While scuba diving and snorkeling are unparalleled methods for getting up close and personal with sea life, there’s something magical about towering over a tidal pool and observing an aquatic microcosm from above. This vantage point is also considerably more accommodating to nature photography, as I learned during a recent outing to Fitzgerald Marine Reserve near Half Moon Bay.
I made the 30-minute drive from Belmont to the Moss Beach reserve on the invitation of Kira, my friend and fellow wildlife enthusiast. Kira is the best nature photographer I know. Her specialty is feathered friends, but she’s been known to visit the coastline to photograph the “wee beasties” lingering in tidal pools during minus tides.
Minus tides typically occur around the time of a full or new moon when the earth, moon and sun are in alignment (during a new moon, the alignment is sun-moon-earth. During a full moon, the alignment is sun-earth-moon. Here’s a handy graph.). The combined gravitational pull of the sun and the moon on the earth results in extreme high and low tides called spring tides (named for the springing action of the tides – not the season). A minus or negative spring tide refers to a water level that is below the average depth at low tide. And while minus tides are not infrequent, catching one during daylight hours can prove tricky. Knowing this, Kira had her calendar marked for Nov. 6, date of a full moon.
According to ProTides’ charts for Half Moon Bay, the second low tide of that Thursday would reach -0.9 feet at 4:03 p.m. Kira and I arrived at about 3 p.m., which meant we’d have about two hours of daylight for photographs before the sun set.
Fitzgerald Marine Reserve is located along a rugged stretch of coast hugged by towering cliffs lined with avenues of cypress trees. The rocky shore is a popular hangout for harbor seals, and they congregate within the shelter of the outcrops to nurse their young and bask in the sunshine.
The low tide had exposed great swaths of the reef, and Kira and I stepped carefully among the Purisima rock formation to peer into shimmering pools of seastars, sea anemones and spiky purple urchins. Scientists have divided the beach into zones based on the water level and the types of resident organisms, and although no physical markers exist, I noticed a very distinct change based on the types of rock-cemented creatures I took pains to avoid crushing. First came the periwinkle snails of the splash zone one, followed by the black turban snails and hermit crabs of splash zone two and then the exposed sea anemones of zone three. An anemone covered by water, its tentacles gleaming phosphorescent in the light, is a beautiful sight, but when exposed to the air, the polyp shrivels up into a pitiful sand and shell-covered blob – like a turtleneck sweater without a neck to fill it out.
The Friends of Fitzgerald Marine Reserve encourage visitors to explore the tide pools, but I wonder how much damage our stomping feet our responsible for; It’s virtually impossible to navigate the tide pools without stepping on the organisms attached to the exposed reef.
I took to tiptoeing and apologizing to the sea life whenever my boots ventured too close.
“Sorry! Oooops. Sorry!”
Kira’s great find of the day was a tiny red octopus hiding among the weeds in one tide pool. She snapped a terrific macro shot of his torso before he jetted back into hiding.
Waves sent seawater gushing through channels in the reef that then spilled into the pools to set kelp and algae dancing. As the tide slowly returned, I retreated closer to the beach and trained my lens on unmolested pools of still water.
Kira and I began our excursion on a nearly deserted beach, but the reef gradually attracted more and more day trippers as school let out and the gainfully employed left work. Soon, the sun began its descent, but the figures on the beach neglected to extend the celestial show the reverence it’s typically due. Instead, their heads were craned downward, each one seeking a last glimpse of the world at their feet before the sea claimed it once more.