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Friday, August 22, 2014

Tidepool Explorations: How To

Tidepool:  n, a pool of water that is left in a depression in the rocks after the tide has receded; v, the act of exploring a tidepool.  "I'm really looking forward to going tidepooling out in Harpswell at low tide."


Tidepools are places where we humans -- such a wimpy species really -- can get a glimpse of what lies below the surface without putting on special wetsuits and masks and snorkels.  These little outposts of the ocean are amazing places to poke around and find treasures of the sea -- seaweed, snails, seastars, urchins, fish, crabs and lobsters, and anemones.  Maine, I am happy to say, has its fair share of tidepools, and I encourage you all to get out there and poke around in them.  As a tidepooler from way back, I thought I'd share some tips for how to best explore one of the most fascinating habitats in Maine.

Really, does it get any better?
Go on a spring low tide.  Not all tides are created equal.  When the earth, moon, and sun are in alignment, tidal amplitude are at their greatest -- we have higher highs, and lower lows.  These are called spring tides (but do not occur during the spring season alone; the name is due to the tide "springing" up and down).  You can find out when the lowest tides are by looking at a tide chart.  Tide charts include information on when low tides are, and also how low each tide is.  For example:


This is a tide chart I just pulled up from here.  You can pick a harbor near you, and get tides for any month of the year.  For each date, the chart tells you when low tide is, and lists its size compared to the average low tide (see the "ft" column?).  The average low tide is calculated by collecting tidal data over 19 years (why 19?  You got me!) and then each tide is predicted based on this data.  So the lowest tide of the month was on August 12, at 6:40, when the tide was a whole 1.7 feet lower than average -- a very low tide.  This is when parts of the intertidal are exposed that you don't get to see on just any old low tide!  But the low tide on the first of the month, occurring at 9:32, was higher than average, so you wouldn't get to see much at all (also, it would be dark). So if I were to pick a great time to explore a tidepool, it would be August 12, starting at about 5:30 -- well before low tide, so the tide's going out.  That would give me plenty of time to poke around.

Extraordinary tidepools at Giant Steps.
Wear appropriate shoes.  You're going to get wet in the rocky intertidal, the water's going to be cold, and there are lots of things that can cut up your feet.  I like to wear wellies (tall rubber boots) when I head out to the tidepools.  If you're looking for a pair of rubber boots, I can recommend Dunlops.  They're ugly, but they last and last.  You're likely to see fishermen up here wearing them -- as good a recommendation as I can imagine, and the reason I got mine.

A student exploring in her wellies.
However, other people prefer to wear dive booties.  They let you go deeper into tidepools than boots (I have a definite limit on how deep I can walk into a pool).  Your feet will get wet, but the neoprene will insulate them pretty well.

Professor Amy Johnson, my partner in crime here at Bowdoin, likes to wear dive booties.
If neither of these options are for you, I recommend either a pair of Keens or an old pair of sneakers you don't mind getting wet.  Whatever you do, don't try to go barefoot, and don't wear flip flops.  That's just asking for trouble.  Happy feet will make you a happy explorer.

Acorn barnacles, lying in wait to cut up your feet.  Careful!
Be careful.  BE CAREFUL!  Of all the things I worry about when I go out to the ocean, it's waves that are the scariest.  Water has a lot of mass -- it weighs about 8 pounds for every gallon.  That makes it dangerous.  Waves can, and do, knock people off their feet, and can sweep them out to sea.  It happens almost every year here in Maine.  Folks go down to the shore to watch a big storm, get too close to the edge, and a big wave comes along and carries someone to their death.  Like I said:  BE CAREFUL.

It's best to visit tidepools during very calm conditions.  If there are any waves, stay on shore and just be awed by the ocean's power (from afar).  When you're near waves, don't turn your back to them -- face them so you can see them coming.  And finally, realize that not all waves are the same size.  Waves vary in size, and every once in a while a big one comes along.  Don't trust the ocean, ever; she will trick you!

Waves bad . . .
. . . calm good.

Bring a bucket!  There are lots of things you'll want to take a closer look at.  Buckets can be very useful for setting things aside so you can investigate them further.  Just remember, organisms need to be returned to the exact spot they came from, and you can't collect intertidal organisms without a permit.

You can get nice big buckets at hardware stores.
Wear your sunglasses.  Your polarized sunglasses, that is.  They cut down on glare and allow you to see under the surface much more easily than without them.  Going when there's no wind, and therefore no waves, makes visibility even better.

Investigate, ask questions, and go ahead -- touch carefully!  There are very few things in tidepools I won't touch.  Most organisms are more likely to be hurt by you that you are by them. As you probably know, some things pinch.  But most things are harmless.  Sea stars, urchins, snails, mussels, seaweed, and fish are unlikely hurt you.

Seastars are most common very low in the intertidal.
You might find this guy if you turn over a rock!
Or this guy -- a rock crab.  Careful of the pinchy parts!
Sea urchins in Maine are not poisonous.  Go ahead, touch!  See his little tubefeet?
What a great find!  A seastar who has lost all his legs but one.  He'll grow the others back if he's lucky.
A rock gunnel.  Slippery devils, but really cool.
A predatory dog whelk and egg cases from dog whelks, found under a rock.
One of the things you definitely want to do in a tidepool is (carefully) turn over rocks.  That's where the cool stuff likely to be.  What might you see?  Crabs, lobsters, rock gunnels, and urchins all love a good rock to hide under.  Just be careful that you don't crush any organisms when you put your rock back (and put it back just the way it was).

My final word of advice on investigating is to take your time and truly look.  I find a lot of things by working very slowly.  Few observations worth making are quick.  Spend several minutes just wandering around a single pool.  You never know what you'll find!

Take some useful resources.  I really like the following books:

The Naturalist's Guide to the Atlantic Seashore (Scott Shumway)

The Seaside Naturalist (Deborah Coulombe)

Life on Intertidal Rocks (Cherie Hunter Day)

Peterson's Field Guide to the Atlantic Seashore (Kenneth L. Gosner)

A tidepool in winter.  That's advanced tidepooling!
Next week:  Tidepool Explorations: Where to

Monday, August 18, 2014

Razor Clam Escape Artist

Ensis directus; the razor clam.
What's a razor clam to do, exposed to the elements, a sitting duck for hungry gulls?

Dig.  Dig fast.

Clams have an extraordinary muscular foot that they use to dig.  They are, after all, molluscs, and the muscular foot is one of the characteristics of this phylum.  It's easy to see it on the gastropods -- snails and such.  But bivalves have them too.  They use them to dig in a complex and beautiful manner.  This is something you don't see terribly often out in nature, so it was a real treat to come upon a razor clam (Ensis directus) digging its way into the substrate the other day.  Usually they're deep in the mud, and digging them can easily break them.  Happily, my trusty water-proof camera was ready:



Razor clams are a wonderful specimen for my Biology of Marine Organisms lab, so I'm sorry to say I grabbed that bad boy.  It's in my tank right now, happily munching down on the Shellfish Diet I feed my filter feeders with.

Here it is in my bucket, with some other goodies:


Just look at that foot!  Wow.  Can there be anything more beautiful?

Friday, August 15, 2014

Long Island (Maine, of course)

My pal Ken can make friends with anyone.  From the guy working out next to him at the gym to the owner of a major grocery store, Ken ends up winning over just about everyone.  That's how we ended up finding out about the fair down at the VFW on Long Island.

People:  10 bucks.  People with four legs:  4 bucks and change.
One of Casco Bay Line's distinctive yellow and white ferries.
Ken and Kathy emailed us to tell us they were coming to Maine, and were planning to take the Mail Boat out of Portland, to Long Island in Casco Bay.  Damon and I took that as an invitation, and the next morning we found ourselves on the ten o'clock ferry with a couple hundred other people -- day trippers like us; folks headed out for a week's vacation; and our new friend from Connecticut.  I'm sorry to say I never caught his name, but we talked about everything from Ken's new shoulder (and his moderately new knees) to the Yankees (which almost ended our blossoming friendship).  Our new friend grew up with a summer house out on Long Island, and had just bought a little place right next to the family place.  We chatted all the way out to the island and wished each other well as we disembarked; us looking to find lunch and some beach time; our friend to find his family's island car for a ride to his new cottage.  As we made our way up towards the general store (slowly, with three rather elderly dogs sniffing all the bushes and trees along the way), an island car pulled up next to us and our new friend told us to make sure to make it up to the VFW for lobster rolls at the fair -- just up the road.  We thanked him, said goodbye, looked at each other, and decided the VFW was our best bet for lunch.

The four of us strolled along with our slow dogs as golf carts and island cars (most of which wouldn't pass inspection on the mainland) slowly rolled past us -- all headed for the red-white-and-blue bunting of the VFW.  Ken and Damon dispatched us to pick up four lobster rolls as they held onto our pack -- who were irresistible to the crowds of island kids pouring out of the VFW with cotton candy, popcorn, and prizes from the games inside.  Not only were those lobster rolls pretty darn good, but for ten bucks (with chips to boot!) they were a pretty good deal.  If this was the way of life on Long Island, I knew I was going to like it.

Service with a smile.
A happy crowd at the VFW.
4
Kathy enjoying her $10 lobster roll

Our hunger satisfied, we headed across the island (slowly, ever so slowly) to Singing Sands beach.  This beach squeaks when you walk on it -- just drag your feet along as you go!  Squeak-squeak-squeak.  The dogs had a great swim while the humans had a great talk about seaweed, work, and life as we sat on an old driftwood log.  Sailboats fought their way against the tide, a group of kayakers enjoyed lunch on the sand, and a game of pick-up volleyball started.  It was lovely -- perfect -- and of course, had to come to an end. Eventually we had to catch a boat back to Portland, and with our poke-along dogs, we needed plenty of time to get back to the ferry.
Does it get any better?
Kitsch!
More kitsch!
This was a highly-functional island cah.  Most wouldn't pass inspection on the mainland.
Damon making the sand sing.
Dory wanted in on the action.
Even at our leisurely pace, we crossed the island in time to buy some sandwiches at the General Store (which are delicious) and pick up a six-pack of Bud (which you should not try to drink on their deck). Chastised by the owner, we put our Buds back in the bag, enjoyed our second lunch (those lobster rolls weren't exactly large), and headed out to the ferry.
Time to head home
Boarding the ferry.
Leaping from the wharf -- a rite of passage.

What can I say here?
Since our beers were already open, we decided to drink them along the way.  Normally, this would be socially unacceptable behavior, so we hid them in the only thing we had -- empty doggie poop bags.  Didn't we feel stupid when we realized everyone was looking at us funny -- not because we were drinking, but because we were trying to hide it -- in poop bags.  We soon figured out everyone had a beer in hand; the woman walking her dog; the guys sitting behind the community center; the gentleman driving his golf cart while smoking a big old cigar.  That's island life on Long Island in summer, it seems; laid back and friendly.  After all; summer's short.  Enjoy your damn beer in the open.
Public consumption.  Nice.
Life in the slow lane.  That's what it's all about.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Week Downeast, Days 5 and 6

Heed my advice, ocean lovers:  come downeast.  Bring your hiking shoes, a camera, and a bottle of water. Then make sure you spend time at two of the most extraordinary places in the state:  Great Wass Island and Quoddy Head.  Both of these spots boast amazing hiking, with unrivaled views unspoiled by the crowds we expect in southern and midcoast Maine.  They are the best Maine has to offer, and are national treasures.

The view along the shoreline at Great Wass; looking west to Englishman Bay.
Perched on the cliffs overlooking Grand Manan Channel; with the island of Grand Manan in the distance.
Great Wass Island:  Thank you, Nature Conservancy, for all you do.  I know that human recreation is only a small part of your mission, and that more importantly, you preserve rare and exemplary habitats and organisms.  Being able to see some of these at Great Wass Island was a real treat.

The hikes at Great Wass are moderately difficult.  The maps give you fair warning; in fact, they make the hikes sound rather impossible, which I guess weeds out the folks who would otherwise show up in flip flops, carrying a cooler.  This is a place where you definitely want your hiking shoes to properly laced; you will be clamoring over rocks and roots.  The trail was dry most of the time while we were there (but for a short thunderstorm on our way back).  But I can imagine a little bit of moisture -- from the persistent fog downeast) would make this trail a real challenge.  The trails pass over granite bedrock that is carpeted with a thin layer of soil, hosting mosses and lichens that are kept moist by the fog rolling in.

We hiked the entire loop on the preserve.  The Mud Hole Trail passed along a well-protected cove (the Mud Hole) with a few cruising boats anchored up inside (lucky boats).  This trail spits you out on pink granite ledges that slope down to Ascophyllum-draped rocks, a bay completely covered in lobster bouys, and offshore islands hosting either weekend cottages or sunbathing seals (bring your binoculars).  We broke out some water here and sat quietly, watching the spectacle that is Downeast Maine -- lobster crews hauling gear, eagles flying overhead, and a great silence, interrupted only be the slow and gentle surge of the Gulf of Maine.  Unfortunately, it wouldn't have been too easy to carry my boots across the island, so I skipped the tidepooling.  It was high tide anyways.

The walk south along the water was spectacular but challenging.  Much of the way we passed over massive slabs of granite, but this was interspersed with stretches of boulders to clamber over and cobbles to stumble through.  We were rewarded with yet more spectacular scenery, making the effort worthwhile.  (I must admit to disappointment that trails didn't let us get even further south on the island's west coast.  Since this island juts so far out into the Gulf of Maine, I'm going to bet it's a lobster nursery.  Alas, I must keep imagining, probably best for any baby lobsters that have washed shore here.) 

Our walk back to the parking lot on the Little Cape Point Trail was interrupted by a quick thunderstorm, with lightning striking very close by (within a mile).  The pace picked up after that! We were a bit damp, but no less enthusiastic, when we finally reached the car.  The entire trip took four hours, but at least half an hour of that was us simply sitting and soaking up Englishman Bay.  







A lobster pound at Beals.

Beals Island is just north of the preserve, and I couldn't resist stopping for a little snack.  (What else? A lobster roll.)  We both agreed our rolls were the best we'd had so far on the trip -- just what I expect from a hole-in-the-wall by the side of the road in a town like Beals.  Clearly, lobstering is in their blood here; everywhere you look there are pots stacked high in dooryards and buoys piled up by the side of the road.  The air was filled with the sounds of diesel engines as lobster crews came in with their catch.  We strolled down to the docks to see the lobster pounds, where the catch is stored while lobstermen wait for better prices.  Alas, this was too short a visit.  I have a feeling Beals and Jonesport will go on the list of places we hope to spend some time visiting next year.

Quoddy Head: This is as far "downeast" as you can go.  Ain't nothin' past it but Canada.  The lighthouse there, West Quoddy Head, must be one of the most photographed in the nation.  With its distinctive red stripes, it's a beauty.

But the hordes of tourists who drive straight to the lighthouse, snap a few quick pictures, then take off as quick as they came are missing the true gem of this state park.  Along the eastern shore of Quoddy Head lies some of the most spectacular scenery in the state.  The trails here wind along the edge of massive granite cliffs that rise above the Grand Manan channel like cathedral walls.  (Pardon me if I wax poetic; this place is worth a little poetry, even if it's not very good.)  

A few places are real standouts here.  Gulliver's Hole allows you to perch high on the cliffs and listen to rocks rolling around in the surf far below; resulting in a constant thunderstorm at your feet. Spending a few minutes here, sitting quietly, is worth your time.  Plenty of tidepooling is available along the way -- in the right weather.  Bring shoes that can get wet and be very cautious if you take the plunge.  And stopping at the cairns is a great way to enjoy a picnic.  

Shockingly, we ran into NO people past the cairns.  Not a soul.  I'll warn you that the trails are in bad shape at this state park (Governor LePage, you should be ashamed.)  You'll get muddy.  But it's worth it for this amazing hike.  Trust me, once you've snapped your photo of the lighthouse, lace up your boots and head south along the shoreline.  It's the real treasure in the park.








Alas, our tine downeast is coming to an end.  We're packing the truck and heading back to our real lives this morning.  I'll be back though!