Rachel Carson and the Lure of Tidepools

Photos by Molly Herring

My Uber pulled up to a little blue house on a cliff-side street, and I popped open the door to inhale the familiar West Coast perfume medley – forest fire smoke drifting in from the North, sweet eucalyptus, and a bit of fish.

I returned to the little blue house after Thanksgiving break, which I spent wrapped up by the fireplace with siblings and dogs in the cold humid jaws of Virginia. I had made it home just in time for the East Coast leaves to play the last song of their encore and was grateful to glimpse the fiery orange and bright yellow exit of autumn. The smells of the holidays – cinnamon and turkey and pumpkin – are comforting, but I had missed the raw, energizing stench of the sea.

In The Sense of Wonder, Rachel Carson writes about “the rush of remembered delight that comes with the first breath of that scent, drawn into one’s nostrils as one returns to the sea after a long absence.”

I have been living in smelling distance of the Pacific for a few months now, close enough to throw a stone or run over to tangle my toes in the kelp between school and work. Close enough that there is always sand on the kitchen floor and a thin layer of salt dried to my car windshield. Close enough that I can slide open the window above my bed, hear the waves, and see the moon.

Two or three nights each month, I actually cannot sleep for the absolute brilliance of the full moon. I don’t mean this in a poetic way. I have resolved to appreciate the stars dotting the dark night sky of Santa Cruz, so I don’t draw the blinds on principle. As a consequence, I have to bury my face in a pillow, my eyelids too thin and feeble a curtain to block out the spotlight. On full moon nights and her sisters, high tide is extra high, and low is very low. The water is restless, tossing, turning. I can hear it through my open window.

We learn young that the moon is the puppet master of the tides. But how? You probably know, but I really didn’t until I was immersed in the culture-shocking dialect of surfer bros and retired sea-glass sculptors of the Santa Cruz coast.

Picture the earth as a raw chicken egg. The solid rocky core is the yolk, and the aquatic outer layer is the white. The moon is strong enough to draw one edge of the white away from the yolk, and even to pull the yolk a bit from the other edge. This creates two bulging egg-white edges on either side. The earth yolk rotates inside the oblong egg white once entirely in 24 hours, each coast passing both bulging edges. These are the two high tides that visit each beach every day.

Twice a lunar month, the sun sits directly behind the moon, or directly across from it, and appears new or full. The very large, very strong sun pulls the egg-white edge even more, creating bigger bulges – the lowest low tides and the highest highs. During these spring tides, I can walk from the little blue house to those sandy intermediates where fish meets man — that are usually partitioned off by crashing waves and adolescent skimboarders. The ocean pulls back her hairy lip to reveal crevices in her teeth, chock full of wonderful, slimy creatures.

On this morning, a stone’s throw from the lowest of the low tides, the fullest moon shone her spotlight onto my sleepy eyes, and when it was just barely light enough, pushed and pulled me, my body 60% water or something like that, to the shore.

There were others out, called by the siren song of the sea to tiptoe down the cliffside stairs. I stepped carefully over the green algae clinging to the rocky reefs, a slick carpet that has more than once landed me on my back. Rock crabs scuttled their toothpick feet under protective overhangs, narrowly avoiding the clumsy fists of toddlers and nosy investigations of the neighborhood doodle dogs.

I squatted near a particularly bloated green anemone and poked my finger towards her curling, wormy appendages. She twisted toward me, folding her whole body to guide my finger, and to her hope, my entire being, into her mouth. She sent incessant lightning rods into the flesh of my finger, but human skin is an effective defense. She curled with all her might, and I gently pulled away, releasing myself from her suction grip with a third tug.

I walked in the footsteps of Rachel herself, sharing early morning smiles and silent cheers of fortified to-go mugs with fellow tide-poolers.

“Down on the shore we have savored the smell of low tide – that marvelous evocation combined of many separate odors, of the world of seaweeds and fishes and creatures of bizarre shape and habit, of tides rising and falling on their appointed schedule, of exposed mud flats and salt rime drying on the rocks,” writes Rachel Carson in The Sense of Wonder.

I hopscotched dry patches and puddles until I came upon what seemed to be a chunk bitten out of the flat, slippery rock footpath. The high tide had been extremely so, lapping at the city’s erosion prevention infrastructure and sprinkling “protective” boulders all over the shallows like playthings. I followed a family carefully navigating the obstacle course with one hand on their mugs.

A friend from home recently stayed with me in Santa Cruz. We came to two conclusions while gallivanting along the coast and creeping over the deep-rooted feet of ancient Redwoods. One: there are few things in life more satisfying than watching big wave crash on rock. Two: tide pools are incredible.

Organisms sort themselves according to their needs, which creates intertidal zonation. You can see it quite clearly along the vertical face of a rock that is disproportionately loved by the waves. The bottom half of the rock is most often submerged. So what lives there? Wet things. Anemones and abalone. Crabs and sea lettuce, shrimp, and sponges. Quick-growing, resilient sea grasses – those easily moved and unbothered by the constant attention of the sea.

Move farther up the face of the cliff and you get more turbulent water. Hardy octagonal creatures built like war tanks that fortify their homes with thick barriers of sediment spit. Many of them do not sway with the waves but hunker down and clamp on. Even higher up live their cousins, who only dip their toes in twice a day. These barnacles look like dinosaur knuckles, packed tightly and protruding out with threatening claws. And lastly, the crowning jewel of this vertical neighborhood, slick black scallops sit with their shiny throats extended to the sun.

Tidepools face constant revolution and upheaval, physical destruction, extreme heat, extreme cold, extreme wet, extreme dry. They are built of calcium armor, our first defense against an angry rising sea. How do we know she is angry? For one thing, she is rising. A second clue: she is beginning to morph the barrier between us.

A few centimeters may not seem like much, you might think when reading research about seas rising globally. But a few centimeters is the barrier between neighborhoods of scallops and barnacles on a vertical facing rock face. For many intercoastal species, tide changes are the dinner bell or the morning alarm. Some fish spawn and shelter in the rock pockets offered by the consistent rise and fall of the sea. More extreme low tides make coastal creatures vulnerable to seabirds and the curious pokes of human fingers, and higher highs take bigger bites out of protective seawalls.

Scientists have found that tide pools can act as tiny laboratories to help us figure out the effects of sea level rise before they arrive in full form. As the ocean becomes more acidic, animals that build their shells out of carbon may have to adjust their strategies too. Lobsters and sea urchins are growing thicker shells, sucking up energy and potentially shifting their position in the delicate food chain. But acid in the water causes oyster, clam, and mussel shells to dissolve. You can imagine the problems there.

The Pacific Institute has declared that sea level rise will permanently change California coasts, but it’s not solely the Pacific that we should be monitoring. Remember the egg. Picture a larger bulge, more water collecting at each end, more force, more heat, more energy. The sea creeps up over the boundaries, suffocates the scallops, spills into rice fields and bites chunks out of California cliffs. The tide pools disappear or shift, making space for the sea in her enraged glory to slide closer to the little blue houses.

Sea level rise is not the consequence of the actions of one person. While we can each change our behavior to align with our own (and Rachel’s) values, it will take top down modifications to really get a handle on sea level rise and climate change mitigation. One thing we can do is poke around in our natural environments. Explore tidepools and bring along others you hope to inspire. Find what ignites your sense of wonder and don’t forget to check on the moon.

RCC National Environment Leadership Presidential Fellow – Molly Herring – University of Santa Cruz

RCC Presidential Fellow Molly Herring is pursuing a Masters in Science Communications from UC Santa Cruz. She recently graduated from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill with a double major in Biology and Global Studies and a minor in Creative Nonfiction. She has been published in Oceanographic MagazineCoastal ReviewThe Marine Diaries, and Cellar Door.