The beach, the quintessential summer destination for lounging, reading, picnicking, swimming, castle building and for some, even swimming, but for those of us with inquisitive minds and a love of nature, the beach is also for learning and exploring.

If you’ve visited the same beach multiple times, you may have noticed that the amount of exposed shoreline varies. The area between the highest high-tide and the lowest low-tide is referred to as the intertidal zone. Animals found in this zone face the challenges of wave action, heat from the sun and exposure to land predators, but special adaptations enable them to survive here. Great news for us—we get a chance to observe a variety of marine life without donning scuba gear!

Each beach, however, is not created equal. Geologically speaking, we can divide beaches into two broad categories—sandy and rocky—and the flora and fauna assemblages in these two habitats are as varied as the substrate themselves.

Sandy Beaches
When the tide is out, sandy beaches may better be described as muddy, mucky or even flip-flop eaters. Sandy beaches may also appear devoid of life. But take a closer look—the animals here are simply adept at burrowing. They may live permanently buried or burrow in response to a receding tide. By carefully digging in the sand, you may find worms, sand dollars, moon snails, ghost shrimp and a multitude of bivalve species— clams, cockles and geoducks. In areas where depressions hold water, look for fish. Sand soles and staghorn sculpins are coloured to camouflage with the sand. Hiding in the sand doesn’t guarantee survival, though—many bird species are particularly proficient at hunting during low-tide. Observe shore birds probing the sand with their beaks.

Sandy Beach Safety
If you don’t want your flip-flops swallowed by the imaginary mud monster, leave them at home or at high-tide. Bare feet are risky with the presence of broken shells, so the best footwear is good old-fashioned gumboots, water socks (formerly known as reef shoes) or waterproof secure-fitting sandals. Pay attention to the incoming tide or risk swimming back to shore from a stranded sand bar.

Suggested Sandy Bays
Patricia Bay, North Saanich
Sidney Spit, Sidney Island
Witty’s Lagoon Regional Park, Metchosin
Bamberton Provincial Park, Mill Bay
Miracle Beach Provincial Park, Comox Valley

Rocky Shorelines
On the rugged west coast, rocky shorelines are common and offer a very different collection of species than sandy beaches. With no place to burrow, the animals here are adapted to “stay put” should a wave or a predator attempt to dislodge them. Animals such as barnacles and mussels have permanent homes, while others—snails, limpets, chitons and seastars—have a foot, or feet, to grip temporarily. Intertidal inhabitants also need to avoid dessication, so these animals often have a hard shell, hide under moist seaweed, or situate themselves in cracks, crevices or pools where water remains when the tide goes out. Under rocks or seaweed, or in tidepools, you’ll find sea anemones, seastars, tidepool sculpins, pricklebacks, shore crabs, sea urchins, sea cucumbers and sea slugs.

Rocky Shoreline Safety
Along a rocky shore, you don’t risk losing a shoe so much as losing your footing. To avoid slipping and sliding your way to an injury, choose proper fitting footwear with a good tread. Closed toe and heal shoes are recommended; when exposed toes face off against barnacles, the resulting score is always barnacles, 1, toes, 0. Due to slippery slopes and slimy seaweed, plan to be hands-free. Carry guidebooks, camera, journal, snacks and other belongings in a back pack, leaving your arms available for stabilizing in the event of a tumble. Consider a walking stick to help with your balance.
If exploring rocky beaches along the outer coast of Vancouver Island, keep your eye on the ocean—waves can be unpredictable.

Suggested Rocky Shorelines
Harling Point, Oak Bay
Macaulay Point, Esquimalt
Arbutus Point, Portland Island
East Point, Saturna Island
Botanical Beach Provincial Park, Port Renfrew

Our own safety isn’t the only concern. To minimize any negative impact we may have on the animals and their habitat, follow these do’s:

• DO watch where you step. Shells and exoskeletons may protect beach dwellers from their usual threats, but they can’t hold up to the weight of our human body.

• DO touch gently. Seastars are often damaged by explorers eager to hold them; unfortunately, a seastar’s incredible strength may result in the seastar in your hand and their feet still left behind on the rock.

• DO place animals back where and as you found them. An animal adapted to living at low-tide cannot survive the exposure if left at high-tide.

• DO leave only footprints and take only pictures. Empty shells provide habitat for many other species and the broken down shells return nutrients to the ecosystem.

• DO gently place rocks back as you found them. The same holds true for seaweed and sand; if you dig a hole, fill it back in. All of these act as shelter, so leaving animals exposed risks their survival.

• DO pick up any man-made materials or garbage you find and dispose of it responsibly.
For tidal heights, visit tides.gc.ca. CRD Parks (www.crd.bc.ca/parks), Provincial Parks (www.env.gov.bc.ca/bcparks) and Federal Parks (www.pc.gc.ca) are ours to discover.

Challenge yourself to explore three new beaches this summer.

Happy low-tide exploring!

Tina Kelly is the Visitor Experience Director at the Shaw Ocean Discovery Centre. As a child she spent hour after hour exploring Cordova Bay.