A wave crashes over a boulder encrusted with numerous white, volcano-shaped shells, and out of those shells jointed legs emerge and sweep food particles out of the sea water. Down shore, a crab in a small pool pinches off some of these volcano-shaped barnacles and pops them into its mouth. The pool’s glassy surface ripples as a wave showers it. Also in that pool, it looks like someone left the sole of their shoe in the water, but that’s a chiton. The five-armed sea star, aka starfish, is often there, as well, crawling around on its dozens to hundreds of tube feet. “Sea star” is now considered the correct name for this animal, yes, it is star-shaped, but it’s not technically a fish.
The tide is coming in. And to the many organisms exposed to the drying wind and sun, each advance of the waves means that relief is getting nearer. Some, like barnacles and anemones, are stuck in place, while others, like sea stars, sea urchins and chitons, move very slowly, while others, like the sculpin, a small fish, dart around in the blink of an eye.
All along California’s coast, where the shore is rocky, you can go tidepooling, looking for plants and animals that live between high and low tide, the intertidal zone. Curiosity and keen eyes are the most important tools to have for this activity, and a field guide can add to the enjoyment. A good guide for beginners is “Pacific Intertidal Life” by Ron Russo and Pam Olhausen. Ron Russo also wrote a guide called, “Pacific Coast Fish” that could be useful for identifying the smaller fish you might find in a tidepool. If you’re just interested in shells, then “A Field Guide to Shells of the Pacific Coast and Hawaii” by Percy A. Morris may be the book for you. A good reference book with lots of photographs is “Intertidal Invertebrates of California” by Morris, Abbott, and Haderlie. Finally, if you’re also interested in observing other kinds of wildlife as well, consider the “Complete Field Guide to North American Wildlife (Western Edition)” published by Harper and Row. And if you have a smartphone, you could download a tidepooling app called “California Tidepools” to use as your guide. Just make sure not to get your phone wet.