossed, Holding Tightly

An ochre sea star clings to the vertical face of a rock in a tide pool, waiting for the tide to return

Pity the starfish that does not take advantage of the cover of high tide to go to the bathroom when no one is watching. This poor fellow clinging to a large boulder was left high-and-dry by the receding tide and could do naught but cross its legs and hold it in. Waiting for the inevitable return of the sea but tortured always by the sound of splashing water.

Harlequin

A male harlequin duck stands in a tide pool as the waves come in behind him

I timed this short visit to the Oregon coast to coincide with low tides around both sunrise and sunset, planning to spend some time photographing tide pools, but my plans changed when I arrived at Yaquina Head. I had trouble finding subjects in the tide pools I wanted to photograph but the harbor seals were out in abundance, and then I saw a bird species I had never seen before, the harlequin duck. I spent the last morning photographing from a tide pool at least, as I had great views of both seals that had hauled out to sleep on the rocky shore and a nearby group of male and female harlequins. I was especially happy to get to photograph the harlequins in their environment as the tide came in, until the selfsame tide forced us both from our perches.

I’m happy to report that I did buy some Neos waterproof overshoes before the trip and they worked a treat, keeping my feet dry each day. On this day the tide came up fully over my ankles and thankfully my shoes underneath stayed dry, as I was wearing my beloved orange running shoes so I’d be comfortable on the drive back to Portland. They fold up nicely so they can go in a backpack or in a random corner in the corner, when home I hosed them out to wash off any residual saltwater and they soon dried and were ready for the next visit to the coast.

Homes for Urchins

Purple sea urchins sit in the depressions they've carved over time into the tide pool at Yaquina Head Outstanding Natural Area in Newport, Oregon

Purple sea urchins sit in the depressions they’ve carved over time into the tide pool, minimizing the force of the waves as the tide comes in and out. I came across these urchins in 2004 on a sunny day at Yaquina Head Outstanding Natural Area in Newport, Oregon. The picture below is a different set of urchins but taken on the same day, I’ve posted this one before but it was years ago.

Purple sea urchins sit in the depressions they've carved over time into the tide pool at Yaquina Head Outstanding Natural Area in Newport, Oregon

A Small and Beautiful World

Mussels and barnacles live crowded together in a tide pool at Enderts Beach in Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park in California

In this crowded space in a tide pool at Enderts Beach in California’s Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park, goose barnacles fill the gaps left by California mussels while acorn barnacles attach directly to the mussels themselves. The snails and black limpets are a little more mobile but all have evolved some sort of hard enclosure to protect against drying out at times like these when the tide has receded, and also against the birds who prey upon them. They may not be able to evolve fast enough to survive their biggest enemy as we not only warm the oceans but acidify them too. But for the moment I will bear them witness, this beautiful little world that exists only in the narrowest strip up and down our coasts, halfway on land and halfway in water.